“Man, I’ve seen prostitutes stay on their feet longer than you!”
Those were the first words Ernest Clay Gillum, III ever said to me. He caught me in the hallway the day after witnessing me getting pinned in a home wrestling meet the night before. It had been my first high school match (after being pretty successful in middle school), I was scared shitless, and I think my opponent ended up placing 5th in the state that year. That ass-kicking was inevitable. Thankfully it went quickly.
Mr. Gillum had been the head wrestling coach at Ann Arbor Huron High School up until the year before I got there. He’d coached state champions and future Olympians, and had been the first Black high school head wrestling coach in the state of Michigan. He’d been a two-time state champion, a multiple time NCAA All-American, Midlands Champion, and a vital member of a national championship team at Iowa State during his own career. Amidst controversy, Mr. Gillum had resigned/been forced out of the head coaching position. Ernie Gillum had his demons. He was flawed.
Just how I like my role models.
It’s been 24 years since Coach Gillum said those words to me. In the two years immediately afterward, he had set about rebuilding me athletically and mentally. He got me into his Wrestling & Conditioning and later his Personal Fitness classes (that’s why I go back and forth between calling him “Mr.” and “Coach”). I got stronger physically and mentally, though he never coached me in a match. Maybe more importantly than all of that, he had the guts to diagnose me, “one of the smart Black kids”, with dysgraphia. After noting my particularly poor performance on a math question on his test – one in which the numbers were a purposefully tricky mix of 6s and 9s – Mr. Gillum grabbed me (literally, as he liked to do) after class. He had studied about learning disabilities and gave me some basic coping mechanisms. I actually don’t know if he was technically qualified to say I had a learning disability, but 23 years later, as an adult whose symptoms epitomize undiagnosed ADHD and the resultant dysgraphia, his diagnosis was spot on.
ADHD symptoms identified, please excuse me while I ramble on.
The best athlete Mr. Gillum ever coached is Zeke Jones. Zeke was an Olympic silver medalist, world champion, multiple time NCAA All-American, and a high school state champion. He’s currently the head coach of the United States Olympic and World Freestyle Wrestling teams, and trained our country’s two gold medalists in this past summer’s Olympic Games in London. Matter of fact, I’m watching him on national TV as I type this tonight. He’s coaching the US against Iran in a dual meet held at New York’s Grand Central Station. There’s a sad irony in watching Zeke coach in one of the most important wrestling meets in the world the day after Ernie Gillum, III died.
The most important developmental aspects of my manhood come from my father. I’ve had the privilege of having a dad who meets and exceeds all of the criteria to be his son’s mentor, role model, and hero. At the same time my wrestling coaching mentors have been Black men: James Bryant and Ernie Gillum. The exact same ones Zeke had. It really is interesting that in a sport as White in its participation as wrestling is, our country’s top head coach never had anyone other than Black men as his head coaches; Zeke wrestled for Coach Bryant at Scarlett Junior High like I did, then for Coach Gillum, and then for Wrestling Hall of Famer Bobby Douglass at Arizona State after graduating from Huron. (Guess he would been thrown off wrestling for a White dude, so he had to go to ASU just to be comfortable with the cat yelling at him from the corner of the mat!). Sadly, Coach Bryant and Coach Gillum have now both passed on, and within two years of each other. It’s great though, that their legacies are thriving through Zeke, me, and countless other athletes and students who were mentored by these two intelligent, savvy, cool, fiery, tough, caring, and larger-than-life-but-diminutive-in-height Black men.
Regarding Coach’s comparison to me and prostitutes:
In my 15 years as a wrestling coach, I know I’ve said some things to some parents’ high school-aged children that were… uh… less than kind. I tell all of my athletes that I will be their biggest pain in the ass as well as their biggest cheerleader. So while I’m tough on them, I’m equally effusive with the praise when their effort matches their ability. Yeah, there have been times when I’ve compared my athletes’ wrestling to various animals’ copulation styles – “dogs”, “elephants”, and “flies” tend to be the most common ones, dependent upon what they’re doing at the time – but like Coach Gillum, I’ve spent even more time working to build and train them up, both on and off the mats. I earn the right to say those things to an athlete that only a coach can, because James Bryant and Ernie Gillum taught me to do so.
It has been decades since I’ve even had a conversation with Mr. Gillum. When my parents would see him back home in Ann Arbor, he would ask about me and they’d update him, but the last time that happened was years ago. I was a non-descript wrestler amongst the many beasts Coach Gillum trained, but he still found a way to profoundly affect my life outside of the sport. And now that I’m actually pretty good at wrestling and coaching it, his teachings there have finally hit their mark too.
I’ve often wondered if Coach Gillum would remember me as well as I’ve remembered him. Actually, he probably wouldn’t but that really is fine with me. I too have had the humbling privilege of former students and athletes running into me or messaging me, years after I’ve worked with them – superstars and superscrubs alike – and telling me how I’ve influenced their lives. Some I remember a whole lot better than others, but I still feel the same amount of pride in knowing that I’ve at least had a tiny part in their successes. My guess is that if I’d run into Coach Gillum before he died, he would have remembered me after some prompting (maybe laying on my back kicking my feet trying to get off it would jar his memory), but would have been proud all the same. You know the first thing I would have told him? I woulda shook his hand and said, “Hey Coach! I’m finally off my back now, man! Thanks for helping to teach me how to stand up strong.”
Travel well, Mr. Gillum.
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has been a wrestling coach for the past 15 years. He has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. Maurice is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. *He’s been called a lot of things throughout his career in education (in every sense of the phrase!), but his his favorite thing to be called is “Coach”.*
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013