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There is no quit in WIN Journalist of the Year K.J. Pilcher

By Mike Finn

Anyne who knows K.J. Pilcher — especially his Facebook friends, who follow his many humorous real-life adventures with his wife, Kristine, and daughters, Keely, 13, and Katie, 11 — will tell you this sportswriter of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette is a man of many words and stories.

But, there are some subjects that leave this 43-year-old man speechless. It took him nearly a minute to emotionally compose himself as he talked about his former college wrestling coach Al Baxter.

K.J. Pilcher

Pilcher was not one of the six NCAA Division III national champions or 71 All-Americans at Buena Vista that wrestled for Baxter, the Hall of Fame coach who retired in 2004 after 26 years at the BV helm. Nor did Pilcher see much varsity action for this school in Storm Lake, Iowa, in the 1990s. But this native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, takes pride in the fact that he lasted four years under Baxter … because of something Baxter told Pilcher after his sophomore year.

“I went into his office because I was getting tired from getting my butt kicked day in and day out and said, ‘I’m done,’ ” recalled Pilcher, whose older brother Larry earned All-American honors at BV and helped bring K.J., a former Cedar Rapids Washington wrestler to this school and Baxter.

“(Baxter) said, ‘Let me tell you one thing: Quitting is hard the first time you do it, but will get easier the next times. What are you going to quit next? Are you going to quit school? Are you going to quit a job? Are you going to quit a marriage? Are you going to quit life?”

Pilcher said Baxter offered him two days away from the program to make such a decision. Pilcher only needed one: he would remain.

“Today, I am so scared to quit anything in my life,” Pilcher said. “That was the lesson he taught me. I was more than just a wrestler to him.

“He was just as invested in me as a person and wanted me to be the best person that I could be as he was with any of his All-Americans. I know he is just as proud of me now as a writer and someone who is contributing to the sport. I am so forever grateful for that.

Pilcher eventually earned his degree and was hired by the Gazette in 1999 and eventually became the wrestling beat writer and uses the same skills he learned as a wrestler.

“You have to put in long hours,” Pilcher said. “There is a sacrifice involved. And there are times that you fail; times where you are covering an event and you get ‘stuck’ and you feel awful. But you just pick yourself up and realize I have another story to write tomorrow and get right back to it.

“Just like in wrestling, you have to have a passion for what you are doing or you are not going to make it. (Sports journalists) are not in it to get rich. You have to love what you are doing. Those are the life lessons that carry over from wrestling.”

Pilcher said he has covered every level of the sport, gaining a reputation as someone who handles his job with the same passion that he had as a wrestler.

And it’s that passion that earned Pilcher WIN Magazine’s 2018 Journalist of the Year award.

Pilcher takes pride in following in the footsteps of Mike Chapman, WIN’s founder, who made wrestling important as a former editor at the Gazette. And J.R. Ogden, the current Gazette sports editor who hired him. Both have also won WIN Journalist awards.

“The sport of wrestling needs more writers like K.J., those who are as passionate about the sport as the wrestlers themselves,” said Ogden. “With his background as a wrestler, K.J. captures what the wrestlers are thinking and feeling when they compete — and why they train and compete the way they do. His coverage of high school, college and international wrestling makes The Gazette a go-to source for wrestling.”

Pilcher’s actually name is Kenneth James, but has lived his life as K.J.

“It was easier to separate me from my dad (who was also named Kenneth). Someone said I could not pronounce Kenneth and also my brother liked K.J. better so he gave me the nickname that stuck,” he said.

And K.J. is what people in wrestling call him, whether it’s fellow journalists, coaches, wrestlers or fans, including Iowa Hawkeye fans, who are one of the strongest and most opinionated fan bases in the country.

“The fan base has not been that hard to deal with,” he said. “They demand a lot out of the team that they follow and they demand a lot of coverage. They expect you to be knowledgeable. You have to know what you are doing. You have to work hard and serve what they are looking for.”

Growing up as a wrestling fan in Iowa, Pilcher is now forced to ask tough questions to those former wrestlers, who are now college or high school coaches that he covers.

“Sometimes if you don’t ask questions the right way, things can get tense,” said Pilcher. “Being someone who has to ask those questions, after being someone you used to watch and look up to, it is hard to separate that. But I have a job to do and I have to be professional.”

Pilcher’s versatility as a journalist, which leads to live wrestling announcing for a local TV station, podcasts and online reporting, also keeps Pilcher employable at a time when newspapers are cutting positions. He credits that to his mass communication degree at Buena Vista.

“Last year in Cleveland, we were doing Facebook Live broadcasts in between sessions,” he said. “I remember the first NCAA Championships I covered with J.R. in St. Louis in 2009, that wasn’t the case. You simply sit and watch, then write. Now you have to get and post videos as well. It’s fun and makes it exciting.”

Pilcher, who also covers minor league baseball and other prep sports, credits his wife for helping raise their daughters.

“Kris is almost a single parent during wrestling season because it demands so much of my time,” said Pilcher, who covets his parental time with their girls, who are also talented athletes. He wastes no time sharing the same lessons he once learned.

We shared these rules with each other every morning: work hard, have fun and do your best,” Pilcher said. “If you do those three things, you will be successful, regardless of the results. That’s what I learned from wrestling.”

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