Most wrestling fans throughout the state of Iowa have heard the name of Clark Yoder. His name is synonymous with the phrase ‘Savage Wrestling’, along with his great Coach Jack Smith, who built the Sigourney wrestling program from the ground up back in 1963, and it thrived on his values of humility, respect, and some very serious hard-nosed wrestling. Clark was a youngster that grew up in a community that had great pride and support for their school and sports programs, and if you went to school at Sigourney, sports were a big part of your everyday culture.
When I recently talked with Clark about the Sigourney program, his wrestling career, and how he got started in wrestling. He told me – “as a little kid in 3rd or 4th grade I already knew what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a ‘Savage’ wrestler!” And boy was he ever! Not only that he had visions of being a state champion, a national champion, and winning an Olympic gold medal!
I found that statement quite illuminating because it reveals his intense drive to achieve at such a young age and his comments instantly took me back to my early days of sports and reminded me that all I wanted to be at that age was a ML baseball player… that’s all I dreamed of, so I could relate to that pure and simplistic vision of the future. It was so focused, and it seemed that even at that young age he knew who he was and what he wanted to do. For me baseball was so easy to dream about because my whole family loved baseball, my Grandpa played semipro ball into his forties and was the last preseason cut in 1932 by the Pittsburgh Pirates and his influence along with my Dad’s was immense, that’s all I thought about because I wanted to be the best… I could see myself and envision every pitch, swing, and play.
That’s the picture Clark painted in my mind of how he saw his future as a Sigourney Savage wrestler. It was clear as day and in full detail. I have to admit, I smiled with boyhood joy listening to him talk about what it was like growing up and wrestling at Sigourney High School. His folks were not well off. They scrimped and saved so that they could support their boys’ dreams and his father volunteered and helped whenever and wherever he could to keep them wrestling. His Dad started the Sigourney kids wrestling tournament, and of course, was a huge influence in his life. Clark said, “What I remember growing up was the crowds, the bleachers were always packed for sporting events, and it didn’t matter which sport. We took pride in the fact that we had the biggest practice room around!” That’s because their practice room was the entire HS gymnasium… and he laughed about coming to winter practices because the wrestling mats were rolled up against the cold walls and frost could be found on them as they were unrolled for workouts and the mats stayed stiff till things warmed up enough in the gym.
Because we are both products of the 70’s, I’m always curious about what someone’s first car was, because we grew up in the tail end of the ‘muscle car’ era. It’s one of those nostalgic things of Americana in the nation’s heartland that stands out during those years. Mine was a 1964 four door Chevy Impala my twin brother and I shared, till the summer before our senior year, where we got introduced to a 1970 Olds Cutlass Supreme with the 350 Rocket under the hood. I couldn’t wait to hear about what kids were driving in Sigourney during those years.
Instead, I was humbled by Clark’s response… because he said that he really didn’t think about it. Cars just weren’t that important because he could always find a ride with someone to get where he was going… and he was always going to the gym to wrestle.
What he focused on was getting his hands on two 8mm tapes of Russian wrestling techniques that he wanted badly. He saved and scraped till he could afford to purchase them. That was what was important to him in those early years, and he said he spent countless hours watching those videos, breaking them down, learning and working on incorporating what was useful. We laughed on the phone when he said, “Yeah I was kind of an odd kid!”
It instantly gave me an understanding for why he was so dominant at such a young age and the contrast in his material views – his priorities and willingness to make personal sacrifices, he was relentless and passionate about achieving his dreams.
One of the things that I found interesting from our conversation was the fact that Sigourney’s Coach Smith did not allow his wrestlers to attach any wrestling medals they had won onto their letter jackets… Now that I think back about it, that was one of the ways you noticed who the really good kids were when their letter jackets were covered with hardware and you could hear them coming from half a block away. Kinda tricky!
It was one of those values his coach instilled in his wrestlers about humility, and that what you wore on your letter jacket didn’t help you one iota on the wrestling mat!
He stated that Sigourney wrestling was already a force when he started wrestling (see Remember The Wrestling Coach: Larry Bird, Little Savage Wrestling Club – Sigourney article)… and they had great kids in the wrestling room, with the Snakenberg’s, McLaughlin’s, Lippard’s, Hammes’s and others, so quality practice partners were not hard to find. Coach Smith drilled into them the concepts of hard work and being disciplined, and even though wrestling at its core is an individualistic sport, each member played an important role in a team just as a family does, so it provided accountability to and for each other.
When you stepped out on the mat against a Sigourney Savage, you felt like you were wrestling against not just a single opponent… but a full team, and the full support of a Savage fan base.
And I’m telling you – I’ve felt it too! In some big matchups, their fans used to line up along the barricading rope lines like at Vets Auditorium and were so close you felt like they could almost reach out and grab you! They weren’t wild and crazy, or hostile for that matter, but they were really passionate and made their presence felt.
Full disclosure – my family has history with Clark Yoder, specifically, he beat up on my 2 brothers!
With that piece of information out of the way, let me describe my experiences with Sigourney Savages as it pertains to this RTW subject. I’m not going to go into much detail because my brothers have their own stories to tell and it would make this segment lose the focus and attention it deserves for Clark to tell us his own story and his life experiences… So let me begin with some story context as it relates to Sigourney wrestling and specifically to Clark Yoder.
I was first introduced to “Savage” wrestling at the Van Buren Invitational my sophomore year of HS in 1975 where I did not place, having lost my first round match to a ‘Savage wrestler’ named Dennis McLaughlin at the 119 weight class, who went on to finish 2nd to home town champion – Tim DeHart of Van Buren. It wasn’t exactly the experience I was hoping for in my 3rd varsity match and 1st tournament, but as the saying goes, ‘you gotta get your feet wet sometime’ and wrestling is a sport that you don’t just stick your toe in to test the temperature… you get tossed in the deep end and learn to swim!
What it did give me was a glimpse and appreciation into what it took to compete at a higher level against some kids that really liked to bring it, and brother, did those Sigourney Savages bring it!
While wrestling at Mediapolis in the 70’s, we battled them twice a year in tournaments starting in 1973. The first time at the prestigious Van Buren Invitational, this was billed back then as “the Wrestling Classic of Southeast Iowa”, and again 2 weeks later at the Pekin Invitational.
That 1977 Sigourney team was especially powerful as they landed 11 wrestlers in the finals out of the 12 total weight classes! And that’s when Clark Yoder exploded on the wrestling scene. Those Savages took home 8 top of the podium gold’s out of those 11 finals matches they participated in, including Clark winning at 119 as a freshman by fall over my senior twin brother Brian, who was the top seed and defending tournament champion at that weight in 1976!
I’m telling you the whole auditorium (minus the Sigourney fans who were in ecstasy), were stunned… me included. Yeah – Clark Yoder’s name from that moment on, as far as anyone else was concerned, became synonymous with WINNING!
He followed that performance up 2 weeks later, beating Brian again in the finals of the Pekin Invitational in a high scoring match something like 12-10. Those would be Brian’s only 2 losses going into state that year. Clark also qualified for state as the only freshman in 2A at a stacked 119 lbs class. Both kids qualifying with 25-2 records.
Clark entered the 1978 season as one of the top kids in the state moving up to the 126 class. This time Mediapolis was going to see Sigourney 3 times in tournaments (the same 2 as before but Sigourney moved into our 2A district), so we were going to meet up where things mattered most, and that year only the top 2 from each district would qualify for state. My younger brother Mark was wrestling at 126 for his senior year and that news really put a damper on his enthusiasm… just saying!
It wasn’t all that bad, as the Swafford brother’s had a plan… Mark’s goal for that season was he wanted to qualify for state, once there anything could happen, but you had to get there to do any damage. You know the old joke about the 2 hikers that come upon a bear in their path and one drops down to one knee, reaches into his backpack and starts putting on his track shoes, to which the other hiker just stares and says “There’s no way you’re going to out run that bear.” The kneeling hiker stands up and replies, “I don’t have to out run that bear, I just have to out run you!” Well sometimes there’s a little bit of truth in humor as that’s exactly what the strategy was… Mark was going to give everything he had, but in reality he just had to beat everyone else not named Clark Yoder to make it to state.
True story… and it worked out! Mark managed to achieve his goal of qualifying for state and Clark Yoder went on to achieve his by winning the first of his 3 straight state championships!
Clark had an impact on our family, whether he was aware of it or not.
Firstly, we absolutely hated to lose, and it was just our nature to ‘keep score’ if you know what I mean… things weren’t settled at least at that point for Brian by a long shot. Secondly, Clark was an amazingly humble and respectful kid who reached down after pinning my twin in that first match and offered his hand to help pull him up off the mat… There was a sense that he recognized the battle was over and he was like a medic out there tending to the wounded. He carried himself differently too, there was none of that ‘swag’ or chest puffing and stink-eye lame intimidation about him at all. He simply looked up and made a quick gesture to the heavens. It was the first time I remember a kid doing that at any sporting event, but so common now many don’t even think about it.
After Brian’s second loss to Clark in the Pekin Invitational – which was a WAR… Brian told me that he talked to Clark afterwards; he said that all Clark wanted to talk about was how God had helped him and gave him strength. To cut to the chase here… those battles and interaction with Clark Yoder had a huge impact on my brother, and were defining moments in turning his focus and life towards ministry and Christianity – back then Brian called it his Saul moment on the road to Damascus. It had a domino effect in our family.
My family is close-knit and we love get-togethers and holidays and reunions, and sports have always been a big part of our lives. And I try to stay in touch with what’s going on with wrestling in Iowa, but mostly I listen because I want to hear what’s going on with kids today, like with my nephews. It’s almost inevitable that at some point the conversations would drift back to the good ‘ol days when we were wrestling, etc… and if the subject of – who was the best or toughest wrestler pound-for-pound that any of us wrestled, Clark Yoder’s name ALWAYS comes up at the top of the list! Call us biased, but both Brian and Mark can give direct first hand testimony of their opinion. Just like anyone else that wrestled Clark Yoder.
Watching his amazing career, watching him at state winning his 2nd state title all taped up with that shoulder injury was phenomenal… appreciating his efforts, his toughness, his determination and his drive for excellence in wanting to be the best wrestler was tremendously inspiring to those in my era.
It’s been 40 years since Clark Yoder won his 3rd state title, and he’s moved on and lived an amazing life. He’s a decorated combat veteran that served his country honorably following a shortened college career. He’s a very private person and family oriented. When we talked about this upcoming RTW article he was very open about what was important to him, and what matters is what’s here and now… as he mentioned that he’s kind of put the spotlight of his own wrestling career behind him. Sees himself as just another guy – not some wrestling folk-hero, and does not seek or desire any glory regarding his past wrestling exploits. That’s way outside his comfort zone for other’s to view him any other way than his current normal life. I totally get that… and I see those qualities as the same ones that arguably made him stand out among so great many others.
My goal in writing this RTW – “feature” interview was to introduce one of the great Iowan stories to a new generation of wrestling fans and to highlight someone who is an Iowa legend in wrestling and draw attention to one of the great wrestling programs of the 1970’s and beyond. I hope I’ve done that…
Wrestling fans… Here’s Iowa wrestling Hall of Famer Clark Yoder!
Our family’s (8) High School State Wrestling Champs: Ross Yoder -1, Aden Reeves -2, Clark Yoder -3, and Tim Kephart -2
Clark with wife Jean and his sons Gabe and Josh…
What clubs, schools, etc. did you wrestle for?
Sigourney High School, UNI, All-Army Wrestling. On a different note, my father was instrumental in starting the Sigourney kids wrestling tournament along with the Kiwanis club.
What year did you graduate?
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
Older brothers, Dan Gable stories, Dad. My dad was very supportive and helped get the kids program and tournaments going. John Snakenberg (brother of George Snakenberg) coached the kids program and had success at the college level as well… My sister Vivian, read the Dan Gable book to me as I did push-ups as a youngster. Also Paul Graham, the first two time state champ from Sigourney.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
Brother – Greg wrestled for Sigourney; Brother – Ross (State Champ at 145 in 1978); Cousin Andy Bales (Place winner in Nevada); Cousins – Scott Kephart (4th Place winner); Tim Kephart was 2 time Missouri HS Champion and two time 3rd placer, wrestled at Mizzou; Sons – Gabe wrestled for Mid Prairie 1 year, Josh who wrestled at MP and Sigourney was a state qualifier in high school and Jr High state champ. Aden Reeves (2 time IHSAA champ, freestyle and Greco national place winner, currently at ISU).
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
Started wrestling kids in tourneys in 5th grade, did pretty well, and did not keep records.
What was your record in HS?
I believe it was 112-4. Lost 3 times as a freshman, 1 time sophomore and was undefeated junior, senior years. I lost twice to Jim Lord (Lisbon), once to Pat Vogel (Benton Community, Van Horne), once to Dave Lott (Denver)… all previous or future state champs.
How did you place at state every year?
Qualified as FR, lost first round (no wrestle backs in those days). Won state SO, JR, and SR years (1978, 1979, 1980).
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
I had a lot of injuries which were difficult to deal with. Setting out of competition was not in my nature. I did not have a very good college experience, which led to me joining the Army.
How would you describe your wrestling style?
Aggressive… I had a saying that I would always repeat: “Tough, Tight, Mean, Russian”. To me it meant, ‘Tough’ – stay aggressive, always try and score more points. ‘Tight’ – stay in contact, keep the pressure on all the time. ‘Mean’ – (not dirty) just hard -nosed wrestling, drive through the opponents best, like driving through a hard crossface and never let them see you give up. ‘Russian’ – at the time I felt that the Russians were the best technical wrestlers, greatest drilling and precise techniques.
How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?
The one that comes to mind was Vogel from Benton Community (Van Horne). He beat me 5-0 at the Belle Plaine tourney at the beginning of my freshman year. Late in the match I was riding too high and hung my head over too far and he did a reach back headlock for a 5 point move. I later defeated him in sectionals and district finals. He went on to win 3 or 4 overtime matches at state to win a championship at 119. Just an awesome performance, well deserved. I lost by 2 points to Dave Lott (Denver) in the first round – there were no wrestle backs then so… done!
Who was your most influential coach? And can you expand on how they inspired you?
Jack Smith – Hall of Fame Coach, Sigourney High School. Coach Smith was very disciplined in his approach to coaching wrestling. His word was law and it did not matter if you were on the third string or a state champ you followed his lead. He was all about the basics and we drilled the same moves each and every practice. Switch, re-switch, re-switch step over, step over kick over roll. Sitout, turn in, turn out, stand up, roll, standing switch, etc, etc, etc… And we got about one opportunity to “PICK IT UP” when warming up or drilling, OR he would blow his whistle and yell – “ROLL EM UP” and we would run sprints. We learned discipline and drive and also faith. “6 minutes and maybe more with the help of MISTER MAN, let’s go!” He also taught us to be humble, we were not allowed to wear medals on our jackets. “If you’re good, they will know it”. Lots and lots of stories about Coach Jack Smith. He will always have my respect, and love!
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
We had an awesome team and community support. We had 2nd and 3rd place team trophies and many place winners.
Describe “Savage” wrestling at Sigourney and the community pride in their sports programs?
We worked hard, wrestled hard and had super community support. We expected to win and most of the time did. Just saying, I’m very proud of all the savage wrestlers. The gyms were always full and the crowd at times were deafening. Having said that, if it started to go to our heads, there was Coach Smith to bring us back down. Some of our hardest practices came after one sided wins.
Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?
Oldest brother Greg (Savage wrestler – 1971 Grad); John Snakenberg (started working with the kids program), and without a doubt – Pat Greene (Big 10 placer at Iowa). Pat would come to my house and beat on me from 7th grade through my senior year. He was absolutely awesome at scrambling and mat work. I could get in on his legs but rarely scored in six years. He would grind me into the mat, turning one way then another. I learned so much from Pat. He literally was a large part of my success in high school. Lots of times Pat would wrestle me into the mat for 2 hours and when he would go, I could hardly drag myself upstairs. Man did I learn a lot from those workouts!
You won 3 state titles from 1978-1980. Which one was the most gratifying and which one was the hardest to achieve?
The first one in 1978 was super awesome because my brother Ross also won that night. The 1979 championship was hard because I had some injuries and I kind of let the pressure of repeating get to me. George had made it to the finals but took 2nd, so a little rough. Then as a senior, George and I won so that was great also.
Your older brother Ross also won a state title along with you in 1978… what was that like for you and your family and team to achieve that together?
My folks and entire family was Soooooo Proud, it’s hard to put into words! It will always be with us. It was a big night for Savage wrestling, we got an escort home and the mayor declared Ross and Clark Yoder Day! Hahaha kinda funny now.
Who would you consider the GOAT Iowa HS wrestler?
So many greats during my time, the Zelesky’s, Barry Davis (good friend of mine)… Just hard to say. Maybe it’s that unknown wrestler who got up every day, trained, competed without great success, but kept it up and learned life lessons that carried him through tough times.
Who are your favorite current wrestlers?
Aden Reeves ISU (I’m biased, he’s my cousin).
What music would you listen to back in the wrestling days?
Queen, Boston, Aerosmith.
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
Freshman year first round at state… Definitely!
If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?
Not take it like it was life and death so much. Relax a bit, and listen to my body to avoid some of the injuries. Maybe change the outcomes of 4 high school matches. LOL
What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?
Just the comradery of team and wrestlers in general. It always makes interesting conversation when you meet someone who has wrestling stories, no matter where they come from. It was really great winning state championships with Ross and George Snakenberg. Winning Central National Freestyle Championship and placing third at Junior Nationals Freestyle as a junior (was sick with mono and did not compete as a senior).
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
Teammates. I worked out with everybody in practice from 98 lbs up to Hwt. Some great battles took place there. Also I was visiting my oldest brother in Tulsa, OK during the summer of 8th grade and freshman year and found out that there was a local freestyle tourney, so my family signed me up. I wrestled in a pair of my brother’s tennis shoes (several sizes too big) and a pair of gym shorts. What a sight! I ended up wrestling Kenny Monday. Not a great match for me, I lost 8-2. I think back and have to laugh at what they thought of how I competed… Hahaha
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
I wrestled year round, traveled a lot with summer freestyle.
How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?
I think today’s wrestlers may be better on the feet, but we were better at mat wrestling. Particularly on bottom. We practiced getting off our backs every day, and today there are lots more pins.
Did you wrestle after high school?
I went to UNI for 1.5 years but did not produce. I also wrestled in the Army in Europe and on the All-Army Team. I was transferred from the 82nd airborne to a security job in Germany, and while there on the spur of the moment wrestled in a qualifying tourney and won. So I was able to wrestle in the European Army Wrestling Championships and won both the Freestyle and Greco Roman at 149 Lbs. By doing that I was sent to West Point Military Academy and wrestled on the All-Army Team. All this after being a combat vet from the invasion of Granada. Airborne infantry was hard on the body…
What other sports did you play?
I ran cross country my fresh and soph years.
What are your favorite sports teams?
Cards and Cubs.
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
Martial arts, reading books, all things wine (I’m a Doppel member of Wine Century Club, meaning I have sampled over 200 grape varieties of wine).
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
It’s made me mentally tougher and physically stronger. The training I did has carried me through some really difficult times in my life.
What do you do now?
I’m a Respiratory Therapist at the University of Iowa Hospitals working in the Bronchoscopy lab
Are you still involved with wrestling?
Just a spectator.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
Same quote from Paul Martin, (Algona, I believe) – “Stay tough and never say die”. The mind fails first, strengthen your mind and you will pull your body along.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a tough wrestler who worked hard, had some success and loved the sport of wrestling.
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
Thanks to my opponents, fans and teammates.
Do you have anything to add? Funny/interesting stories? Trivia? Etc.
Lots of funny stories and a few sad ones. A funny story from when I was a Freshman. Ross and I had gone to a basketball game at the high school the night before a meet so that we could check our weight. We were supposed to be home by 9pm per team rules and we stayed a little too long at the game and as it happened Coach called our home to check up on us. We were not home on time and had to pay the price for breaking curfew – which consisted of running a number of sprints after school. I was mad about it and complaining to Mom that I may just quit. Mom had read the Dan Gable book and had decided to use a little of the Gable psychology. She said – “Go ahead and quit ya wussy!” (at least it sounded like that). It worked, I went and got dressed and did another workout that night. I kept my mouth shut after that and made sure I made curfew from then on. Everything has a price.
A good time to end this interview and my wrestling career is where it started.
My Dad was a great guy, of all things he was a basketball player for Ollie High School, now part of Pekin of Packwood in southeast Iowa (what a rivalry, stories for another time). They didn’t have wrestling back then, but at 5ft 5in, I’m sure he would’ve been a terror. Dad supported us kids and when my older brother Greg went out for football and then wrestling, Dad was behind him. (Sorry Dad)… We went to all Greg’s meets and cheered him on.
This is where I first met one of my best friends – George Snakenberg. As such things go, George’s brother John (who worked with youth wrestling in Sigourney) also worked with my Dad doing construction. Anyway, Dad was instrumental in starting the Sigourney kids wrestling tourney.
I remember sitting with Dad in between sessions at the Van Buren Invitational in Keosauqua in the lunch room and nearly freaking out as an 8th grader wanting to get on the mat. “Easy son”… he said, “your time will come.” Fast forward to 1984, I was an infantry combat vet, had been in a firefight that was close to being hit and was home within 1 week of that happening on leave getting ready to go to Germany. Dad (a Korean War vet), had kept me together… As fate would have it, I got back into wrestling over there and it stirred the desire back into me. I had walked away and felt I wanted nothing to do with wrestling again. While at West Point on the All-Army Team, I wrestled in the Olympic team qualifying tourney at the New York Athletic Club and wrestled well but did not qualify. By the way, a buddy of mine, Barry Davis, made the team.
While training at West Point, I received word that my Dad was gravely ill with a brain tumor. Crushed… I left the All-Army Team and was given a compassionate reassignment to Iowa City recruiting station. At the time, everything came crashing in on me. The thought that I should continue to train for wrestling to follow a dream was broken and would never be realized. I will not go into all the thoughts going through my head, suffice it to say I was confused and emotionally overwhelmed. At any rate, I was able to spend the last few months of my Dad’s life with him and decided not to return to competition.
So that’s my story folks… Started with my Dad and ended there. It was a great ride…!!!