The rectangular table in front of him was covered by trays and plates, the smell of homemade food wafting throughout his grandparents' dining room.

There were twin slabs of roast beef. Scalloped potatoes. Broccoli salad. Peanut butter and coconut pies. All the types of food you might expect would grow a heavyweight wrestler.

Brooks Black sat down, surrounded by family. He wore a gray extra-large T-shirt with "Blair wrestling" screened across the front, the first sign that the 17-year-old is not your typical high school junior. The others were easier to spot: the 6-foot-3 body, the telephone-pole legs, the massive hands that engulf almost anything they grab ...

"This is how you grow them big," Brooks' grandfather, Gary Ferguson, said, looking at the spread.

Maybe this is where it starts, where you begin to understand how a pudgy little kid from Dover can become the country's top heavyweight high school wrestler.

Of course, there is so much more.

The evolution of Brooks Black, elite wrestling prospect, has been a complex exercise. In some ways, his development has been unlikely, a confluence of family support and superior coaching. Doctors once said he wouldn't survive birth.

In other ways, it seems inevitable, as if Brooks was born with a singlet in his crib.

His life revolves around the sport. Around a singular purpose.

"I want to be the best," Brooks said.

That's the reason why, at a time when most noodle-armed teens are starting high school, Brooks chose to leave behind everything he knew -- his family, his friends, his home -- for a New Jersey boarding school called Blair Academy, home to the country's most accomplished prep wrestling program.

It's the reason why Division I schools are already lining up to recruit him.

It's the reason why occasions such as this one -- a family dinner at his grandparents' Spring Garden Township home last summer -- have become a rarity and why Black has built his reputation with little local fanfare.

High school wrestler Brooks Black has been dealing with cauliflower ear for the past three years. It’s a condition caused by repeated blows to the
High school wrestler Brooks Black has been dealing with cauliflower ear for the past three years. It's a condition caused by repeated blows to the ear and is common among wrestlers and boxers. (York Daily Record/Sunday News - Jason Plotkin)

But where, exactly, does that purpose come from?

* * *

Maybe it starts with a diagnosis. With the bombshell dropped on Pam and Gerry Black 18 years ago.

Pam was 16 weeks pregnant with her second child when doctors sat her and Gerry down. Amniocentesis testing had revealed a chromosomal issue with their unborn child. The doctors used the words "not suitable for life." They urged the Blacks to consider their options.

"If you were in that room, you knew what they meant," Gerry said.

Pam and Gerry, who are Christians, politely rebuffed the doctors. They leaned on their faith. They believed Pam's mother, Sue Ferguson, when she told them there would be "something special at this one."

On March 5, 1994, Brooks Black was born. Perfectly healthy.

Wrestling hooked him early. By the second grade, he was introducing himself on school papers by writing "I'm Brooks Black. I'm a wrestler."

"He was an outstanding talent early," said Kevin McCleary, who coached Brooks briefly with Dover's middle school program. "You knew the passion was there.

"He was always the first guy at practice. He was always the guy that would stay extra. He was always that guy."

Pam and Gerry were determined to do whatever it took to foster their son's passion. They started carting him around, from one far-off tournament to the next.

"Every weekend of our life started revolving around him," Pam Black said.

It was Pam who became the driving force in Brooks' everyday life.

 "He never beats me." says Brooks Black, right, of his brother Brody during their regular post-lifting basketball games at LA Fitness.
"He never beats me." says Brooks Black, right, of his brother Brody during their regular post-lifting basketball games at LA Fitness. (York Daily Record/Sunday News - Jason Plotkin)
 She was the one who offered up tough love when Brooks didn't wrestle well, once reaming him out "from Ohio to Pittsburgh" after an unsuccessful trip.

Later, it was Pam who home-schooled Brooks for three years, from sixth grade to eighth grade, in large part so he could take on a more rigorous training schedule.

"I've done a lot of things a lot of people wouldn't agree with," Pam said. "I knew Brooks wanted it. And I knew (his coach) saw it in him."

* * *

Maybe it starts with that coach. Marat Tomaev grew up in North Ossetia, a wrestling-obsessed region of Russia, where he won a cadet (ages 15-16) national championship.

When he was 16, Tomaev was offered the chance to come to the United States to go to school and train. He enrolled at Blair Academy.

"The primary reason was education," said Tomaev, 31, who arrived in the country not knowing any English. "Little did I know I'd stay."

Or that his own journey would provide a blueprint for Brooks to follow.

Tomaev became a standout lightweight wrestler at Blair and later at Penn State. A few years after he graduated from college, he and friend Chris Priar founded the Iron Eagle Wrestling Club in Mechanicsburg. Brooks was one of their first students.

In the U.S., heavyweights are often looked down upon, Tomaev explained. Their combatants are seen as unskilled, relying solely on strength. In Russia, the opposite is true. "Heavyweights are on top of the world," Tomaev said.

When Tomaev and Priar began training Brooks seven years ago, they focused on building a foundation of skills. Hand-fighting. Positioning. Aerobic conditioning.

By the time he was in eighth grade, Brooks was routinely beating high school wrestlers, many of whom outweighed him by 60 or 70 pounds. At one tournament, officials refused to allow Brooks to wrestle at heavyweight because his was too light. Pam told Brooks to sling on his backpack and hop back on the scale. She demanded he be re-weighed.

Bigger trophies began rolling in. Brooks won a 215-pound cadet Greco-Roman national title at the USA Wrestling championships in 2009. He returned the following year and won both Greco-Roman and freestyle cadet titles at heavyweight.

Brooks dazzled not with brawn -- even now, his body is more everyman than Olympian -- but with superior technical skill.

"He's not your normal heavyweight," said Intermat.com wrestling analyst Josh Lowe, who rated Brooks his No. 4 overall recruit from the class of 2013, regardless of weight. "He actually has wrestling ability. He can actually wrestle from the top. He can actually move."

It was Tomaev, too, who asked his former coach at Blair, Jeff Buxton, to give Brooks a look.

* * *

Maybe it starts with the school. Blair Academy sits tucked into the dense forests of northwest New Jersey, home to an exclusive clientele of approximately 450 students. Tuition and board for a student costs $47,600 a year, according to the school's website (Pam and Gerry prefer not to discuss how much of that they pay).

Blair's wrestling team has produced astounding numbers, namely 31 consecutive prep national titles and dozens of Division I wrestlers. That includes Steve Mocco, a heavyweight and 2008 Olympian who Brooks has inevitably drawn comparisons to. (Those are mostly unfounded. "Mocco was a man as a freshman," Buxton said last year. "Brooks is still a boy.")

The structure is rigid. Brooks attends classes six days per week. Because of his wrestling schedule, weekends at home are rare. (He'll be home two days for Christmas break this month before shipping off to another tournament.)

Time in the wrestling room is his reward. Brooks started for Blair from Day 1 -- the first time in Buxton's 30-year career, he said, that a freshman started at heavyweight. Last year, Brooks earned a prep national championship. He's won prestigious tournaments such as the Beast of the East and the Walsh Ironman.

"Just the intensity of the room is so high," Brooks said. "If you're not going hard, (Buxton) kicks you out."

"He's a thoroughbred type of kid," Buxton said. "He's on track to be a very good college wrestler, and maybe if things fall into place, an international wrestler."

There is still room to grow, of course, both in a literal sense and a figurative one. Brooks works so hard in practice, Buxton said, that he has problems gaining weight. He arrived a Blair this fall at 255 and promptly dropped to below 240.

Away from the mat Brooks is friendly and polite, picked as a freshman by Blair to lead campus tours of prospective students. During a recent visit back to Iron Eagle this summer, he joked and interacted with younger wrestlers between drills. A few asked him for his autograph.

Of course, not all standout wrestlers choose the boarding-school route. Kennard-Dale sophomore Chance Marsteller has grown a lofty national reputation while wrestling scholastically here in York County.

For Brooks, though, it seems Blair has offered the right mix.

"Could he be successful and compete for championships if he were still here? Yes," Tomaev said. "Could he be the Brooks he is now? No way."

* * *

Maybe it starts with an idea, one planted in a young wrestler's head all those years ago.

Back when he was in the fourth grade, Brooks attended a wrestling tournament in Easton. Blair was competing in another tournament at the same venue. Brooks had learned all about the program, about Blair's cache and history of success.

When Brooks saw Buxton standing in the crowd, he walked up and introduced himself. "I'm Marat's boy," he told him. He shook Buxton's hand.

Perhaps that was when that singular purpose began to crystallize. When it came time to make a choice -- stay home or go away -- Brooks chose Blair.

"He's always said 'I just want to do what it takes to get to the next level,'" Gerry Black said. "That's always been his moniker."

Added Tomaev: "I think Brooks will go as far as he wants to go."

Sitting at his grandparents' dining room table this summer, Brooks was asked if he ever wondered how life might be different without wrestling. Without all the travel and the time spent away from home.

"I've talked to a lot of people (about it)," Brooks said. "What if I was a normal kid, living a normal life? ... I do think about it a lot. What would I be doing with my life if I didn't want to be the best wrestler in the country?

"Do I get homesick and things like that? Yeah."

He paused.

"But I know this is what I want to do."

jclayton@ydr.com; 771-2045