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Bobby Douglas Book Review: Sesker shows someone who overcame much as a pioneer

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Updated: February 11, 2011

By Mike Finn

The life of Bobby Douglas, the first African-American wrestler to win an Ohio state championship, represent the United States in the Olympics and be named head coach of a Division I college program, is more than skin deep.

And thanks to the biography, “Bobby Douglas, Life and Legacy of an American Wrestling Legend”, author Craig Sesker showed his readers a man, who ignored racism, poverty and pain to win on the wrestling mat and make an even bigger impact on those he coached. Simply put, this is the  most outstanding book on a wrestler that I have ever read.

Not since Nolan Zavoral’s book, “A Season on the Mat: Dan Gable and the Pursuit of Perfection”, has a book taken readers inside the life of the wrestler and coach who reached the highest levels of wrestling while remaining a gentlemen when the moments weren’t too great.

But unlike Zavoral, the former Iowa City Press-Citizen editor, who witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes stories of Gable’s final season at Iowa in 1997, Sesker, a former award-winning sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald and current communications manager for USA Wrestling, puts readers in his time machine and takes them to the happy and sad moments in the life of Douglas. Sesker simply collected candid comments and remembrances from Douglas and those who have been close to this man.

In fact, the first chapter relays the story about how a three-year-old Bobby Douglas was forced to watch his mother, Belove Johnson, raped and nearly murdered in 1945 when an assailant broke into their low-income apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“The man is breathing heavily with a scowl on his face and a crazed look in his eyes,” writes Sesker. “He is drunk and reeks of alcohol. He clutches a large, shiny butcher knife — with a razor-sharp, six-inch long blade — in his right hand as he glares at Bobby’s mother.

“Johnson tries to fight off her attacker as he descends on her while repeatedly driving the butcher knife into her chest and abdomen.

“Her repeated cries of “No, no” bounce off the walls of the tiny apartment.

“A petrified Bobby Douglas dives under the bed, tears flowing down his cheeks as his heart pounds like a hammer on a steel drum. He is shaking in fear as he cowers underneath the mattress. A large pool of blood begins forming on the floor amid the high-pitched shrieks of terror from his mother.”

Fortunately, Douglas’ mother survived those wounds but there would be no justice for that act and she would only live another 20 years. Bobby — whose father, Eddie Douglas, was in jail when Bobby was born in 1942 in Bellaire, Ohio, and was rarely part of his son’s life — was sent to live with his grandparents to live in the small eastern Ohio coal-mining community of Blaine, near the border of West Virginia.

According to Sesker: “The community, located at the bus stop known as Stop 32, was a diverse collection of people from African, Italian, Polish, Czech, Russian and Slavic descent. There were 32 small houses that were bunched together in an area adjacent to a large coal mine.

“The shack they lived in had an old wooden floor with holes in it, big enough to see the brown dirt the shacks were built on. The walls of the shack also had holes, allowing the wind and cold to whip through the small home. Any heat was provided by a stove in the bedroom.”

According to Douglas, his grandmother, Maggie Davis, was the one who added discipline to his young life.

“I got a lot of whippings,” Douglas told Sesker. “I think I got a beating almost every day from my grandmother when I was 7 and 8 years old. I always did my chores, but I would come home later than I was supposed to. I also got in trouble because my clothes might be torn up from playing sports or getting in a fight.”

When his grandfather, Anthony Davis, died when Bobby was eight, so too did much of the things that most kids enjoy.

“We didn’t have any money,” Douglas said. “We were lucky to have food. I didn’t get any Christmas presents after that.”

Their home did have a radio, in which Bobby listened to the fights of Joe Louis and the eventual exploits of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.

“Those top black athletes became heroes of mine,” Douglas told Sesker. “They inspired me to try and do something similar to what they did. Those guys gave me hope.”

But according to Sesker, the Klu Klux Klan had an impact on African-Americans at this location and time in U.S. history.

“Everybody carried some sort of weapon to defend themselves in those days,” Bobby said. “It wasn’t unusual to see people with guns, knives, ice picks, baseball bats … whatever they could find to protect themselves. It was scary. You had to sleep with one eye open if you lived at Stop 32.”

Sports and the diversity of this Ohio community, which included playmates Phil and Joe Niekro (who later made their names in major league baseball) and future Boston Celtic legend John Havlicek, also helped Douglas deal with the racism that occurred during his childhood.

One such moment came when someone yelled, “Strike that nigger out,” according to the book, which pointed out that Niekro’s father went up to that fan and said, “We don’t talk that way around here.”

“All the Niekros were unbelievable people,” said Douglas, who was on a team with Joe Niekro that came within one win of playing in the Little League World Series. “They were gentlemen. They were total class acts all the way. They treated people with respect — even as kids they were that way.”

Wrestling eventually came into Douglas’ life when, “An Irish Catholic priest came into his neighborhood and organized the kids to wrestle on the lawn in front of the post office,” according to Sesker, who points out that Douglas weighed no more than 50 pounds in the early 1950s.

“Wrestling became my security blanket,” Douglas told the author. “I fell in love with the sport. I was small and I was a minority, but wrestling helped me gain the respect of a lot of people.”

According to the book, the first competitive wrestling match that Douglas saw was also the first he competed in as a freshman in 1957 at Bridgeport High School.

His high school coach George Kovalick, a 5-foot-9 man of Czech descent and a former World War II machine gunner, also became his mentor who would remind Douglas and others to not be satisfied until “they got it right.”

“At times, he had a hair-trigger temper,” Douglas told Sesker. “You didn’t want to (tick) him off. If you did, you wanted to run and hide so he couldn’t find you.”

But Kovalick was also the man who inspired Douglas — by showing him a film of Jesse Owens winning an Olympic gold medal in track in 1936 — to win an Ohio state championship as a sophomore at 112 pounds in 1959 … and another in 1961.

Kovalick also helped Douglas deal with his poverty — “I knew we were poor because I was always hungry,” Douglas told Sesker — including his sophomore year when there was no Thanksgiving feast … until Kovalick showed up with a turkey.

“It was a special occasion for Coach. And a very special occasion for us. That was the kind of person he was — very selfless and very generous,” said Douglas in the book, adding that Kovalick reminded him of his educational needs. “Give something back,” Kovalick repeated to his athletes according to the book. “Give something back.”

Douglas would eventually follow Kovalick to West Liberty College, a small NAIA college in Wheeling, W. Va., where Douglas won an NAIA championship as a freshman and finished second at the NCAA tournament as a sophomore in 1963 when small college champs were also allowed to compete.

“Bobby would head snap a guy down so hard there would be a divot in the mat,” recalled Dave Bennett, a Douglas rival at Jamestown College, who later became USA Wrestling’s National Developmental Freestyle Coach. “It was like a watermelon hitting the floor when his opponent’s head hit the mat.”

The year 1963 was also about the time that Douglas made his first World Team … in Greco-Roman wrestling … and he decided to transfer to a Division I school, Oklahoma State, which at that time had won 23 NCAA team titles.

Forced to sit out the 1964 season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, Douglas focused on making the 1964 Olympic Team in freestyle and trained at the New York Athletic Club, which did not allow black athletes to compete.

“Some other wrestlers found a solution,” Sesker wrote. “They wrapped Douglas in large white sheets, sneaking him in and out of the back door of the large facility in Manhattan.”

“It was crazy,” Douglas told Sesker. “The Japanese wrestlers were allowed to walk through the front door of the New York Athletic Club, even though the U.S. had just fought against Japan in World War II.”

Douglas eventually competed in the Tokyo Olympics, where he went 4-1, losing only to bronze-medal winner Nodar Chochaschvili of Russia.

“I really hadn’t wrestled much freestyle at that point, and I really didn’t even know the rules that well,” Douglas told Sesker. “I was used to wrestling the collegiate style, where you rolled around on your back a lot and wrestled down on the mat more. I had to learn I couldn’t wrestle that style internationally because you would give up points when you exposed your own back to the mat.”

Back in Stillwater, Douglas eventually qualified for the 1965 NCAA Championships as the undefeated No. 1 seed at 147 pounds. But in a 6-2 victory over Southern Illinois’ Daniel DeVito, he struck his head against his opponent’s knee.

“It felt like somebody hit me on the head with a sledgehammer,” Douglas told Sesker.

Douglas was eventually taken to a hospital 50 miles away in Cheyenne, Wyom., and did not wake up until the tournament ended and learned that Iowa State defeated OSU by one point.

“That was really tough,” Douglas said. “I was hoping to win an NCAA title for my team and one for myself. I’m just glad I didn’t die. I was in pretty bad shape after that concussion.”

Soon, Douglas’ interests turned to freestyle wrestling — earning a silver medal at the 1966 Worlds — and this was also about the time Douglas began a rivalry with Dan Gable, first on the mat where Douglas defeated Gable, 11-1, at the 1968 Olympic Team Trials.

“I went in with a lot of confidence against Douglas, but technically he just took me apart,” Gable, then a college sophomore, recalled. “That was the first time I ever felt like I had my butt kicked. He hit me with a headlock and also got one good bear hug on me. He whipped me by a good 10 points. I knew my positions had to be better, and I couldn’t make mistakes by being overaggressive. That match taught me I needed to be technical and tactical.”

Of course, Gable went on to win a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and soon after that, both he and Douglas started their coaching careers … which led to historical encounters.

While most know that Gable’s Iowa Hawkeyes usually defeated Douglas’ Iowa State teams between 1993 and 2006, when the Cyclones never beat the Hawkeyes in a dual and finished second behind Iowa twice (1996, 2000) at the NCAAs.

But there was a year — 1988 when Douglas was in his 14th year as head coach at Arizona State — that Douglas’ Sun Devils topped Iowa in the NCAA team race … despite the fact that ASU did not feature one champion. But all seven of Douglas’ entries finished among the top six at their weight class, including Chip Park, who lost a second-round match but won six consolation matches to claim third at 126 pounds … thanks in large part to Douglas’ motivation.

“I wasn’t a great technician, but I was in great shape,” Park told Sesker. “Bobby pushed me hard and he had me in the best shape of my life. He trained us to be in shape to wrestle hard for 10 straight minutes — seven minutes of regulation and three minutes of overtime. We trained so hard that I thought I was going to die. Nobody trained harder than us — nobody. I knew when a match went into overtime that I wasn’t going to lose.”

Douglas, who was also one of the first authors of wrestling training books, used his success at ASU to earn the job at Iowa State, where he produced ten champions and 51 All-Americans in 14 years.

And no Cyclone during Douglas’ tenure was better known than Cael Sanderson, who became the first collegiate wrestler to win four NCAA championships and complete a career undefeated (159-0).

Sesker’s book does an excellent job of looking at Sanderson’s final NCAA tournament in 2002, when the Cyclone beat Lehigh’s Jon Trenge at 197 pounds in Albany, N.Y., and eventually capture his fourth O.W. honor and third Hodge Trophy.

“There were more nerves than usual, but the bottom line was I knew I should win if I moved my hands and moved my feet. I knew I had the ability to do it,” Sanderson said. “Coach Douglas had confidence in me and he had prepared me for this moment. The people close to me believed in me, and that was important.”

Two years later, Douglas was matside at the 2004 Athens Olympics where Sanderson won a gold medal in freestyle … and eventually Douglas’ prized wrestler became an assistant coach in Ames.

Unfortunately, there became a time, spring 2006, when Sanderson replaced Douglas, who still had two more years on his contract.

“It was a real tricky situation, and kind of a weird deal,” said Sanderson, who was in tears the day he took the Cyclone job. “I was looking at interviewing at another school and they offered me the head coaching job at ISU. It was tough to see Coach Douglas step down. Real tough.”

And of course, Sanderson headed the ISU program for three years before taking over at Penn State.

“If I knew what was going to happen with Cael, we would’ve never made the change when he took over for Bobby,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard told Sesker. “It bothers me that Bobby got sacrificed for the good of Iowa State. It will always bother me for the rest of my life that Bobby’s career got cut short for Cael to be the head coach and Cael’s no longer the head coach at Iowa State.”

Nowadays, Douglas, who turns 69 this March, still lives in Ames and remains active coaching wrestlers in freestyle, while he also works to get more inner-city kids involved with the sport.

“My hope is that wrestling can save a lot of those kids,” Douglas told Sesker, “like it saved me.”

(The book, which will be available by March 1, can be ordered at http://www.bobbydouglasbook.com.)

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