Roberts, much older & wiser, meets Hafizov again in Final X
Photo: Dalton Roberts (left) beat Ildar Hafizov at the 2023 U.S. Open...
By Katie Finn
For many wrestling fans, the voice and face of wrestling is Shane Sparks. What makes this wrestling broadcaster so good and what makes it so interesting are his enthusiasm and apparent wonder for the sport.
Regardless of how many hours spent in a gym or how many interviews he has done, whether it’s on the Big Ten Network or on the Junior/Cadet Nationals championship mat of the Fargodome, each time you watch him interview a sweaty and tired and victorious wrestler following a match, you feel like he cares about that match and that wrestler as if it’s the most important match he’s seen.
Sparks, whose last name is actually Nebl, is clearly a natural and excitable when it comes to interviewing and sports broadcasting. His unique talents can usually be found interviewing a coach and/or wrestler immediately after a match.
“These guys…I really appreciate all of them because they are so accommodating,” Shane said. “They understand the sport. We’re trying to market the sport and they help us out. There are times I walk up to some of these coaches and I’m getting them at times that I know they’re not happy.
“It’s a hard part of the work and I’m like ‘Holy balls, this is going to be…” but they’re always fair.
“That’s the one thing I’ll say: the coaches in the Big Ten are always fair. It helps me do my job. I want them all to win, which is kind of an anti-wrestling comment since its all about competing.”
Sparks is both a broadcaster and a fan of wrestling.
“I think I enjoy the TV side of it more but I’m open to anything,” he added. “Doing wrestling at the Big Ten Network is such a rush. I cannot put into words what a rush it is when that camera goes on. It’s just the tension.
“They’re great wrestling matches. That’s the closest I will ever get. To me its almost like I’m wrestling in those matches. I’m not going to lie. I’m nervous. I’m focused. It just feels like it’s a rush.”
Sparks knew from an early age that broadcasting was what he wanted to do.
“I remember there was a time when I was probably nine or ten and the Brewers were playing the Detroit Tigers,” said Sparks. “I’m a pretty emotional guy. I kind of got teary-eyed and I looked at my mom and said, ‘Someday this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a sports broadcaster. And she just looked at me and said yeah, that’s what you’re going to do.”
Enter wrestling into his life about that same time. No one in his family wrestled, but he had a family friend who was the heavyweight on the local high school team. Sparks’ dad would take his brother and him to watch his friend wrestle. Sparks found it funny since he was watching a heavyweight and he was always the smallest guy around.
“When I was in eighth grade, I weighed 72 pounds,” said Sparks, who grew up in Ripon, Wisc. “Our entire season during middle school was like 10 matches and I was the only kid who never lost. I was decent. So then, I go to high school and I weigh 80 pounds, but I’m wrestling varsity 103. I weigh 80 pounds and you had to weigh 88, so I had to drink eight pounds of water to make the minimum weight when I was a freshman.”
Sparks didn’t weigh 100 pounds until he was a junior, but he managed to piece together a respectable high school career. He finished third in the state tournament as a junior for Ripon High School and came in as runner-up as a senior at the state tournament.
In July of 1991, Sparks went to a wrestling camp at Arizona State University. Bobby Douglas was the head coach and Zeke Jones was working the camp. It was Jones’ words that made quite an impact on Sparks.
“I remember Zeke Jones saying during that camp that anytime he practices, he practices to beat a world champion,” recounted Sparks. “My goal as a little kid was to wrestle for Arizona State. My room in Wisconsin was all Arizona State wrestling. That’s all it was. The walls were covered in Arizona State wrestling stuff. Everything I wore was Arizona State wrestling.”
Sparks had grand plans, but life sometimes changes those plans.
“Knowing what I know now, I would have never made it,” he said. “I just wasn’t good enough, but the goal out of high school was to walk-on at Arizona State.
Sparks also found out his girlfriend was pregnant.
“When I found out I was going to be a dad, that completely changed everything. That was the end of it,” says Sparks, who now has four children. “My son is a tremendous blessing but I also learned at that age that life is about decisions. And the thing about the bad decisions, is the consequences choose you, you don’t choose the consequences.”
With a baby on the way, Sparks refocused his energy on providing for his son and went into the workforce, leaving his wrestling and broadcasting dreams behind. For much of his 20s, Sparks did exactly what he set his mind to; he provided for his son. He worked as an assistant manager at a Walgreens drug store, then as a beer salesman and then as a car salesman.
Working with people came naturally to Sparks. After only six months selling cars, he had risen to be one of the more successful salesmen on the lot. He was making good money, owned his own home and drove a nice car. At that moment, the story of Sparks as a fixture in the wrestling community could very well have not been a story at all.
Instead, he had what he calls his “rear view mirror” moment.
“It was a Thursday night in May, the spring of 2001,” Shane recalled. “I sold three cars in that day and that ended up being quite a bit of money. I made a pretty good chunk of money that day.
“But I’ll never forget when I got in my car and I looked in the mirror and said out loud to myself, ‘You made three or four thousand dollars today and you absolutely hate this. So the next day, I got on the Internet and googled ‘radio TV film school.’ The first one that popped up was in Phoenix, Arizona.”
While he might have put his dreams on hold, he never let them go. Far from a prestigious school, it didn’t matter for him. He applied, was accepted and made the move to Arizona.
Finishing his studies, he moved back to his home in Wisconsin. He got his first job in radio at a small station WAUK in Milwaukee. His job was to get audio clips at area sporting events. He was making $6/hour and driving a used Plymouth Grand Fury the hour and a half drive back and forth from Oshkosh to Milwaukee. To cover his gas, he would give plasma and he still has the scars on his arms to prove it. Sometimes, he would sleep in his car instead of making the long drive back home.
Less than one year later, he had his second “rear view mirror” moment. This time he was sitting in his beat up old car, barely making ends meet.
“One of my first assignments was to get audio clips from Brewer games. I remember driving to Milwaukee. I had a shirt and tie on. My car had no air conditioning and I’m sweating. I am hot,” said Sparks. “I looked in the rearview mirror of that car and said, ‘Look Shane, here’s the deal, you’re driving in this car sweating. You’re making $6/hour and I said this is exactly what you were placed on this earth to do.’”
Over the course of the next five years, he went from low man on the totem pole to co-hosting his own sports talk show on the air for an Appleton-based station, WSCO/WHBY. His show was appropriately called “Sparks Flying.”
This is where it is important to note that Shane Sparks is not his real name.
Born to Bob and Bonnie Nebl, Shane didn’t take on the last name Sparks until his entry into radio. On one of his first days on the job in Appleton, they put him on the air to see what he could do.
“I walk in there and the guy doing the radio show is a guy named Jim Caston and he asks me, ‘
So what’s your name?’ I said, ‘Shane Nebl’ and he goes ‘Nope, you’re Shane sparks,’ and that was it,” says Sparks. “It was literally a three second conversation but ever since that day I’ve been Shane Sparks.”
While at the radio station, Sparks started up a small website called BadgerStateWrestling.com. He compares it to FloWrestling but with a sole focus on Wisconsin. The website was a success and created visibility for him in the wrestling world.
It’s easy to hear Shane’s story and think he’s lived a blessed life where he got everything he wanted. But as you listen to his stories, it becomes clear that his blessing is in his ability to roll with the punches. There’s the story about his attempts to do the play-by-play for the minor league baseball team the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in Appleton, where he would drop off his resume in a blue file folder every single day, holidays included.
Sparks never got the job with the Timber Rattlers. But in his role as radio host, he had a chance to interview the owner, Rob Zerjav.
“One of the questions I asked him was if there was there anything he would do differently. He says to me on the air ‘the only thing I would do differently is I would have hired you,’” Sparks fondly remembers. “He would always joke that he has a stack of blue folders in his office and there from me because I would take that resume in every single day. I never got hired by the Timber Rattlers, but it all worked out.”
From the journey that Sparks has taken to get to where he is in the sport of wrestling, it’s no wonder that he appreciates the sport as much as he does. He has earned every bit of what he has. And he has also risked everything to go after it.
“I’ve always told myself that you might not like it, and you might not understand it, but you’re always where you’re supposed to be,” explains Sparks. “It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be scared but you’re always where you’re supposed to be.”
Sparks’ energy and enthusiasm for the sport is contagious. He reminds you why you love the sport. And his own personal story is a testament to greatness of the wrestling in the way it teaches you lessons to live by.