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InterMat Reads: Bobby Douglas

Mark Palmer

6/19/2013
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

You may think you know Bobby Douglas.

You may know him as head coach at Arizona State, leading that school to its first -- and only -- NCAA team title ... and at Iowa State, as the man who coached Cael Sanderson to four titles and a perfect 159-0 record.

You may also think of Douglas as a pioneer: first African-American high school state champ in Ohio ... one of the first blacks to wrestle for the U.S. at the Olympics ... and first coach of color to guide an NCAA Division I program to a national championship.

You might also picture him with his familiar Russian fur hat and fanny pack.

But there's so much more to the story of Bobby Douglas which is now revealed in "Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend" by Craig Sesker, published by Exit Zero Publishing.

Surprising stories about a man you think you know

This 175-page book is packed with surprising stories and revelations, right from the opening.

The first chapter describes a harrowing attack on Bobby Douglas' mother in a one-room apartment in Cincinnati when Douglas was only 3. Douglas hid under the bed as the intruder repeatedly stabbed his mother in her bed. Fearing he might be next, Douglas slipped out at an opportune moment, tripping and tumbling down the stairs as he tried to escape with his life. It was after that attack that the youngster was sent to eastern Ohio to live with his grandparents in a tiny coal-mining outpost called Stop 32 near Wheeling, W.Va. ... a move that would shape his life forever.

The startling opening foreshadows other surprises throughout the book.

Bobby Douglas (Photo/Cyclones.com)
A prime example: "Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend" provides an unflinching analysis of another incident sixty years later -- the changing of the guard at Iowa State, when Douglas was replaced by his assistant coach of two years -- and once prize pupil -- Cael Sanderson, as the head coach of the Cyclones, a month after the 2006 NCAAs. The book serves up a reality that is far different than what was initially presented to the public, with direct quotes from Douglas, his wife Jackie, Sanderson, former assistant coach Chris Bono, wrestler Trent Paulson, and athletic director Jamie Pollard.

"The book gets to the bottom of what happened," said Sesker. "I talked to everyone involved, and I included each participant's perspective, in his own words."

"The strongest language in the book was when (Douglas) told his Iowa State team that he was fired," according to Sesker. "Originally the Paulsons and Kurt Backes told the story, then Bobby confirmed it. I thought that's how it needed to be captured."

Then again, it's just one of the stories that needed to be told, about one of the great legends of amateur wrestling.

How the book came about

Craig Sesker has a strong background in wrestling ... and in writing.

Craig Sesker
Sesker participated in four sports in high school in Tipton, Iowa, including wrestling. He launched his professional career by covered wrestling for the Burlington (Iowa) Hawk Eye and the Omaha World Herald. A two-time National Wrestling Writer of the Year, Sesker has covered the Olympics, the Pan American Games, World Championships, NCAA championships, and numerous high school tournaments in Iowa and Nebraska. Since 2006, Sesker has served as communications director for USA Wrestling, editing the organization's member magazine, USA Wrestler.

"Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend" is Sesker's first book, though he had worked as an editor of "American Victory," the memoir of 2008 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, with Bill Plaschke. (Since the publishing of the Douglas book, Sesker has also written "Driven to Excellence: Family, Triumph and Tragedy -- The Story of Omaha Skutt Catholic Wrestling Program."

"I knew Bobby via my time at the Omaha World Herald and USA Wrestling," said Sesker. "We had talked at the U.S. Open about doing a book. We needed an investor. Art Martori of Sunkist Kids, and supporter of Arizona State, stepped forward. He was very generous and very gracious."

"I did the first interviews at the World Team Trials in Council Bluffs (Iowa) in June 2010," Sesker continued. "After the Trials, I spent the whole day at Bobby's house in Ames."

"By the third interview, he really opened up, telling the story about his mom."

"Spending that day with him in Ames really helped."

In all, Sesker conducted 12-13 hours of in-person interview with Bobby Douglas, and, "a ton of time on the phone," to use the author's phrase. "He'd call up with tidbits, stories that he'd remember."

An upbringing that overcame the odds

Bobby Douglas' life story is one of overcoming considerable odds ... even at an early age.

After the attack on his mother, Bobby Douglas went to live with his grandparents in rural eastern Ohio, in a tiny home with holes in the wood floor, and no indoor plumbing.

It was a rugged, challenging upbringing; "The odds were stacked against him," said Sesker. Douglas had to deal with grinding poverty, bullying and racism. Yet growing up in tiny Stop 32 shaped Douglas' life in many positive ways.

It was where Douglas discovered the benefits of participating in multiple sports at Bridgeport High School. He played football and wrestled for coach George Kovalick, a significant positive influence on his life, who urged his athletes "to give something back" -- words that have shaped Douglas' actions as an athlete and coach the balance of his life.

"He's very fortunate that Geoege Kovalick came along," Bobby's wife Jackie told Sesker. "He was like a father to Bobby. He saved Bobby."

At Bridgeport High, Douglas made friends with others who also went on to become superstars in their respective sports: brothers Phil and Joe Niekro in baseball, and John Havlicek in basketball. ("They thought the world of Bobby," said Sesker, who has featured the recollections of Havlicek and Phil Niekro concerning their lifelong friend Douglas in his book.)

Fifty years ago, Douglas was one of two African-American wrestlers at Bridgeport ... and, being a pioneer, endured racism along the way. The book describes a tense dual meet at Parkersburg (W.Va.) High School where a novice Douglas gave a defending state champ all he could handle ... enduring racial slurs yelled by the partisan crowd that were "about to blow the roof off the place" to quote Douglas.

It wouldn't be the first time -- or last -- that Douglas would encounter racism and racial tension, as the book illustrates. Yet Douglas overcame those challenges to become Ohio's first state wrestling champ of color, in 1959, then followed up with a second state title two years later. Douglas' pioneering state championship was the first of a number of times when Douglas would open doors in some sort of history-making "first."

It was also in Stop 32 where Bobby Douglas met the love of his life, Jackie, who eventually became his wife and lifelong supporter.

Life beyond Stop 32

The book goes on to chronicle Douglas' post-high school mat career, first at West Liberty in West Virginia, then at Oklahoma State ... then his freestyle career, bursting onto the international stage at the 1963 World Championships (which caused him to miss then-girlfriend, now wife Jackie's senior prom), and earning a place on back-to-back U.S. Olympic teams in 1964 and 1968.

After the 1968 Olympics, Bobby Douglas then launched his coaching career, first at Cal State-Santa Barbara (becoming the first African-American head wrestling coach) ... then taking the helm at Arizona State, leading the Sun Devils to their first (and only) NCAA team title in 1988 (the only school west of the Rockies to achieve that honor.) Four years later, frustrated by a contentious relationship with the athletic director at ASU, Douglas headed north to accept the head coaching job at Iowa State, where, among others, he coached the one and only Cael Sanderson to four titles and a perfect 159-0 record ... then, as U.S. freestyle coach for the 2004 Olympics, guided Sanderson to a gold medal at the Athens Games.

Douglas' career in wrestling spans more than a half-century. And, in that life journey, his career as a wrestler and coach has intersected with some of the biggest names of the past 50 years. It's a significant theme throughout the book, as Sesker weaves stories of these individuals into the fabric that is Bobby Douglas' life.

Bobby Douglas and Cael Sanderson
"Bobby's life crossed so many," Sesker said in the InterMat interview, naming some giants in wrestling. "He wrestled (Dan) Gable, trained with Yojiro Uetake (three-time NCAA champ at Oklahoma State, two-time Olympic gold medalist), coached Dan Severn (Arizona State wrestler who went on to be an early star in Ultimate Fighting Championships), worked with Tom and Terry Brands, coached Tricia Saunders (four-time World champion), and Destin McCauley (high school superstar, now Nebraska recruit, whose first wrestling camp was conducted by Douglas)."

In addition, tens of thousands have benefitted from his series of instructional books.

Beyond the countless lives Bobby Douglas touched, another recurring theme throughout the book is Douglas' human qualities as a coach and individual.

"He's a man of great integrity and principles," Sesker wrote in the book's prologue. "He ran clean programs at Arizona State and Iowa State, nearly all his athletes graduated, and he cared very deeply about the young men he coached."

"You won't find a better man than Bobby Douglas," Sesker told InterMat.

Bobby Douglas (Photo/Larry Slater)
"Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend" is more than an account of the accomplishments -- including pioneering firsts -- of a great wrestler and coach. It also provides an unflinching portrait of a rugged childhood and other challenges along the way, along with honest depictions of various milestone events, incorporating direct quotes from Douglas and other participants. What's more, the book is liberally sprinkled throughout with dozens of great photos of Douglas and those whose lives he touched. For all these reasons, the "Bobby Douglas" book makes for informative, inspirational reading.

"Bobby Douglas: Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend" is available for purchase directly from Craig Sesker. Contact him via email at csesker@usawrestling.org

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