LONDON - Deborah Mango was preparing to bury her husband when Spenser, her 6-year-old son, wrapped his arms around her. They were at the funeral home a few days after Thomas Mango, Spenser’s father, had died in a never-solved shooting in St. Louis.
“Mom,” Spenser said, “everything is going to be all right.”
Nearly 20 years later, Deborah talked by phone from her St. Louis home. Her voice rose with every word.
“That meant so much,” she said. “I looked at him being such a little statue. Him comforting me? For him to tell me everything was going to be all right? I should have been telling him. It was just so special.
“He’s always been a man about himself. He was taking care of me.”
Spenser was correct. Everything was going to be all right.
He’s at his second Olympics, seeking a medal in 121-pound Greco-Roman wrestling Sunday. Mango, a sergeant at Fort Carson, is gregarious and funny off the mat and fierce and imaginative on it.
“He’s the spitting image of my husband,” Deborah said. “You see Spenser, you see him. My husband was everybody’s friend, easygoing, a very loyal type of person and very committed to whatever he was doing.”
On his last morning in September 1992, according to accounts in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thomas was walking to his Jeep on his way to work at the electric company. Inside, Deborah heard gunshots, but this was part of their life. The family heard constant gunshots. Everything remained normal. Spenser was watching a cartoon.
Then came a knock at the door, and a policeman told Deborah her husband had been killed. It was a random drive-by shooting. The case never was solved. No suspect was arrested.
This is not the start of an even sadder story. Deborah refused to allow the tragedy to ruin her life, or her children’s. She resolved her three children would be raised in a stable, hopeful home, and there’s no doubt she succeeded. The family soon moved to a safer neighborhood, and she somehow found the time to work as a registered nurse and still be there whenever needed for her children.
“I don’t know when she slept at all,” Spenser said. “She made it work. I’m sure it was hard for her.”
She never complained. Deborah was blessed with unconquerable resolve. She has passed this blessing along to her son.
To watch Mango on the mat is to see a man who loves what he’s doing. By the time Spenser was in the ninth grade, he could see his future as a football tailback was coming to an end.
He was walking down the hall at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis when wrestling coach Chris Scott stepped into his path with a question:
You want to wrestle?
Mango hesitated. Scott didn’t. He needed a 90-pound wrestler, so he carried Mango into the gym. A wrestling career was born at that instant.
“The first practice,” Mango said, “I just kind of fell in love. It’s one-on-one competition, and you don’t have to depend on anybody. Your own future is in your hands.”
In football, size was always an issue. Mango had as much desire as any football player in Missouri; he just didn’t have the required pounds. Turning to wrestling meant his lack of mass no longer mattered.
“All that fight packed into that little body,” said Dremiel Byers, Mango’s Olympic teammate.
He found quick success, winning two state titles. Deborah, of course, was always in the stands, watching her son. At first, she was quiet and scared.
“I just always felt I had to protect Spenser,” she said.
She’s more comfortable now. She often shouts “Showtime Mango” as her son walks out for battle. She has traveled to London to cheer for her son.
Mango, who’s 5-foot-2, expects to earn a medal, and isn’t afraid to say so. In high school, he announced to his mother he would win a state title, and he did. His journey to Beijing served as a learning session. His trip to England will be a total pursuit of victory.
He’s not nervous. He will tangle with the best wrestlers in the world filled with the ease of a man who is enjoying every moment of what he’s doing. The wrestling world will be watching, but Mango insists he feels no added pressure.
“I don’t do this for some person watching on the TV,” he said. “I do it because I love it. It doesn’t matter to me if one person sees it or 100,000.”
But there is one person who does matter, very much. Deborah will be watching her boy, the one who comforted her, the one she steered to manhood, the one who has traveled to London expecting a medal.
“Mom,” Spenser said, “she’ll be there for me.”
He paused before offering a quick warning.
“You don’t want to sit by her.”