NEWTON — Never give up.
Ed Ergenbright strives to instill in his students and athletes that lesson and others he learned as a high school and college wrestler. The Newton Senior High School teacher and head football coach worked through a couple of “frustrating” situations as an athlete at NHS and Central College in the 1980s.
“I love football and baseball, but wrestling is a sport you have to be all in to compete. There’s no fence riding in that sport,” Ergenbright said.
“I was a two-time all conference baseball player at Central as well as a conference championship wrestler. Our 20-minute warmup in wrestling was more intense than our 2 1/2 hour baseball practice,” he said with a smile.
Never give up was a rallying cry for the wrestling community — worldwide — when in the International Olympic Committee announced last February it was going to remove wrestling as of the 2020 Summer Games.
“I was stunned with that news like everyone else. College wrestlers don’t have a professional league to move in like other sports. The Olympics is a goal for them,” Ergenbright said. “Wrestling is one of the oldest Olympic sports and more countries compete in it.”
Ergenbright, who was a NCAA Division III All-American wrestler for Central in 1985, said the IOC announcement was a wake-up call to the U.S. to promote amateur wrestling. The wrestling community did wake up and its campaign to keep wrestling in the Olympics prevailed when the IOC voted in September to maintain wrestling as one of the core sports for the Olympics.
“I was really glad to see that happen. Wrestling is a sport in which you don’t have to be the fastest kid, the biggest kid, the tallest. If you are willing to work hard at it, because it is tough, you can be successful,” Ergenbright said. “I highly recommend it to any kid.”
The Newton native remembers growing up in a neighborhood full of very good athletes, including Treye Jackson, Steve Morris and Todd Rose — all who were outstanding NHS athletes.
“All my friends were basketball players and in our neighborhood, in the Emerson Hough area, we played a lot of basketball in driveways those days. I found out pretty early being the shortest, smallest guy in the neighborhood didn’t lend itself to a future in basketball,” Ergenbright said. “I played one year of peewee basketball at the YMCA and scored four points in that season.”
Ergenbright said an elementary wrestling tournament at Berg Middle School when he was in fourth grade launched his wrestling career. He said he won his weight class at that tournament and thought, “I might like this.”
He said his father began taking him to a few tournaments when he was in the fifth and sixth grade. Ergenbright pointed out that now there are a lot more youth wrestling tournaments and Newton has a youth wrestling club.
“When I got to Central Junior High, our coach Bruce Clement really fostered my love for wrestling. Back then there were two junior highs in Newton — Central and Berg — and we were in a league with Marshalltown and Ames. It was seventh, eighth and ninth grades at that time and Newton High School was just a three-year high school,” Ergenbright said.
All three grades combined for the wrestling team in junior high, he said. He wrestled all three years and had knew he would be going out for the wrestling team in high school.
“It’s too bad Newton was a three-year high school because when I was in the ninth grade, the high school team had to forfeit all the 98-pound matches because it didn’t have anyone that small. There were several in my class that could have wrestled at that weight in high school,” Ergenbright said.
As a sophomore at NHS, Ergenbright was the Cardinals’ 105-pound varsity wrestler. He went 16-8. Ergenbright said his first year of high school wrestling was “an eye-opening experience because I wasn’t used to losing on the mat, especially eight times.”
During his sophomore and junior years at NHS, Newton was an independent and not a member of any conference. Ergenbright said eight of the 10 duals were against ranked opponents and the Cardinals wrestled a tough schedule.
“That first year was a learning and humbling experience. I grew as a wrestler but also I finally started to grow. I wanted to stay a 98 as a junior but moved to 105 and that was a struggle late in the year,” he said.
As a junior, Ergenbright moved into the 119-pound class. He took second in the district, but thought his dream of getting to state as a junior was gone when he was pinned by Richard Herman of Southeast Polk in the district semifinals.
“He caught me in a throw and pinned me. The only way I’d have a chance to make it to state is if he won the championship match. I didn’t think he could beat the Smith kid from Oskaloosa, but he did. They used to wrestle back to a true second in those days,” Ergenbright said.
He said the Oskaloosa kid came charging across the mat and “I hit him with probably the best headlock I’ve ever thrown and put him flat on his back. Unfortunately, we were out of bounds. Again, I thought I’d not have another chance at that, but 30 seconds later, he charged at me again. I got the headlock and put him right to his back for a pin. That was huge for me.”
Taking second at district meant he was paired against a district champion in the first round of the state tournament. Ergenbright said he was to face Barry Davis of Cedar Rapids Prairie, a senior going after his third straight state championship.
“I was scared to death when I went over to pick up my leg band. All these TV cameras were there from Cedar Rapids following Barry’s attempt for his third state championship. I lost, 11-2, and it was the longest six minutes. If you lost in the first round, your opponent had to go all the way to finals before you got to wrestle back. I knew I’d be wrestling again,” he said.
Ergenbright wrestled again that state tournament, facing the previous year’s state champion at 98 and he lost.
“The state tournament was in Vets Auditorium — The Barn. It was an unique atmosphere with bleachers at mat side. There were eight mats on the floor and you’d see this mass of people moving on the floor. If your school had a wrestler at Mat 5, your group would go to those bleachers — and everybody stood on those bleachers — cheer your wrestler. After the match, you’d leave and the next group would move in. It was really loud. The state wrestling tournament was an event — it was classic in The Barn,” he said.
Ergenbright said he was determined to return to the state tournament as a senior and get on the podium. Newton joined the CIC his senior year. Ergenbright won the CIC championship at 126 and was the district champion. He went to the state tournament with a 26-4 record, won his first round match, lost to Phil Calahan of Clinton in the second round, then lost in his wrestle back.
“It was really frustrating for me. Three kids on the other side of the bracket, I had beaten. The Urbandale kid, who I beat in the district, was on the podium. I thought I was done with wrestling. I was just going to college and play baseball,” he said.
Halfway through the summer, the new wrestling coach at Central College, Ron Johnson, called Ergenbright. Ergenbright said Johnson wanted him to come and wrestle for Central. Ergenbright was already going to the area college to play baseball.
“When I got on campus, he and I talked about wrestling. He wanted to know why I didn’t want to wrestle. I told him about my frustration after my high school career. Coach Johnson said he wanted me to wrestle and that he was here to build the wrestling program into a winning one,” Ergenbright said. “He said if I’d wrestle and do what he wanted me to do that he’d make me an All-American.”
Ergenbright said Johnson had brought in a good group of freshmen and wanted him to be a part of the team. Ergenbright decided to participate in baseball and wrestling at Central. He said in October, he was going to both baseball and wrestling practices.
As a freshman, Ergenbright won the wrestle off to be the Central varsity’s 134-pounder. A senior — Dave Smith — was on an internship during the first semester as Ergenbright began establishing himself at that weight.
“Dave came back, but was out of shape. I was set for this big wrestle off, but he broke his wrist. So, I continued to wrestle right up until the conference tournament. The only way to go to the national tournament was to qualify through the conference tournament. I didn’t get an opportunity. Coach Johnson said Dave, who got his cast off his wrist two weeks before the conference meet, deserved to wrestle in the conference tournament,” Ergenbright said. “I was so disappointed and thought it was high school all over again.”
He said Coach Johnson was attempting to change the culture of the Central wrestling program. Coach Johnson convinced Ergenbright to stick with it.
Ergenbright took second in the Iowa Conference tournament as a sophomore at 134 pounds. He was the conference champion as a junior and as a senior. Central won the conference two years in a row and finished second in the NCAA Division III tournament to Trenton N.J. by six points in 1985.
As a college senior in 1985, Ergenbright lost to a three-time runner up in the semifinals of the national tournament. He said he was in the match right to the end.
“He was known for a duck-under move. I tell my football players to just worry about what we can control. This is my biggest regret of my athletic career. I spent so much time trying to stay away from that move that I got taken down by it. He kept letting me up. Finally, by the third period, I decided to wrestle my match and shoot for a take down. He ran from me and blocked me. I lost 13-11,” he said.
“I won my wrestle back match, beating a Cornell kid to claim third place.”
Ergenbright, who was 42-6 as a senior at Central, and three Central teammates — Dale Lawrence, Duane Lawrence and Scott Storjohann — earned 1985 NCAA Division III All-America honors. Ergenbright was named the Central College most improved wrestler for the 1982-83 season.
Ergenbright said he made great friendships through wrestling at both the high school and college levels.
“Looking back at the frustrations, the tough practices, the injuries you just work through and all of it, I’d do it again. There’s a poster up in our (Newton) weight room and it’s a Dan Gable quote — ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’ There’s a lot of truth in that,” he said.
Ergenbright also was a two-time All-Iowa Conference selection as an outfielder for Central’s baseball team. He was the team’s MVP in 1984 and a team captain in 1985.