Brett Wheelan is one of the most important and influential individuals who has circled the Iowa wrestling scene since I have been around it. I mean that. I don’t know if he knows or believes that, but to me he most certainly is and I am 100% sure there are several others who feel the same way about him. This man loves wrestling more than anyone I’ve ever met. He loves wrestling probably twice as much as I do and on a very consistent basis that has spanned decades, he has given back to it by means of coaching, advocating for it, his unrivaled enthusiasm and well, just being himself. If wrestling in Iowa did not have a Brett Wheelan, the sport would feel different..The ride back from Wells would be spent trying to pinpoint what was missing. You can not duplicate Brett Wheelan. We are only going to get one of him and thank God we did… And to think wrestling hasn’t always treated Brett Wheelan back with the same love.
Brett is a dude who cares deeply about wrestling. It means the world to him and always will. He is a guy who has a competitor was a student of the game and was an absolute combatant on the mat, but he struggled with untimely bad luck at times. His career was injury-plagued when he hit high school. He suffered a terrible shoulder injury that was unbearable for him and really destroyed his career and broke his heart. Looking back, I would probably take an injury in my own wrestling career if it meant Brett Wheelan didn’t experience that shoulder injury because like I said, he was the least deserving person that I can think of to go through all that. Brett isn’t as prone and willing to making excuses as I am, but I will say confidently that if he did not experience that injury, he would have climbed that podium.
I wrestled him 3 times and he had terrible luck in at least two of those matches. Wrestled him for 3rd and 4th in 6th grade and I won that one, but I was having a great day and Brett was just kind of starting to find his footing around that time. The next year, I saw him at a youth tournament in Fort Madison in which I was not participating, for that week in practice, I dinged up my knee to a point where the swelling became so bad that it put the average cantaloupe to shame. I had to walk around with this giant, ugly knee immobilizer for a couple weeks. Now, I have mentioned this so many times by now that it’s probably starting to become annoying, but I was “chatty” with most everyone at wrestling tournaments to a point where, well to several of them, it became very annoying. When I ran into Brett, I pointed at him and was like, “hey Brett! I am…” and in his infamously raspy voice that would make a 13 year old Tom Waits seethe with jealousy, he interrupted me and enthusiastically said, “Josh Swafford!!! Your one of the best guys I’ve ever wrestled! I wondered where in the world you are from. Are you from this area?! Would you be wrestling here if your leg wasn’t injured?!” I was kind of surprised and taken aback, but flattered. This is probably how people feel when they first meet me. Haha, I filled him in on my knee, my season, my career, etc. and we talked wrestling all day and have done so since. You think I’m a passionate Encyclopedia about wrestling? Well, try to meet Brett sometime, if you haven’t. He puts me to shame. From that point on, I always rooted for him and still root for his wrestlers that he coaches if I see him in the corner screaming somewhere.
We hung out quite a bit in Dubuque when I was in college. Brett’s family moved there. He was squirrely, but certainly one of my most level-headed friends. A good influence for me because of his character. This guy has seen me at my worst and has still been cool to me. I mean hell, I am by no means a thief…never have been, never will be, for stealing things doesn’t even cross my mind, but one time Brett caught me stealing a chicken salad sandwich out of someone’s refrigerator. I was broke, drunken-munchy ridden and freaking starving at the time, so I classify it as a case of justifiable clouded judgment, but Brett certainly let me know how much of a douche move that was, stealing someone’s chicken salad sandwich out of their refrigerator. I haven’t stolen a chicken salad sandwich out of someone’s fridge since, so that was a life changer!!!
Brett’s parents raised he and his brothers, Brad and Brooks very well, for they are all so tight-knit, funny and treat people with the respect they deserve. They always treated me so well any time I was fortunate enough to make my way to their house on BarbaraLee with Brett. It’s no mystery as to why that Wheelan boys have turned out to be the awesome individuals they are.
To give you a perfect idea of this Brett’s character, this story will enlighten you. My grandpa Robert Swafford was nothing short of a second dad to me. He lived a mile down the road from us growing up and I saw him almost every day of my life. He was the nurturing voice of reason that my brother Justin and I desperately needed when wrestling consumed too much of my father’s emotions to where he couldn’t express himself towards us in a positive manner if it involved wrestling. My grandpa was at every event we participated in and was there for any sort of support that we needed. We lost him a month before my daughter was born in 2010. Now, just because my grandpa was as positively influential to the lives of every one of my family members, sadly, this doesn’t mean that he was treated by me with the respect he deserved. A perfect example of this was when I came home from college to throw a party. I was… a handful for my parents, pretty much from day 1 and this was one of several huge parties that I threw at my house because I caught wind through my brother (my parents didn’t tell me these things…they knew better) that they would be out of town for the weekend. So I bought 3 kegs and brought Brett home with me. And there were tons of people there. This party didn’t disappoint. That is until my grandpa made a surprise visit to check to make sure that I didn’t drive 2.5 hours back home to throw a party. Sadly, my parents caught on to my ways and started introducing road blocks to interfere with my shenanigans. Some major “mellow-harshin.'” The party was already way too big and out of control to send everyone home, so that was a lost cause. And my grandpa was a very nervous person the older he got and this was very noticeable to anyone who actually acknowledged that he crashed the party. His hands were shaking. Brett noticed this and said, “don’t worry Swaff, I’ll take care of your grandpa…go out and enjoy your party.” So Brett sat my worried grandpa down in the living room and chatted with him about baseball for 4-5 hours… until the party had dwindled down fully and Grandpa felt comfortable enough to go to bed. Brett could have been living it up as a normal late teens/early 20’s person would have been, but was perfectly content with talking baseball all night with my grandpa. This eased Grandpa’s nerves a ton and he had one of the best nights he’d had in a long time…in a situation that brought him tons of stress due to his grandson being incapable of not indulging every whim that he faced, regardless of the obvious stupidity of it. Brett could have been outside like the rest of us, partying, trying to meet girls (and there were some promiscuous ones there), etc. Nope, Brett chose to hang out with my grandpa to talk baseball with him. And he didn’t do this because he felt obligated to, be did it because it’s what he wanted to do. That’s how he would have the best night himself. It meant the world to my grandpa. Every time I visited from college, he would ask about how Brett was doing. It was one of the highlights of his year. Talking to Brett all night… Since my grandpa has passed, I have a difficult time thinking of the good times I spent with him. My mind goes straight to regret. Regretting every time I drove by his house without stopping, regretting every time that I didn’t answer the phone when I saw his name on the caller ID, for I knew Grandpa was likely just stressing out about a speed trap on the way to Mediapolis. Today, I’d give anything to have another warning of a speed trap. I’d give up every party I ever threw back then if it meant having a 1 minute talk about baseball like Brett chose to do. I’d do it in a heartbeat. Thank goodness the world produced a person like Brett Wheelan who was mature and kind-hearted enough to take my shortcomings upon himself to make up some of the ground that I had left uncovered. That eases the blow a bit.
Brett Wheelan, everyone… We are fortunate to have him as part of our fan base.
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
—-I honestly don’t know. We moved to Manchester the summer before 2nd grade and I guess my parents just signed me up. I don’t recall a flyer or anything, just remember going to practices at the middle school.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
—-My mom’s brothers in the 70’s and early 80’s in Missouri wrestled. One uncle was a state champion and one other was a runner up. But I was never around them so I didn’t know they wrestled until I got much older. My brothers, Brad and Brooks both started wrestling the same time I did and both wrestled through high school. Brooks qualified as a senior. Brad, was ranked 3rd or 4th and didn’t qualify behind the champ and runner up his senior year. Currently my three boys all wrestle, ages 10, 8 and 5.
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
—-I did pretty well as a youth wrestler. Didn’t go to the big ones like in Tulsa or anything like that, but no one from WD did. So being a first generation wrestler, we didn’t know about those things. I placed a few times at AAU. Won schoolboys one year. Rivals. I wrestled Matt Davis or Nate Specht or Eric Bantz I think every weekend from 4th through 8th grade. Rivals on the mat, but we hung out in the hall ways and stuff between matches. Still good guys I see every once in a while.
What was your record in HS?
—- I honestly don’t know. Something and 18, I think.
How did you do at state?
—– Not very good. 1-2 as a freshman and 0-2 as a sophomore.
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
—– Staying healthy. I broke my hand over Christmas break playing dodgeball before practice my sophomore year. And then the big one, I tore the brachial plexus (main nerve that feeds your arm) at what Dr’s estimated a 50% tear working out at UNI before my junior year. Only had 4 or 5 more matches in high school after that. Thought I could try it in college and that was dumb. It sent me to some dark places as a person. I wouldn’t change it at all though, other than the pain that I still get in my neck and down into my arm. I use the challenges I learned from that as a coach.
Who was your most influential coach?
—– As a wrestler I’ve had a ton of great coaches and worked with a bunch of great coaches. But I would have to say Kevin Harbaugh and Dan Lahr. They were our Jr high coaches and let me be a manager in 4th-6th grade, which meant I practiced with them everyday. I can’t ever remember a bad day in a room ran by them.
– As a coach I’ve been lucky to be around some amazing coaches working with Team Iowa in the summers. Eric Whitcome for bringing me in to W-SR and how we work together. Brent Jennings has done some great things for me. I’ve learned a lot from Mark Reiland. So many great guys involved in the summers working to make Iowa better.
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
—– I thought we were, but I think the best we ever did was maybe like 12th at state my freshman year. We won the WAMAC I think each year, but looking back should have had our sights higher.
What was it like wrestling Rice Owens the moment that he peaked? After that match, did it surprise you that he won it?
—– Oh man! I was excited to see the “Remember the Wrestler” on Rice a few weeks ago! I honestly was not too concerned about wrestling him first round at state. If any nerves about the match were there, it was because I had never been to the state tournament even as a fan. He was a Sr and I was a freshman at 112. This was 1998 so we didn’t have the internet or anything like that. I didn’t know who he was. All I knew was I had a Sr who had like 13 losses coming into state. If anything I felt too confident. All I really remember about that match was we got into a scramble and he scored 2. I got out right away and as I cleared he attacked and I got called for stalling. I think that was the only time I was ever called for stalling. This caused me to think I had to pick it up and next thing I know were in a scramble with him on his back and before I could settle in he came out of it and had me on my back. Was pinned in 1:59. I don’t know if it surprised me that he won, but I thought it was cool back then. I’ve never seen him before or after that tournament so it was cool to see he’s doing well out in Colorado.
Which roles do each of you Wheelan bros have? You are all funny, hell Brooks is a famous comedian… is one of you the leader? Is one the rebel? How similar and different are the Wheelan brothers?
—– I am not really sure we have roles. Growing up Brad was the leader and in charge because he could punch the hardest. I was next in line because I could punch harder than Brooks. We are about as different as three brothers growing up in the thick timber of NE Iowa could be. We all have really different interests and thoughts on things. We are all similar I would say in that we each found an area of interest and pursued it about as hard as we could, and are all doing pretty well. We actually were all together last week at Super PeeWee State for the first time in a few years. Brooks’ schedule is pretty crazy.
What is your favorite Dwight Yoakum song?
—– 1000 miles from nowhere…… But I think you have him confused with Chris LeDoux, which is who I was listening to big time while we were both in Dubuque. Still love to listen to LeDoux.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: 😡 I CAN’T BELIEVE I MIXED THAT UP… THIS ARTICLE IS NOW RUINED!!! JK,JK…but seriously!
When we wrestled in youth, did you have a hard time shaking my hand because you are left-handed or was it because you more so wanted to slap me in the face?
—- HA! I didn’t recall that. The left handed thing was something some of us youth wrestlers copied from either Chad Wickman, Casey Doyle or Mitch Peyton. But it really probably was Kris Lenz behind it all. My oldest wrestled a son of a old WD teammate at AAU a few weeks ago, and the kid did the ol’ left handed hand shake. HA So I had to tell my boy after the match, don’t ever shake their left hand, leave your right out there.
You were so cool to my grandpa that you were literally one of the highlights of his year when you guys talked for hours when everybody else was partying. That meant so much to him… what did you guys talk about? Nice guy, eh?
——- That was almost 20 years ago! I think Bob and I were probably talking about baseball. I think he said the Royals deserved to win in 1985!
How are your boys doing on the mat? They remind you of their old man?
—— They are finding their way. They really enjoy it. Myself and our other coaches at W-SR really try to teach them to embrace the process, not get caught up in results. Don’t get me wrong, the goal is always to win but at what cost? Not at the cost of development. My youngest is 5 and he got more matches than the others did at his age because its easier on my wife to enter him in tournaments than have him in the stands. They each remind me of myself a little, but mostly my oldest. That is probably why I have our other coaches coach him in the room and with me in the corner.
How much fun did you have talking wrestling when you were competing?
—— I loved it. I still love talking wrestling. I try to learn every time I’m around coaches or wrestlers.
Describe this W-SR team? Good atmosphere and people?
—— Each team is so different in their own ways, but thats what we get when were talking about twenty to twenty-five 14 to 18 year olds. But for the most part the program stays the same, but always striving for more. I love the atmosphere and people I’m around and working with everyday. Can’t see myself not being at W-SR. I love being a Go-Hawk!
Favorite coaching moments?
—— Toughest question yet. The easy answers are the big wins. But probably my favorite moments are the behind the scene moments with athletes doing extra work, talking through tough times, re-evaluating things. As Johnny Cash sings, “Whats done in the dark will be brought to the light.” Those things are my favorites because I like to think I’m there with them in the dark.
What are your favorite comedy movies?
—— Stripes is an all time classic. Almost Hero’s is one of the most underrated films of all time. I don’t know why Road Trip hasn’t stood the test of time. Revenge of the Nerds gets quoted all the time by myself and another coach, Jurgen Block.
Are you a Chiefs fan yet?
—— It was cool to see them win, but no. I am not a Chiefs fan. Still don’t have a favorite football team.
Who are your favorite current wrestlers?
—– JB, for sure! I’m team JB! Anyone who is out there looking to score points and create action, like Yianni Diakomihalis. All our W-SR wrestlers.
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
—-Probably when I stepped over a whizzer in 8th grade, HA! I really don’t know. For the longest time I was upset that the neck injury kept me from knowing what I could have done, but I’m no longer upset at that. Things happen.
What was your best wrestling memory/accomplishment?
—- The high fives and hugs we have shared as a coaching staff the last two years at state when we clinched. Doing all the work and having it pay off for the program and the kids has been pretty special.
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
—– Because I had such a short career I’m not sure I really had any.
Who was the fiercest competitor you ever faced?
—– My 45 minute live go with Tim Halligan. We went to Bosco to workout before state and Independence was there. Tim, I think was at 130 and I was at 125. It was either Monday or Tuesday of state and we warmed up and then went live for around 45 minutes. He beat the shit out of me. That dude was as mean as they come. I’d pay money to watch him and Bart Mehlert go at it back in the day!
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
—–I would get 30 or so freestyle matches in. Looking back, I wish I would have done it the way we do it at W-SR. We did freestyle more as fun and stuff, but I should have been trying to get better at wrestling than just having fun. I also wish I would have wrestled Greco.
Did you wrestle after high school?
—— I tried, but looking back 1) My neck was not ready to workout/compete and I struggled with that. 2) I wasn’t ready to be on my own and make sure I was getting to class.
How would you describe your wrestling style?
—–Hard, in your face. Lots of heavy hands and pulling, but I always had some tricks like trips or overhook stuff I could use. WD, still wrestles that way. Maybe not the hammer locks like we used back then but heavy hands in your face.
EDITOR’S NOTE: He also had a “bob and weave” type of deal that he would do on his feet that was very difficult to keep up with and frustrating in terms of knowing what to do wo
What other sports did you play?
——I ran 4 years of cross country and hated every step of it. But I think its the most under appreciated sport in schools. I also played baseball for 3 years.
Did you have good practice partners to help push you in the room?
—-I did. Brian Doyle and I wrestled a lot growing up. Brian’s brother Casey is also in Waverly and involved.
What are your favorite sports teams?
Kansas City Royals, they are my favorite thing outside my family and W-SR wrestling. College teams where I have friends coaching.
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
—– My boys and I play a lot of baseball. Watching them play and just being with them and my wife.
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
—— It has made me who I am. Has taught me so many things about adversity and just focus on getting better each day at life. Don’t focus on the past but learn from the past. Like I tell my boys, focus on the next point.
What do you do now?
I am a teacher for W-SR schools, and teach on the Bremwood Campus. All of my students are residents of LSI and live on campus, grades 5-12. I also am an assistant at W-SR and coach our youth program as well.
How fun is wrestling history to you?
—— So much fun, I love the history of the sport. My son Lincoln has a pretty cool print that I bought at one of the Museum outings of Abe Lincoln wrestling in front of a log cabin.
Are you still involved with wrestling?
—- Along with coaching, I serve as the scheduling director for Iowa/USAW and have been involved with Team Iowa in the summers since about 2012.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
—- Focus on the next point.
Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?
—- I wrestle everyday with our guys in the room. But there is zero chance I would ever do an old timers tournament.
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
—- Anyone that has ever had a part of my wrestling life. So many great people and memories. With NCAA’s being no fan’s next week I have to give a shout out I suppose to my NCAA travel buddies of the past 15 or 16 years, Gordy Smith and Jamie Bahl.
Do you have anything to add? Funny/interesting stories? Trivia? Etc.
—- I really enjoy reading these write ups. Awesome to see names of yesteryear and guys that I grew up watching or wrestling with. Thanks for the work you do and memories you help provide. Who is the first wrestler in Iowa to wrestle back for a true third after a first round loss? Chad Van Cleve of Dubuque Hempstead. His dad, Vern was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever known and Vern was pretty proud of that. Thats the little trivia I have. Also, thats a lot of questions!
* First time I ever wrestled Brett was at the above tournament in 6th grade.
* My crowd always did this to me during podium stuff… I’m guessing to embarrass me or something. I remember Vasey kind of smiling when we stepped down from the podium and saying to Winklepleck, “how can people cheer for that guy.” Hey, at least I finally got the dude to smile in a roundabout way!! And Brett said something directly to me, “dang Swaff, I didn’t know you were one of the New Kids On The Block.” 😂