In an arena jam-packed with teens in singlets, an announcer booming over the loud speaker, parents screaming at the top of their lungs, and red-faced coaches bellowing at the corner of multiple mats, Shawn Wilson is always an island of calm.
He rarely, if ever, raises his voice, even when the kid on the mat is wrestling for a state title. He talks, gently giving wrestlers pointers. Somehow, like an audio laser beam, his voice cuts through the din and the kid on the mat hears.
“It’s crazy,” said Link Davis, who wrestled under Wilson at Cleveland and went on to become a coach himself. “When you’re out there on the mat, you can hear Coach Wilson.
“I could hear only two people when I was wrestling: Coach Wilson was one, and my mom was the other.”
Next weekend, at the state wrestling championships in Oklahoma City, Wilson will receive an honor that his former wrestlers consider long overdue: He will be named the 3A Coach of the Year for the eastern half of Oklahoma.
“The reason it took so long is because Shawn is so quiet,” said J.J. McGrew, who wrestled under Wilson and went on to become a national champion at Oklahoma State University and No. 2 ranked wrestler destined for the Olympics until a neck injury took him out of the running.
“He’s an even better person than a coach. He practiced what he preached. That was his lifestyle. He believed in working hard and taking the right path.”
Wilson may be a great coach of the oldest sport in the world – and one of the most grueling and tactical – but his former students, colleagues and family say wrestling far from defines him.
“I guess you could say he’s a teacher first and coach second,” said McGrew. “He’s calm, moral, direct and rational. I look at some of these coaches like Shawn and they changed hundreds, thousands of kids’ lives in a positive direction. They’ve done an astronomical job, especially considering what they make.
“I was just a poor preacher’s kid, a country boy with some talent. He put me on the right path. I was a tough kid and with his discipline, I excelled to the next level and got a full ride to college. He was a big part of what I achieved, what I did in wrestling and in life.”
Wilson was born in West Virginia but his family moved to Oklahoma when he was a baby, ending up in Pawhuska when he was 3 years old. He was smitten by wrestling after attending a tournament with his brother Steve in the third grade. By the time he got to high school, he was a massively talented wrestler, becoming the first Huskie to place all four years at the state championship, which he won twice.
Richard DeMoss, who coached Wilson in his senior year at Pawhuska, recalled that he was undefeated that year. Everyone expected him to end that winning streak at the Jenks tournament, where he was to face Thomas Landrum, a much bragged about wrestler who had been written up in the Tulsa World. “Shawn pinned him,” DeMoss said.
The summer after he graduated, DeMoss said that Wilson signed up for the National Wrestling Federation Freestyle tournament, where he got to the finals against Lee Roy Smith, a legend at Del City who went on to become an NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, and the current director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Shawn pinned him [in about 32 seconds] and won the national championship in freestyle that summer,” DeMoss said. “He is a competitor but definitely has all of his priorities straight.”
For DeMoss, Wilson is a glowing example of a good man.
“The successes in wrestling come from giving everything you’ve got and accepting defeat the same way you accept a win,” DeMoss said. “Shawn’s whole family was involved in wrestling. They realized the benefits it had turning boys into men. He has followed that in his coaching.
“The coaches that are truly great coaches are focused on making their students good people. Back in ancient Greek culture, they believed that every man should wrestle to become a well-rounded man.
“Shawn realizes that. He has a passion for wrestling but he knows that’s not your whole life. He definitely has his priorities straight.”
Link Davis said that Wilson is also unbelievably tough. “I thought he was the toughest guy in the world,” Davis said. “One time we were at a camp and he was showing us some move, and for some reason got a finger stuck in the mat. His pinky was going the wrong way. He just put tape on it and kept going. I was like, ‘Holy Smokes!.’”
Bryan Langley, a state champion out of Cleveland under Wilson, echoed Davis. “He’s a soft-spoken guy but at the same time he could beat anyone on the team,” said Langley, who now manages the BMW dealership in Tulsa. “No one wanted to wrestle with him because he was so tough. He was a go-getter and as tough as anyone I’ve ever known. He grabbed me a couple of times and it wasn’t fun. One time, three or four of us tried to take him on at once. It wasn’t even close.”
That wasn’t the first or last time Wilson faced down multiple opponents. He also has a black belt in karate, earned by taking on five black belts at once. “They never knocked him down and they didn’t make him bleed,” said his wife, Elaine.
“He was also the most honest coach I’ve ever been around. He taught me to stay focused, to work hard, and work harder than the competition; I still use that lesson today.”
Wilson’s mother-in-law, Ruby Winkler, agreed. “I’m not a wrester,” said Winkler, who is in her 80s. “Of course, I’ve had three kids so I’ve done a lot of wrestling in my life. But Shawn is just a precious person. We think so much of him in our family. He’s just a part of us. We’re so fortunate to have him and the school system is very fortunate to have someone like Shawn. We love him so.”
Winkler added that both Wilson and his wife, Elaine, are much alike in that they are always willing to step up and help others.
By way of example, the couple loves to walk in their neighborhood, and one day walked past a house whose lawn was totally overgrown. They knocked on the door, and found the home occupied by a widow. Without being asked, the Wilsons started mowing and weed-eating her yard.
Winkler said that Wilson is also fun-loving, and a bit of a practical joker. “He’ll kid you and he’s got the cutest little high-pitched laugh,” she said. “He laughs like no other. He picks on me.”
And all agree that Wilson is the last person in the world who would ever talk about himself or his accomplishments. In fact, that is so apparent that we didn’t even try to contact him for this article because we knew it would be a futile act.
“He doesn’t like anybody to brag on him,” Winkler said. “He’ll brag on other people, his kids and his wrestlers, but boy he turns red if you brag on him.
“We mothers-in-law have a reputation of being kind of mean and not getting along, but he’s my son. He’s just as much my son as my biological son. That’s all there is to it.”
Wilson coached in Cleveland for 17 years, his first job out of college. Ready for a change, the Wilsons moved to Frisco, Texas, and he coached for a year at Carrolton but after one year found the large school and Texas didn’t suit him. He returned to Oklahoma at Wagoner, then was hired as head coach in Bartlesville. Bartlesville had never really supported its wrestling program, so after a year there, he jumped at the opportunity to coach at Barnsdall, a small school with a long record of wrestling prowess.
“Going from the largest class to one of the smallest schools in the smallest class in Oklahoma was an easy choice for Shawn,” Elaine Wilson said. “He’s just a small town, ‘tough as nails’ wrestling coach.”
He has been in Barnsdall for eight years now, coaching three boys to the state championship: Matt Allen, Kyle Jacquess and Caleb Hawes, the latter being a two-time state champion whom Wilson still watches wrestle at the University of Central Oklahoma.
“Coach Wilson is a great coach not only on the mat but in life,” Hawes said. “He teaches his wrestlers how to wrestle fairly and also to treat people with respect. We always would joke around and say if Wilson called us at 5 in the morning and said meet me at the bridge, everyone would be there, we just respect him that much! It doesn’t matter whether you wrestle for him, or never compete for him, he loves all kids. I can’t think of a better man to call coach than coach Wilson.”
“It’s just what he loves,” said his wife, Elaine. “His wrestlers are his boys and he has built relationships that will last his lifetime. He has coached kids who have gone on to be chemical and mechanical engineers, teachers, coaches, successful business owners, accountants and CPA’s, just to name a few. I have heard so many of them say that they are successful today because of the positive impact Shawn had on their lives.”
J.J. McGrew seconds that. “He was a great part of where I am today,” McGrew said. “He was an even better person than a coach. And he’s probably an even better husband and dad.
“He’s a quiet leader.”
Well, mostly quiet. Sometimes, McGrew said, Wilson would get angry, “if we were pathetically lazy or bad.”
Then, Wilson would express his annoyance, using two words that are the closest he ever comes to cussing.
“That,” Wilson would say, “is a bunch of horse crap.”
by Louise Red Corn