Wrestling is deep in the heart of Linwood man
Most athletes today have to spend endless hours preparing their minds and bodies just for a chance to compete at the college level.
Such was not the case for De Soto Wrestling Club coach Dean Sheets, who didn't even compete in his chosen sport until he attended Kansas State University in 1947. Now 55 years later, he is still competing.
"Back then, I had no experience and knew nothing about wrestling," Sheets said. "I had more muscles than brains. That helped me get through the first couple of years."
According to the Linwood resident, high school wrestling programs outside of the northwest corner of Kansas were virtually nonexistent at that time.
"I always thought I was a pretty good athlete in high school," he said. "I played softball and ran track in the intramural program there. I knew they had a wrestling team (at KSU), so I decided to give it a try."
His wrestling didn't exactly take off early at K-State. Because, like a lot of students, he didn't take the sport seriously, and he was kicked off of the team. After a little smooth talking and begging, he was given a second chance a year later, and he made the most of it. A year of hard work finally paid off when he made the team during the 1949-50 season.
Sheets' natural weight in college was 137 pounds, but occasionally he was asked to fill in for other wrestlers because of injury or illness. His wrestling resume also included stints at the 130-, 145- and 160-pound weight classes.
Sheets was especially proud of his performance during a match at the 160-pound weight class.
"We were on a road trip one time and I had to wrestle in the 160-pound weight class," he said. "I lost the match, of course, but I didn't get pinned. That's what we were trying to avoid.
"Rather than give up the points, we would have given up due to a forfeit, my goal was to not get pinned but force a decision. That way I saved the six points we would have lost because of the forfeit or a pin."
Although Sheets said he didn't have the greatest record during his college career, he was proud of the fact he was never pinned. That includes wrestling against a couple of Olympians.
Once his college career, which included a third-place finish at the Big Eight meet, ended in 1953, Sheets started working at the stockyards in Kansas City, Mo. He retired as a stock commissioner.
Back to the mat
Because he still had an interest in wrestling, he competed and coached at the YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., until 1958-59 when he decided to get out.
Sheets then started officiating wrestling meets for the Kansas School of the Deaf and the Kansas School of the Blind -- the only schools that had wrestling as a team sport in the area at that time.
In 1964 he started a kids program after moving to Linwood while continuing his officiating career. A year later, the coach at K-State sent out a bulletin, informing other coaches he was starting a kids state tournament. The tournament grew from about 60 kids the first year to 1,000-plus four years later.
Interest grew in the Kansas City area and several high school teams were formed in eastern Kansas in the mid-1960s. Sheets helped jump-start the Bonner Springs and Olathe North programs.
Soon after, programs were started in Leavenworth, Lawrence and the Shawnee Mission school districts. Wrestling interest snowballed from there. Because he was one of two certified referees in the area he became a very busy man.
"I was working four days a week and at Saturday tournaments," he recalled.
It took until the late 1970s before a state champion was crowned east of Salina.
"Schools in eastern Kansas would take a teacher and say, 'You coach wrestling,'" Sheets recalled. "Schools in western Kansas went to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Nebraska and hired a coach, and said, 'You teach.'"
His sons Jeff, who lives in Chapman, and Monte, Lansing, are both involved in coaching high school wrestling.
Same as it ever was
The 75-year-old Sheets has ended his officiating career but remains active in the sport by competing at the annual Sunflower State Games and in some meets.
Among the awards Sheets has accumulated during his 55 years in the sport are induction into the Kansas Coaches Hall of Fame at Fort Hays State in 1995 and being named Man of the Year in Kansas Kids Wrestling.
Although he didn't compete at the Sunflower State Games last year because a car accident injured his neck and arms, Sheets was honored with the opportunity to run the final leg of the torch run and light the cauldron.
At this time in his career, he seems more content to give back to the wrestling community than to add to his long list of accomplishments.
"It's all about the kids," Sheets said.
"It's neat to watch a kid develop from a young kid just learning to wrestle into a state champion and sometimes a college wrestler.
"Wrestling develops character in kids. It helps develop the whole person and keeps kids off of the street and out of trouble. I love helping kids."