If there’s a Fenway Park of college wrestling, that venue is the Recreation Building at Penn State University, more commonly known as “Rec Hall.”
Sell-out crowds cram these primitive facilities to watch athletes who are the best at what they do. Sure, it would make sense to upgrade to a building with a larger seating capacity, but the intimacy is part of what attracts spectators. Nostalgia is also a factor, but that’s where similarities between the homes of the Nittany Lion wrestlers and the Red Sox begin to diverge. Rec Hall should be even more appealing to sports purists rather than a destination to cross off a bucket list.
The name Rec Hall is simply stated, just like the no-frills spectator experience, making it one of the last vestiges where watching the sport at its highest level is enough. Places like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are flypaper to beer-swilling tourists. At collegiate mainstays like Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, the antics of the face-painted partisans are just as part of the basketball games as the players. And could you imagine 100,000 college football fans enjoying a game without the enhancement of heckling, tailgate parties and stopgap cues from video boards and marching bands?
If you’re looking for a temple to worship a sport, Rec Hall is cleansed from the Persian bazaars found at many sporting events.
The facility has undergone many renovations since it was built in 1928, but the architecture remains consistent with academic buildings of its time, and the narrow hallways act as time portals for those who enter. Two large HD video scoreboards were added to Rec Hall in recent years, but even the 102-year-old Fenway Park has given way to this technology.
Penn State wrestling fans almost literally fill the place to the rafters with sell-out crowds in excess of 6,600. The standing-room only crowd stands along the track that rings the upper section like a halo.
The hold that wrestlers have on their competitors is as strong as the hold the action has on the audience. The suspense builds during bouts with fans internalizing every maneuver and occasionally shouting “TWO!” for the points awarded for a takedown. The eruption of the crowd when a visiting wrestler is pinned is ignited by the official’s slap of the mat. That sudden roar is like no other in sports.
There are no choreographed celebrations by the wrestler — he is often too exhausted — aside from the official signaling victory by grabbing the winner’s wrist and hoisting his arm into the air. Attention is singularly directed to the singlet-wearing athlete. Hard work is recognized. That reward is enough.
You’re likely to see three generations of wrestling fans at Rec Hall seated side-by-side-by-side, passing commentary about the match in a father/son telephone game where soup cans are replaced by cauliflower ears.
Grandpa is usually most determined but least agile to win another game: beat the traffic. Across the street from Rec Hall is a parking lot with only one exit that bottlenecks traffic from White Course Drive onto busy North Atherton Street. Once the final bout ends so begins the race to the cars and the escape from the narrow passages of Rec Hall.
The Penn State wrestling team itself may soon escape from Rec Hall, which the Nittany Lion basketball teams did when the 15,000-seat Bryce Jordan Center was built across campus in 1995.
After winning three straight NCAA championships and selling out Rec Hall for 12 straight dual matches, the Nittany Lion wrestlers gave the Bryce Jordan Center a try. They attracted more spectators there than any Penn State basketball team could ever draw. Penn State broke the NCAA attendance record for a dual match as 15,996 wrestling fans filled the arena, nearly three times the capacity at Rec Hall, to see the Nittany Lions beat intrastate-rival Pitt, 28-9, on Dec. 8, 2013.
Head coach Cael Sanderson told the Centre Daily Times that he doesn’t know if there are plans to hold matches at the arena in the future, but Penn State continued its sellout streak when the team returned to Rec Hall for dual matches in January 2014.
Pennsylvanians are loyal stewards of the sport and they deserve a space large enough for their support of wrestling to grow. Even if popularity begets the distractions of fan entitlement at sporting events, Penn State wrestling fans are unselfish enough not the limit the following inside the hallowed walls of Rec Hall.
There could never be enough fans who couldn’t be happier.