March 2023 ~
There’s an old wrestling tournament bracket adorning a wall in Marlin Grahn’s (Madison, 1965) house from back in his grappling days at Madison High School. It’s a road map of his journey through the 1965 PIL district meet his senior year, which ended with him as champion of his weight class.
While he is proud enough of that championship, it was neither pride nor nostalgia — and certainly not aesthetics — that motivated Marlin to display that simple black-and-white sheet populated with names. No, there’s something a little more sinister at work here.
“The kid I beat in the championship match is now a good friend,” Marlin says. “I just keep that bracket visible to remind him every time he comes over that I crushed him 1-0.”
These days there’s a lot more than an old bracket to remind Marlin of the exploits of his younger years. He keeps his share of wrestling memorabilia around the house, but most of the ties to his past come in the human form.
“Most of my best friends today are from the Madison wrestling team,” Marlin says.
Chances are if one of his many friends aren’t Madison grads, he has another wrestling connection to them — from wrestling against them in high school or from his time in the service, when he wrestled for the Army out of Ft. Lewis, or from Portland State University, where he wrestled after his discharge and coached for 34 years before retiring in 2006, the same year he was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame.
“The best part about wrestling, to me, has always been the camaraderie,” he says.
Other than his stint in the Army (he was drafted in 1967), Marlin has lived in the Montavilla neighborhood his entire life. Not just in the same neighborhood, but in the same house where he spent his earliest years. Marlin and his parents lived with his grandparents right after he was born before finding their own home. Years later, after his discharge, Marlin would purchase his grandparents’ home and move right back to where he started life.
His mom, a telephone operator, and dad, a merchant marine, would divorce when he was young, but not before a terrible accident would dramatically change her life. The family was attending a car race at Portland Speedway at the old Jantzen Beach Arena. Marlin was too young to remember the details, “but according to my aunt, we were all sitting on a rail on the first turn and a car came right at us. My dad managed to knock everyone out of the way except Mom.”
Marlin’s mom would spend the next year in the hospital recovering from her significant injuries. “Most of the bones in her legs were broken,” he says. “She worked hard all her life and raised my brother and me alone. I don’t know how she did it. She was a tough lady.”
Tough is a word that fails to make in appearance in the self-deprecating Marlin’s recounting of his high school wrestling experience. “For a long, lanky guy, I was fairly quick,” he says, “but I was never accused of being powerful.”
It wasn’t his idea to be a wrestler in the first place. He was playing basketball one day when Madison wrestling coach Jim Smith happened by.
“He grabbed him and said I needed to be wrestling,” Marlin recalls. “I said, ‘OK.’ I have no idea what he saw in me. I was a scrawny little kid who weighed 87 pounds. But I tried it, and it was fun. I have no idea what I liked about it other than it was hard work.”
It was definitely tough sledding at Madison, where the competition at Marlin’s weight class was so good he didn’t even wrestle a varsity match until his senior year, when he’d grown to 6 feet and a whopping 136 pounds. “But I had a good year senior year,” he says. “Winning district was probably the biggest thing to happen. I won some other tournaments, but nothing real big.”
By the time he was wrestling in the Army, two years after graduating, Marlin was competing with and against collegiate-level wrestlers and winning frequently, including, one year, taking his weight class in the All Army Championships.
He was brought back down earth, at least momentarily, when he enrolled at Portland State and introduced himself to wrestling coach Doc Westcott. “I was still scrawny, and he looked me up and down then said, ‘Why don’t you come to practice today?’ So I did and he matched me up with a guy who just kicked my ass. I asked the guy, ‘Why’d you do that? I’m 21 years old.’ And he said, ‘You’re still a freshman, and I hate freshmen.”
After Marlin picked himself up off the mat that day, he would go on to have a successful college career, posting a 53-15 record with 26 pins and qualifying for three NCAA regional tournaments.
His unorthodox style earned him the nickname Marlin the Magician, which he says most of his friends still call him.
“I was a guy who always got himself into the worst positions but found a way out of them. I was double jointed and long and lanky, so that just became style.”
Despite dislocating a shoulder, wrestling routinely on a bad ankle and having two surgeries during college, Marlin never missed a dual match, a feat he considers one of his greatest achievements.
That feat has plenty of competition. After graduating from PSU, Marlin stayed around and worked as an assistant wrestling coach, first for Don Conway then Len Kaufman. When Kaufman left in 1984, Marlin was named the head coach, retiring in 2006 as the longest-tenured coach in the history of the PSU wrestling program, which was discontinued in 2009.
During his coaching career, seven of his wrestlers won a total of 17 NCAA II National Championships. In 2017, all seven and Marlin were inducted into the NCAA II Wrestling Hall of Fame. In addition, his wrestlers won a total of 40 All-American Awards and two wrestled for the U.S. Olympic team. A third was an alternate and a fourth wrestled in the Olympics for his home country of Colombia, with Marlin as his coach.
Marlin says the highlight of his coaching career was winning back-to-back NCAA II National Championships in 1989 and 90.
“In 1989 we set a record that hasn’t been done since,” he says. “We took five wrestlers to the National Championships and all five won. Nobody expected them to win, including me.”
Marlin’s team went 19-0 during that tournament to become the first team at any level to win a national wrestling championship with no losses. For those achievements, Marlin was named NCAA II Coach of the Year as well as Coach of the Year for all NCAA divisions (he jokes that his reward for that honor was a trophy that initially featured both of his names misspelled). The next year PSU won a second NCAA II National Championship with four champions and a runner-up.
Marlin still keeps in touch with many of the wrestlers he has coached over the years, a lot of whom are now coaches themselves. “I was at a wrestling camp once and counted 19 coaches who were my former wrestlers,” he says.
He also spends a good deal of his time in volunteer wrestling pursuits, including working with an organization whose name — Restore College Wrestling – makes clear its purpose. The group is dedicated to connecting with athletic directors at colleges without wrestling and promoting the many benefits of establishing, or reinstating, a program. So far they have helped revive programs at Warner Pacific, Eastern Oregon and Corban College.
It would be unfair to mention Marlin’s achievements at Portland State without calling attention to one of his “misses.” While he was competing for the Viking wrestling team, a young lady named Pam was doing the same for the volleyball team. He missed the chance to meet her during college but did several years later. After 42 years of marriage, the Grahn’s have proved the adage that it is indeed better late than never.
Pam, a former teacher and volleyball coach at Reynolds High, and Marlin have two children and five grandchildren.
~ Profile written by Dick Baltus (Wilson, 1973)