Coach officiates weddings of 32 former wrestlers

Updated: December 5, 2023

Photo: Brian Swafford (left), a former assistant coach at New London, Iowa, has married 32 of his former wrestlers, including Justin Carter and his wife Breanna.

By Sandy Stevens

In October, Brian Swafford was honored by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Iowa Chapter with the state’s Gold Standard Assistant Coach Award. But his former wrestlers — 32 of them, in fact — have paid him tribute for decades by asking him to officiate their weddings.

A New London High School assistant coach for the past 36 years and New London junior high coach for 26 years, Brian, 64, has also been the senior pastor at New Song Christian Life Church in Lowell for 26 years.

He’s also served as a volunteer youth leader and elder since 1981 and has been involved in youth ministry for more than 40 years. “It was an opportunity to get to know kids,” he said, “and a lot of kids I coached have been in my youth groups.”

Those he’s wed included Justin Garvey, Brian’s first state champion in 2002, who went on to coach at Mid-Prairie; three wrestlers who competed against Brian’s teams; and a volunteer assistant coach who married the widow of a former coach.

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“From May to June, I did the weddings of four former wrestlers,” he said. “But I’ve had some hard times. I’ve done four or five funerals for former wrestlers.”

Brian readily emphasizes the parallels between headlocks and wedlock.

In the first wedding he conducted, he said, “I reminded the groom — and others — that some of the keys to being successful in wrestling are some of the keys to being successful in your marriage: you have to sacrifice; be patient; you get out of it what you put in.

“Trust and believe in the process, in the relationship. It’s a ton of work, but it doesn’t feel like work,” he said.

When Corbin and Sarah Brumwell planned their 2012 wedding, the only officiant Corbin considered was his junior high and high school coach from 1995-2001.

“He was so much a part of my life growing up, of my becoming a man,” Corbin explained. “He was a phenomenal coach who taught me so much. He was the best to be around.”

Wrestling also finds its way into Brian’s Sunday messages.

“I wish I had a dollar for every wrestling sermon I’ve preached!” he exclaimed.

Brian and Elissa, his wife of 41 years, are the parents of daughters Bethany and Angela and son Jon, all of whom have been involved in sports in some way. 

“Jon never saw a mat until junior high, but he wrestled varsity all four years of high school and placed once in state,” Brian said.

Brian himself grew up with a twin brother, Kevin, and another brother, Mark, whose son Brennan wrestles for the Iowa Hawkeyes after capturing two NAIA titles for Graceland.

The three siblings were four-sport athletes at Mediapolis. “We came from a basketball family,” Brian recalled, “but we weren’t very tall. I was better at baseball, but wrestling was unique. It demanded I learned the most from it.”

He went out for wrestling in eighth grade when his first match, ironically, was against New London.

“I remember starting out like it was yesterday,” he said. “Wrestling can humble you so fast, and we need that. All of us have challenges and struggles.”

After his parents divorced his senior year, Brian said, “Wrestling got me through that season. It kept me focused, going in a direction; I didn’t just spiral.”

That year he was also an all-state pitcher for the Burlington Hawkeyes and played in the state’s first All-Star Shrine Game. 

“I may have given up the first home run in its history,” he pointed out.

Brian accepted a baseball scholarship to Muscatine Community College, ranked sixth in the country, but found he was “climbing the walls” in the winter. He took up judo, placed third in the state and qualified for nationals, but then he dropped out of school. 

“I needed to get grounded,” he explained.

He worked for the trucking industry for 20 years and did some wrestling, but a shoulder injury resulted in surgery and rehab.

“I thought sports was kind of over for me,” Brian recalled, “But my wife encouraged me to get a coaching certification.”

Fortunately, he listened to her. That advice led to his serving as New London High School’s assistant coach for 36 years and the junior high coach for 26 years until his retirement this year.

Among his top coaching achievements, he lists helping coach New London’s four-time state champ Marcel Lopez in becoming the state’s 30th four-timer in 2022; and the state’s all-time career wins leader, Dom Lopez; mentoring 44 wrestlers with more than 100 wins and two with more than 200 victories; being named Iowa’s 2017 Junior High Coach of the Year; and coaching his own son.

Brian coached other sports at the junior high level, too. 

“I mostly enjoyed helping the junior high and teaching fundamentals,” he said. “I want to be the first coaching experience they’re going to get. If I have a positive relationship with them, I could help with their problems even into their careers.”

Whether it’s grapplers in the wrestling room or young men in pre-marital counseling, Brian said, he’s usually just referred to as “Coach.”

“It was all ministry to me,” he said.

(Sandy Stevens is a long-time public address announcer of national and international events and was named to the National Hall of Fame in 1998.)