Monday, November 3, 2008

If there were a Wrestling Fan Hall of Fame

Cael Sanderson greets you when you enter Smitty’s Shoe Repair. No – the Cyclone legend is not actually there – it’s an autographed life size cut out of the Olympic champion – holding a giant can of Hy Vee Chunky Vegetable Soup.

Calling Rich Foens, the owner if Smitty’s, a wrestling fan is a classic case of understatement. The walls of his shop on the square in Marion, IA are covered with wrestling memorabilia (and pictures of his grandkids). There are autographed photos and posters from Sanderson, Dan Gable and Tom Brands. You’ll also find the team pictures of the 1954 and 1956 Davenport High School state championship wrestling teams. Rich was on those teams. He finished fourth at 95 pounds in the Iowa state tournament in 1955.

Ostensibly, I had gone in to Smitty’s to get new heels on a pair of shoes. I really went in to ask Rich a question. Last week wrestling history buff, Mark Palmer, posted a video of the 1962 NCAA finals. One of the finalists was identified as “Frank Freeman” from Iowa State Teacher’s College (now UNI). I asked online viewers if this was the same Franc Freeman who coached Bettendorf (IA) High School wrestling for many years – including a couple of state championship teams in the early ‘80s. I got no reply – so I went in to ask Rich. “Yep, Francis O’Grady Freeman – we’ve been friends since the third grade.” Rich took me over to the 1956 Davenport team picture and pointed to a very young Franc Freeman.

Even though we’re from the same home town and attended the same high school, I didn’t meet Rich until about 20 years ago when my wife and I started dating. Romantic devil that I am one of our early dates was an Iowa wrestling meet. We ran into Rich and his daughter there. My wife had taught elementary school in Tipton, IA and had been a neighbor to Rich and his wife. A strong friendship developed. Coincidentally, my wife moved back to Cedar Rapids and Rich bought Smitty’s and moved to Marion. It has now become ritual that Rich and I chat before every Hawkeye meet.

Rich was coached by an Iowa high school legend – Jim Fox. Coach Fox is in the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame and is in the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame as both a coach and official. He coached two state championship wrestling teams, two “mythical” state football championship teams (before Iowa had playoffs) and three “official” championship teams after playoffs were instituted. He also coached a US Congressman (Jim Leach) an Olympian (Gayle Hopkins) and six athletes who played at least four years in the NFL – including Roger Craig.

I asked Rich about wrestling for coach Fox. “He was young then – and hated to lose”. In 1956 the Davenport Blue Devils crossed the Mississippi River to wrestle the Rock Island (IL) Rocks who were coached by Bill Smith – now a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The Rocks won handily. “He worked our tails off after that”, Rich said about coach Fox’s reaction to the loss. Both teams would finish 1956 by winning their respective state titles.

Simon Roberts was Rich’s teammate in 1954 when Si became the first African-American in the country to win a state high school wrestling championship. Rich remembers, “Si was wrestling Ronnie Gray from Eagle Grove in the finals. Si was a senior and Ronnie was a junior. Ronnie had won in 1952 and 1953 and most people thought he was going to become Iowa’s first 4-time state champion (note: Gray would win again in 1955). When Si beat him most people thought it was a fluke. We didn’t. Then when Si (competing for Iowa) beat Gray (of ISU) to become the first African-American NCAA wrestling champion he proved it wasn’t a fluke.”

If you ask Rich about his favorite wrestlers, Gable and Sanderson come up. Ask him to name an all-time Hawkeye wrestling team, however, and he won’t do it. “How do you say Tom Brands is better than Randy Lewis or Mark Ironside? It can’t be done”, says Rich. Yet – if you talk to Rich long enough it becomes apparent that he does have a favorite Hawkeye, “Don’t get me wrong - I know he wasn’t a great wrestler – but I loved to watch Ryan Fulsaas. So many times he would get behind but he never knew how to quit.”

Rich recently celebrated 50 years of owning a small business and 25 years as the owner of Smitty’s. If you’re in the Cedar Rapids/Marion area stop in and say, “Hi”. However, if you mention wrestling – you’d better be ready to hang around for a while.

By the way – if any of you readers know Mark Ironside, remind him that he still owes Rich that autographed picture for his wall.


Jason_Bryant said...

Great stuff as usual.


Jim Brown said...



Chuck Yagla said...

I'm not sure how I stumbled across this Jim, but I've learned something new today! I travel the Cedar Rapids/Marion area quite often for work and now I know that I need to stop at Smitty's Shoe Repair! Thanks for the nice article!

Chuck Yagla