Dodger wrestling about much more than titles

Their story is one of family loyalty and civic awareness

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla The Fort Dodge wrestling team listens to head coach Bobby Thompson at The Messenger’s Home and Lifestyle Show on Saturday.

The scene was fitting for a program rooted in bare-bones grit: arguably the greatest group of wrestlers ever assembled in Fort Dodge Senior High’s long and storied history, gathered together for one last public appearance — in the back of a large garage area on Iowa Central’s east campus, surrounded by adoring fans at The Messenger’s Home and Lifestyle Show.

Not under the bright lights of Wells Fargo Arena, or up on stage, or in a parade. In the trenches, among the people, without the hype, or the media, or the attention of tracking their every move on the way to a 2017-18 state championship.

No frills. No egos. Just right.

Fort Dodge was steadfast in its pursuit of a title this season, and head coach Bobby Thompson’s squad delivered in convincing, undisputed fashion. Yet at the same time, the journey — as per usual — had a much broader context. Winning was the end game, of course, but it didn’t change who they truly were at their core: simply put, Dodger wrestlers. Representatives of a school and a program that stays unconditionally loyal to each other and their community.

Dodger wrestling is Alex Rivera, who passed away on the first day of the traditional state tournament this year at the age of 86. Rivera was ”instrumental in my life and the success of our program,” Thompson said, as a founding member of the Fort Dodge Mat Association. During that era, Fort Dodge won team titles in 1980 and 1985, and placed second in 1983 and ’88.

Rivera’s son, Sonny, has also been a guiding light for developing Dodger grapplers through the years. So the Monday after Fort Dodge returned home from winning its state championship, Thompson and a handful of his kids made sure to attend Alex’s visitation to pay their respects. And I received a message the next day from Sonny’s sister, Christina, who emphasized how much it meant to their family.

”It’s the least we could do,” Thompson said. ”It was important that we had a presence there, given how much that family has done for Dodger wrestling through the years.”

Dodger wrestling is Roger Anderson, who died at the age of 69 just hours after Fort Dodge secured the championship on finals night Saturday. Anderson’s sons, Courtney and Curtis, were standout athletes for the program in the 1990s; Courtney was a state runner-up in 1992, while Curtis placed fourth in 1993 and sixth in 1994.

”Roger was a huge Fort Dodge wrestling supporter,” Thompson said. ”When I was at his wake, the family told me he was still keeping an eye on the finals to make sure we wrapped things up and brought the title back home. He passed away a few hours later, but the family said he knew we’d won it and that meant a lot to him.”

Dodger wrestling is helping an FDSH graduate move at Friendship Haven, without fanfare or cameras around. Dodger wrestling is appearances at the elementary schools to promote literacy, or talking to younger kids about teamwork and commitment.

”It matters — all of it,” Thompson said. ”Our coaching staff tries our best to make sure our kids always know that they’re role models here. People are watching. People are keeping track of them. The eyes of Fort Dodge are on you, and there is a responsibility that goes along with that.

”I wouldn’t have it or want it any other way. You may not see that in most towns. You may not have the attention or the notoriety. But Dodger wrestling is important here. It always has been, and it always will be. So it’s critical to give back and be a part of something bigger than yourself. That’s not just a role we pay (lip service to) — it’s an honor and a blessing to carry on such a tradition.”

Thompson was named All-Iowa Wrestling Coach of the Year this past week, after inexcusably being passed over for the honor in the Iowa High School Athletic Association Coaches and Officials of the Year voting. It should have never been a split decision; Thompson deserved a clean sweep, much like what his squad did on the mat.

In the end, though, none of that mattered to Thompson. There will always be a bigger picture in mind. The championships and accolades are what his program strives for, like all the others. But his message, as the head coach here, is the same as it was under Ed Birnbaum, Hans Goettsch, Don Miller and all the others, dating back to one of the sport’s great coaching icons in Fred Cooper.

”We’re a family first,” Thompson said. ”What happens on the mat may define you as a wrestler, but who you are with your teammates in our room, or around the younger kids in the community, or the fans who support you — that defines who you are as a person.

”I have my own responsibility as a coach to get that across to our kids and help them understand that this is truly a unique wrestling town that deserves our respect and appreciation for everything they do for us.”

And so, the work of the 2017-18 squad never really ends. The celebration in Des Moines, the news features, the on-line interviews, the welcome-home ceremony in the Dodger gym — all times where the world gets a glimpse of Fort Dodge wrestling in its finest hour. But as John Wooden once said, ”The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

When the pageantry fades and these young men look back on this championship run, they’ll remember the stories of Alex Rivera and Roger Anderson. They’ll remember the faces of the elderly they helped, or the children who simply appreciated their presence.

This was never really about titles. It was about a brotherhood in a community that will withstand the test of time. A record-shattering season in the spotlight that won’t soon be forgotten, but a bond developed behind the scenes that will be with these Dodger wrestlers forever.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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