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Deaths in the college wrestling family hit hard, no matter the age

Recent deaths have in the college wrestling community have made the wrestling mat a bit lonelier place
Recent deaths have in the college wrestling community have made the wrestling mat a bit lonelier place
Photo courtesy, used with permission

It’s never easy to write about the passing of someone who has given so much of their lives to the sport of wrestling, whether they have enjoyed a long, rich life that spans numerous decades… or are just embarking on their college careers.

For this writer, this summer has been especially hard in that regard... and even tougher this past week, at both ends of the age spectrum. In the past few days, College Wrestling Examiner has paid tribute to Edor Nelson, founder of the wrestling program at Minnesota’s Augsburg College more than 65 years ago, who passed away days after celebrating his 100th birthday… and to four young men from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University – three of them Spartan wrestlers – who perished in a private plane crash the evening after their first day of classes.

In reading the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) preliminary report on the August 25 plane crash which outlines what is known to have happened -- based on eyewitness accounts, pilot-to-controller conversation, and an initial inspection of the wreckage -- one can’t help but be devastated with the realization of how a fun event among four classmates – a nighttime sightseeing flight over Cleveland -- could turn tragic in the two minutes that transpired from takeoff to crash-landing 50 yards from the airport. Not to mention the fact the oldest was just 20 years old.

Earlier in August, another college wrestler – 18-year-old LaVon “Xavier” Woods – drowned while swimming in Georgia’s Oconee River with his new teammates just after having gone through freshman orientation earlier that afternoon at Brewton-Parker College. Woods’ passing was on the heels of another drowning death earlier this summer: Virginia Tech’s Darren Hankins, who lost his life cooling off with friends in an old quarry not far from campus. Hankins’ parents described their son as being bright and inquisitive, while Hokies coach Kevin Dresser said the late wrestler was someone who could not do enough to motivate and inspire his teammates.

No parent should lose a child while they are still on earth. As upsetting as that must be, that grief can only be magnified when authorities tell you that your son, a Texas state champion wrestler now in college in Colorado, killed himself out in the wilderness. Yet the father of Dammion Heard, a wrestler at Western State Colorado, isn’t accepting that verdict… and, in fact, is on a one-man crusade this summer to get to the truth about his 20-year-old son’s death.

Readers may be asking, “If it’s so upsetting to write these stories, why do you do it?” One reason: all too often, the passing of college wrestlers and coaches goes unreported beyond their home community and their school. It only seems right to make the greater college wrestling community aware of the accomplishments of these individuals who will always be a part of the college wrestling family, whether they had yet to step onto a mat in college (as was the case with Woods and the two freshmen wrestlers at Case Western)… or hadn’t been in a wrestling room as an athlete or coach in decades, having enjoyed a long retirement, as was the case with Augsburg’s coach Nelson.

I also like to think of my “Deaths in the College Wrestling Family” tributes fill a void… not just for their friends, families, teammates, classmates and others who personally knew those I write about, but also in terms of filling an information gap not always addressed by other wrestling media. That notion is reinforced by the fact that these stories tend to rank among my most-read features according to Google Analytics readership counts. I sense that others within the college wrestling family also seek to pay tribute to their “kin” who have contributed to the sport.

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