By Stephen Stonebraker
Everyone one of us has our origin story for how we got involved in wrestling & what it was about the sport that made us fall in love with it. In nearly all of these cases it was a coach that introduced us, encouraged us & motivated us along the way. In all of my years of being involved in this sport I’ve met a lot of passionate people. Yet I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who had a greater love, passion & appreciation for the sport than my pee-wee wrestling coach Larry Bird.
Matter of fact, if it wasn’t for Coach Bird, I might not have stuck with the sport. I had gone to two weeks worth of practices my first year of wrestling before my first tournament. There I got the tar beat out of me in three matches, taking fourth out of four wrestlers. A black eye, a bloody nose & the wind knocked out of me, I rode home that Saturday telling my Dad that my wrestling days were over. He could give the wrestling shoes my Uncle Chris had given me back. I was done. The next week I skipped practices & I had no intention of ever going back.
Then one night my mom & I were up at the grocery store when we ran into Coach Bird. I was afraid that he might be angry with me for having missed wrestling practices but he wasn’t. Instead he seemed more disappointed. He told my mom that he missed seeing me at practice, because I was one of his favorites. I had never been anyone’s favorite before. I mean sure Mom & Dad told me that sort of stuff, maybe Grandpa & Grandma did too. This was another adult though. One that I wasn’t related to & to a seven year old, being told you’re somebody’s favorite is a big deal. I figured if that was true, then I had to go back. The next time I saw my Dad, I told him I wanted to give wrestling another try. I went back to practices the next week & thus began my 12 years in amateur wrestling.
Larry was a fun coach that was somehow always able to make wrestling fun. He took it seriously & he made you work hard, but he often livened up the mood with joke or tease. It was a delicate measure of work & play but he had it down to a science. He knew when it was time to put the nose to the grind & he knew when it was time to give us a break. What I admired most about him during that time is that he made time for everyone. There were kids there that were far more talented than I was. Dan Hammes, Darren Miller, I could name more. Yet, he saw potential in all of us. If you came to his practice & you wanted to learn, he’d teach you. I can remember nights when he’d show me how to do something & he’d make me do it over and over again till I got it right.
“Steve!!” I can hear his voice in my head as I type this. “Is that what I showed you to do?”
“What do you call that?”
“A double leg takedown.”
“If that’s a double leg takedown then I’m President of the United States!”
Then he’d show me the proper technique & have me mirror him. It might take 10 or 15, sometimes even 20 tries before I’d get it right, but as soon as I did, it was as if Larry had won the lottery.
“Yes! Yes!! That’s how you do it! Good!”
There were some kids that seemed completely helpless. As if it didn’t matter how many times you showed them how to do something, they just weren’t going to get it. Others might have given up on them, but Larry never did. He’d work with you & work with you & work with you until you got it. In my opinion that’s what made him such a great coach. I think Larry wanted you to be good. In fact I know he did. He loved seeing his wrestlers go on to have success. He loved seeing you do well but there was more to it than that for him. Whether you were a superb athlete full of all sorts of ability or you were a complete nerd without a speck of talent throughout your whole body, if you wanted to be in Larry Bird’s wrestling room, he wanted you there. He loved wrestling, he loved kids & he loved teaching wrestling to kids.
In high school Larry came to every single one of our matches. He & his wife Mary filmed all of them too. I sometimes get my tapes out & watch them. They all have one thing in common, you can hear Larry Bird loud and clear cheering us on. If anyone ate, breathed and crapped Sigourney Savage wrestling it was Larry Bird. He was always our biggest fan.
You’ll never find “Larry Bird wrestling” in an internet search. He’s not in any Hall of Fames. There are no record books where you’ll find his name. And I’d be lying to you if I told you that didn’t hit a raw nerve in me. He was never a champion wrestler. I think the best he ever did was qualify for districts his senior year. I guess in physical forms of medals and trophies, there aren’t any. Yet I look at my life and what the sport of wrestling did for me. How the sport is a big part of my life. How it has shaped me into the person I am. Given me the discipline, the work ethic & the character I display. I know I’m a better person because wrestling was a part of my life. And it’s all because I had a guy like Larry Bird that thought I was worth his time to teach the sport to. Thought I was worth his time to encourage me & coach me. I know there are many others who went through the Little Savage wrestling program that feel the same way I do. This is my way of giving back to a coach that’s given nearly fifty years of himself to a sport that he loves. This is my way of saying thank you.
1. You wrestled for legendary Coach Jack Smith during your time at Sigourney High School. What made you want to give wrestling a try?
Actually I didn’t start wrestling until my sophomore year. It was Coach Smith who told Paul Clubb, a junior at the time to get me to the room. Paul told me in the hallway at school to be ready and he would pick me up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, and I was like “what for?” The next day is when wrestling became part of my life.
2. Your passion & love for the sport of wrestling is second to no one. What is it about the sport that is special to you? What made you fall in love with it?
Growing up going to country school I wasn’t introduced to sports until my freshman year and went out for football and played all four years. Then as I said, I started wrestling my sophomore year. I loved contact ports and I know that’s one reason I liked the sport of wrestling. Also having the legendary Coach in Coach Smith whose love and passion for the sport gets into one’s blood and you can’t help but love the sport.
3. You took over the Little Savage wrestling program in 1976. How did that come about?
In 1970 or 1971 Ron Hoffman started the Little Savage wresting program along with the help of Francis Greiner. In 1976 they both decided they were ready for someone else to take over, thus began my 27 years of running the program and tournament before giving it up to Frosty Streigel and then Craig Reeves. I continued helping with the tournament for 4 or 5 more years.
4. You also coached the Sigourney Savage junior high wrestling program for a spell as well. What were the differences between coaching Pee-wee wrestling and junior high wrestling? What were the challenges?
Actually for me there was not a lot of difference between Pee-Wee and Junior High. Teaching the fundamentals & basics was my main goal which is what any level of wrestling starts out with. The biggest challenge was keeping the Pee-Wee wrestlers attention. And of course the Junior High practices were more intense and more moves to work on. Keeping it fun and not all work was something I did at both levels to keep their attention. We would do different games and take down tournaments that they soon realized all had to do with what we were practicing. At any level you have to have fun at whatever sport you are undertaking.
5. Many of the youths you coached are now grown men ranging in age from their late twenties into their mid forties. What’s it like seeing these young men who are now successful members of their communities, husbands, fathers, ect, knowing you had an impact on their life as a coach?
When I see the young men and women today that were in the wrestling room years ago it’s really gratifying to see where they are in their communities today. Most are married with kids of their own and have become leaders in their communities, ranging from business owners, police officers, farmers ,teachers, field reps, general workers and some coaches themselves.
6. In the near three decades you coached Little Savage wrestling, what were your goals as a coach? How do you hope your wrestlers remember you?
My #2 goal as a coach was teaching them good sportsmanship, learning the basics, having fun and enjoying what you were doing and proving that work, dedication and discipline would work in the wrestling room as well as life itself. I always worked on good sportsmanship, and if you lost to not throw a fit and do something stupid but rather let’s look at the loss and learn from what may have happened and work on that. Either last year or 2 years ago I went to watch a Little Savage Wrestling Tournament. While sitting there a young man that I had coached in 1997 who now has a young son and a daughter that were both wrestling came up to me and called me Coach Bird and shook my hand and thanked me for what I had done for him in his years of wrestling. I’ve had other young men and women do the same, but for some reason that night I felt the impact I had on those young kids.
7. Throughout the years you have stayed involved with wrestling in a variety of ways. You announce the home matches (Larry also announces basketball games as well) & you & your wife Mary enjoy attending wrestling events such as the World Team Trials and Iowa Hawkeye duals. How important do you feel it is to attend events and support the sport?
My wife and I have attended high school wrestling ,both home and away meets for as long as I can remember. Plus State wrestling. We’ve also been to a few small college meets as well as we try to get to the Iowa meets when we can. Also I still work at the junior high and home high school meets announcing and running the clock. These young men and women at whatever level need and deserve all the support they get.
8. Having coached wrestling & been a part of the sport for so many years, do you have any funny or special memories to share?
Looking back it’s amazing to think how many young kids I worked with because most of those years it was me and 50-75 kids in the room. There were some moments you will never forget, like taking a young man to the hospital to get his lip out of his braces. At one of our take down tournaments, one of the smallest kids almost making it clear through the heavyweight kids. Getting piled on by Junior High kids after a successful undefeated season and breaking my glasses. Going to Coach Smith’s house and moving the coffee table and chair to work on a move. One of the best things was at the end of the season the Junior High would go up and meet Coach Gable and watch an Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling Practice. It was fun to see the kids watch in awe to see how intense it was and to watch the Brands brothers beating the heck out of each other. Looking back I would not trade anything for the time I got to spend with so many great young men and women. Seeing them stand on the on the podium in Des Moines anywhere from place winner to state champion makes you feel good knowing that you had a small part in them achieving their goal. I thank the guy upstairs for giving me the opportunity to coach.