Catching up with…Doug “Hammer” Saunders

August 14, 2013

Way before M.C. Hammer made the phrase popular, Doug Saunders originated “Hammer Time” during an illustrious wrestling career at Carroll County High School, Chowan University and the University of North Carolina.

Doug Saunders, most commonly known as simply “Hammer,” capped off an incredible two-year wrestling career at Carroll County High School by becoming the first CCHS individual or team to win a state championship in 1977. He concluded an undefeated season with an 18-0 record that year with a 10-0 victory over his Abingdon opponent in the 119-pound state title match. During those two seasons at CCHS, Saunders went 39-1 with his lone loss coming in the state tournament as a junior when he was ill with a virus.

Saunders would go on to wrestle two years at Chowan, where he added to his wrestling legacy by winning the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in 1980 in the 134-pound division. Immediately after winning the national title in Minnesota, Saunders was offered a spot on both the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team and the Pan Am Wrestling Team. Unfortunately, the United States boycotted both events in 1980, including the Olympic Games in Moscow due to America’s protest of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

Saunders’ wrestling career concluded at the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1985 after the Tar Heels won another in a long string of ACC championships. This week, Saunders talks about winning the state title, cutting up on and off the mat, how he earned the nickname “Hammer,” and much more.

What year did you graduate from Carroll County High School? I graduated from CCHS in 1977.

What year did you graduate from the University of North Carolina? I graduated from UNC-CH in 1985.

Family members: I have one sister, Sharon, and one brother, Hewleas Saunders. I am the youngest.

Current Occupation: I currently run a small bicycle repair shop in Woodlawn. I started cycling to stay in shape when I was wrestling and it has been my hobby ever since.

How did you get the nickname Hammer and who gave it to you? Incredibly, I somehow gave the nickname to myself. I was joking around in class at the beginning of my first year at CCHS, held up my fist and told some classmates, “This here is a Hammer, a 50 pound sledge hammer, that’s what this is.” They all had a good laugh and somehow the nickname stuck.

You won the state championship in 1977 at 119 pounds for a Carroll County wrestling program that was just getting started. How much actual wrestling training had you had before you won the state? When I first tried out for the wrestling team at CCHS, I had absolutely no training whatsoever. I had never even heard of the sport until we did it in P.E. classes.

Tell us about the time you took a break from wearing out your opponent from George Wythe to pose for a photographer during the middle of a match? The George Wythe match in front of the student bodies was always one of my favorite ones. I was pounding on my opponent when a photographer stepped to the edge of the mat to snap a photo. My opponent was not doing anything but just laying there. So I stopped pounding and posed for a few seconds, until he snapped his photo. I then went back to the match. Everyone in the gym was rolling out of their seats.

Would it be safe to say you were a bit of a cut up when you wrestled? What other funny things do you remember doing while wrestling? I was a cut up both on and off the mat. I believed in both working hard and having fun. At UNC-CH we had a heavyweight who never wore a belt, no matter what anyone said. We were on the van headed down south on a trip to wrestle about six different universities. He climbs up on the van and sits right behind the driver and our coach. The guys all immediately point out, “Look, he is not wearing a belt again.” Well we didn’t want to see that all the way down the interstate, so I decided that maybe I could show him why it’s best to wear a belt. I was sitting in the very back of the van eating a orange. The guys were snickering. I took a piece of orange peeling, elbowed the guys and threw it up to the front. It went right down the back of his pants. He jumped and looked around. The guys busted. He dug it out, looked back there, they laughed some more and then he turned around. I had held the orange down when he turned around. So now I held it up and took another bite, I broke off another piece of peeling and threw it again. Again it went right down the back of his pants. The guys really rolled then. He jumped and turned and dug it out again and looked back there. The guys were laughing hard by this time, but I held the orange down and never said a word. But he still wasn’t pulling his pants up. When he turned back around, I throw another peeling and again right down the back of his pants. Plenty more snickering. He dug the peeling out, turned and said, ” Aw, come on Doug, I know it’s you.” Coach said, “What’s he doing?” The heavyweight said, “He’s throwing orange peelings down the back of my pants.” Coach snickered and started laughing too.

You won the NJCAA National Championship at 134 pounds in 1980 at Chowan. How did that compare to winning the state championship? My senior year at CCHS, becoming the first individual at CCHS to ever win a state award in any athletic event, meant as much or more to me than anything that I have ever done. Back then, to me, it was the epitome.

How hard was it to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team and Pan American team, and how proud did it make you to be able to have the chance to represent your country? When I was on the 1980 Olympic and Pan Am World teams, I wish I could say it was hard to get on the teams, but it wasn’t. At the National tournament in Minnesota, I beat my previously undefeated opponent, 19-2 in the championship match. The standing room only crowd of several thousand gave me a 20-minute standing ovation. As I came off the mat to that standing ovation, a guy comes running up to me all excited and tells me that he is the Olympic team coach and he wants me on his team. He is jumping up and down, so excited, hollering he wants me on his team. I realized that they had tryouts for that and I may get beaten in the tryouts. I may not be able to make his team. So I said, “Olympics, won’t I have to go through the tryouts?” He looked at me and said, “Tryouts! Tryouts! Forget the tryouts. Here, fill this out so we can get in touch with you and he handed me a clip board. As I filled out his form he told me we were going to Moscow that summer to wrestle in the Olympics. As soon as he finished talking to me, another guy rushed up and said he was the Pan Am world coach and he wanted me on his team too. As I filled out his form he told me we were going to Mexico City to wrestle in the Pan Am World Games. Two weeks later, I received a letter from the United States Olympic Committee saying that I had been automatically placed on the Olympic team. I was shocked! I still have the letter somewhere. So no, it was not hard for me to get on the teams. I guess they based it on what they saw at the national tournament up in Minnesota. I was very proud that I was going to be representing my country, The United States, in the games.

When did you learn the U.S. would be boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and the Pan Am Games, and how devastated were you to hear the news? I had just started to gear my workouts up a couple of months before we were to head over to Moscow. I believe it was April or May when I saw President Jimmy Carter on TV making a Speech and he announced that because Russia had invaded Afghanistan, the United States was boycotting the Olympics that year. I thought they might at least have the Pan Am Games, but they did not. I did not go anywhere to wrestle that summer.

Why do you think you were so successful at wresting? I was a very small skinny kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood. The other kids bullied me quite often. That probably toughened me up and that probably helped me to be successful at wrestling.

You were known as an outstanding technical wrestler, but would you rather win by wearing down an opponent or by getting a quick pin and getting it over with? When I was competing, I tried to keep my opponent out there as long as possible, so I could put as many holds and moves on him as possible. I always wanted to work my opponent over.

Who was the toughest opponent you ever wrestled? My toughest opponent was a guy who seemed to be a carbon copy of me from Culpepper High School. It was my senior year at the state tournament. In the semi-finals I ran into a guy who looked like me, was built like me. The match between he and I was so transfixing that everyone watching it lost track of the score. When it was over I lay there panting and asked coach, “Who won?” He said, “He didn’t know, the score keepers lost track of it.” I didn’t know either. Nobody knew. There was a big controversy. All the tournament officials came down there and the coaches, they were in a big huddle, arguing it for 15 minutes. I thought it was a tie and going in to overtime. When the referee finally came back out on the mat and waved us both out, he said, “Shake hands.” As soon as we did, he pulled my hand in the air. I was both surprised and very relieved. The Culpepper guy came back the next 2 years and was a 2X state champion. After I left, nobody came close to beating him. They figured the final score of our match was 4-3. He would be my toughest opponent.

Do you think you could still take most of the young whippersnappers today? In my mid-fifties now, it’s doubtful that I can handle any young whippersnapper now.

What advice would you give to youngsters just getting started with their wrestling career? I would tell any young wrestler to Go For It, it’s the greatest sport in the world. Just remember that what you put into it, is what you are going to get out of it. I put a whole lot in it.