Nelford Really Drawing on Experience : Wrestling: Rio Mesa senior is a two-time league champion and also an aspiring artist.


If only the art of planting a headlock on an opponent came as easily as sketching a cartoon for Tom Nelford.

Nelford spends countless hours in the Rio Mesa High wrestling room--not counting the time he devotes to adorning the walls--struggling to stay focused, honing his skills in preparation for his fourth varsity season.

Nelford, a 152-pound senior and two-time defending Channel League champion, is arguably the best wrestler in Ventura County and among the best in Southern California. Last season, he placed fifth in the Southern Section Division I finals, third in the section’s Masters meet and ninth at the state finals.


“He spends so much time and he works extremely hard--that’s why he’s good,” Rio Mesa Coach Todd Stoke said. “But he is not a great athlete.”

Nelford, 5-feet-8 and a tad chunky, readily admits he is not a natural athlete. He does not play football, as many wrestlers do, and wrestling is the only sport in which he competes. Success, he says, has come slowly.

“When I first came out my freshman year, I didn’t know what I was doing and I was getting my butt kicked by everyone in the room,” Nelford said. “You see a lot of freshmen just give up and walk out the door. But I knew if I just hung in there and stuck with it. . . .”

Progress as an artist has come more easily, almost naturally, for Nelford. A natural, he insists he is not. Then again, he might be wrong.

Pastels and paint brushes in hand, Nelford spends time away from the mat developing doodles into accomplished designs that have made their way onto school calendars, letterheads, T-shirts and, most impressively, the wrestling room walls.

Nelford began taking art courses through Ventura College extension as early as seventh grade, and he is enrolled in Rio Mesa’s advanced-placement art program.


An honors student with a 3.5 grade-point average, Nelford, who said he plans to apply to Brown and Colombia, probably could paint his own ticket as a commercial artist. At this point, he is considering a career in either communications or advertising, something in which he can utilize his creative ability.

“I started copying pictures in Mad magazine when I was in fourth or fifth grade,” Nelford said. “I’d spend the whole day in the back of the classroom with this other guy drawing cartoons. My grades even started to go down.”

In the past month, one illustration after another has gone up on the wrestling room wall. Most impressive is a six-foot-tall, red-and-black Spartan--the school mascot--standing poised to wrestle.

Nelford spent the better part of a Sunday atop a rickety ladder, drawing and painting the figure, which he conceived as a sketch at his desk at home.

On an opposite wall, he added a black-and-white sketch of two wrestlers, one with a leg hold on the other. Nelford’s latest creation is a multihued, snow-topped-mountain scene, symbolizing the many stages along the ascent to the peak of prep wrestling--league, sectional and state competition.

Nelford, who also serves as an English tutor, added a poignant quotation from Henry David Thoreau: “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at.”


“Setting goals is a real important thing in wrestling,” Nelford said. “And I think that sort of says how important it is. I spent a lot of time on it. But if some freshman looks up and gets inspired and tries a little harder the next day in practice, it’s worth it.”

This season, Nelford has dual goals: covering the walls of the Spartan wrestling room with his artwork and winning a state title. But he’ll have to shed his bohemian side when it’s time to tangle.

Nelford admits that sometimes his creative mind wanders when he’s on the mat--just as it did in the back of the classroom in his grade-school days. When that happens, his wrestling suffers.

“He gets a little bit lost sometimes at wrestling practice and I have to keep after him,” Stoke said. “But usually, the bigger the meet, the better he is and he does focus. He just phases everything else out and concentrates. Like when he’s drawing.”

Nelford doesn’t know why his mind wanders. Call it one of the quirks of creativity. “I just have to remember to keep my head this season,” he said. “But I’ve always been kind of a tunnel-vision kind of guy.”

At least, as an artist. Ideas for drawings come from everywhere. He practices by drawing caricatures of friends and famous people. A lot of his drawings feature athletic figures.


“I just put in a lot of time,” he said. “I just draw and draw and draw and that’s all it takes to be good. You look back on some of my old drawings and they’re just junk. But then you look at my later stuff and you can see the improvement.

“Just like wrestling.”