PIEDMONT – Jesse Royal, a sophomore at Woodmont High School, is as competitive as any wrestler, and he quickly found himself on his back. His opponent was giving him fits, and he was struggling mightily — all with a smile on his face.
“He still kicks my butt,” Jesse said. “That’s what makes it pretty cool.”
About an hour earlier, just before the national anthem was played at the Region 1-AAAA tournament at Woodmont, Jesse and his brother, Taylor, could not have imagined they’d be rolling around on the mat with older brother Russell.
“I knew he was in Virginia, but I didn’t know he was here,” Jesse said.
“I thought he was still in Japan,” said Taylor.
Instead, Russell Royal, 24, a logistics specialist in the U.S. Naval Academy stationed in Sasebo, Japan, was on leave and in the parking lot, waiting to surprise his brothers.
Just after the anthem, Woodmont assistant coach Scott Mann called the Royal brothers to the head table: Jesse, the No. 2 seed in the 106-pound weight class; and Taylor, 17, who wrestled last year at Woodmont but has since been to military school and is taking online classes to complete his high school degree.
When the two arrived at the table, Mann persisted: “I said all of the Royal brothers to the head table.”
At that moment, Russell entered, in uniform, from the other side of the gym. As he walked toward the brothers, their faces lit up.
Russell Royal, a logistics specialist in the U.S. Naval Academy, surprises brothers Jesse, a sophomore wrestler for Woodmont, and Taylor before the Region 1-AAAA wrestling tournament on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015.
He began with a warm embrace for Jesse, then Taylor and then, finally, for Angie Royal, their mother and the only one who knew what was coming.
“It was heart-wrenching,” she said. “I was OK till I saw the little one cry.”
“I’ve never actually seen my brothers break down like that,” said Russell. “They’re usually tough kids.”
Then again, they hadn’t seen the brother they look up to in more than a year.
Russell Royal attended Northwest Whitfield High School in Tunnell Hill, Ga., where he was a four-time state qualifier and a state champion at 112 pounds as a senior.
He worked a few jobs after high school and then joined the navy a little more than three years ago. At first, he was stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and then he was moved to Japan.
“I think I’ve seen my brothers twice in the past three years, usually only for like a day at a time, maybe two if I’m lucky,” Russell said.
Jesse and Taylor, inspired by Russell, took up wrestling last year, although Taylor moved on to the military academy.
Jesse won only one match last year aside from forfeits, but he’s come a long way. He entered the tournament with a record of 29-15.
Before Saturday, Russell hadn’t seen Jesse wrestle for more than a year, other than in the videos posted by their mother. He was back in the country about nine months ago, but they hadn’t seen him. With family in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, Russell has to get around, and he doesn’t always get everywhere. This time, he did.
“It’s always a little stressful being back,” he said, “because I’m always running around, driving, trying to see family, but it’s worth it.”
Jesse had a bye in the first round, giving Russell time to change into civilian/wrestling garb and then warm up/have some fun before Jesse’s match.
In the semifinals, Jesse wrestled Hillcrest’s Jack Tucker, whom Jesse defeated 10-7 in a dual match Wednesday. This time, Tucker must have felt as though he were being triple-teamed. Jesse got off to a fast start and wound up winning by major decision, 14-2.
“Since I saw my brother I got a little ahead on him,” Jesse said. “I got some new socks. I’m pretty fired up about that, too.”
Russell brought the colorful socks from Japan and gave them to Jesse before his first match.
From across the way, his mother had seen the look on Jesse’s face as he put on each sock.
“And he’ll never take them off,” she said.
Jesse was wearing the socks again in the final when he squared off against top-seeded Devin Steed of Easley. Jesse was within 7-5 in the second period, but Steed pulled away for a 12-5 decision.
Nonetheless, Jesse Royal finished second in the region, clinched a berth in the Upper State tournament in two weeks and earned the admiration of his oldest brother.
“I’m very proud he made it this far, and I just can’t wait till the next time I’m able to come home and watch him again, because he’ll improve a lot more,” Russell said.
Taylor dabbles in music. He plays the guitar and does some singing. Russell spent some time Saturday sitting outside listening to some of the music Taylor had been working on. Russell said he enjoys coming home and catching up with the guys and their interests.
Russell’s rank is LSSN, which, he said, indicates he’s still a seaman. He hasn’t worked his way up to petty officer yet.
“I’m still at the bottom,” he said.
Not on everyone’s list. He has a couple of brothers who put him right at the top.