2019: Death takes mat legends, coaches, visionaries

Brian Keck competing in Real Pro Wrestling (Photo/Danielle Hobeika)

This past year saw the passing of a number of individuals who participated in the oldest and greatest sport in some capacity, whether that was decades ago ... or if they were still active.

Legends on the mat

In 2019, the wrestling community lost a number of wrestlers who had made names for themselves in their mat careers.

Arguably one of the best-known was Brian Keck, 48, who died in Mexico in late November. Keck became a fixture in international competition in both freestyle and Greco-Roman ... but started his long wrestling career as a high school freshman in Ohio, where he won a state title. He continued his mat career in college, becoming a Junior College National Champion for Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, then headed east to Pennsylvania where he was a starter at Bloomsburg University.

A trio of mat greats from the 1950s died this year.

Gene Lybbert, successful wrestler at two of the top mat programs in the state of Iowa in the post-World War II era -- Cresco High School, and University of Northern Iowa -- passed away in June at age 89. He was a two-time Iowa state championship finalist at Cresco, then headed west to what then Iowa State Teachers College, where he was a two-time NCAA All-American, winning the 130-pound crown at the 1952 NCAAs. Lybbert later became wrestling coach at Blue Earth High School in Minnesota.

In September, Roy Minter died at age 83. He was a Minnesota high school state wrestling champion who continued his wrestling career at Mankato State, where he was a three-time NCAA All-American, facing Oklahoma's Dan Hodge in the finals at the 1956 national championships. Minter later became a successful high school and college wrestling coach.

Dean Corner, a two-time Big 8 Conference champion and 1957 NCAA All-American for legendary Iowa State head wrestling coach Harold Nichols, passed away in Springfield, Missouri, in November at age 83. Prior to wrestling for the Cyclones, Corner was a three-time Nebraska state champ at Omaha Tech High School ... then shared his knowledge as a high school coach to build a successful program at Cedarburg High in Wisconsin.

Denny McCabe as a high school senior in 1961
Denny McCabe, a wrestler who made his mark in the 1960s as a two-time Army wrestling champ and titlewinner at the first-ever Midlands tournament in 1963-- and, more recently, a longtime contributor to online amateur wrestling forums -- lost a long battle against illness in February at age 75. As a wrestler at Maine East High in suburban Chicago, McCabe placed third in the 165-pound bracket at the 1961 Illinois state championships ... then continued his mat career at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where he was expected to be in the hunt for the 191-pound title at the 1964 NCAAs until he blew out his knee.

Fast-forward to the 1980s ... Chris DeLong, a two-time NCAA Division I qualifier and an All-American in 1984 for Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, passed away in late August at age 58, having been diagnosed with leukemia five months ago.


A number of coaches who found success in mentoring wrestlers at the high school, collegiate and international levels, left us in 2019.

James "JJ" Johnson, a major force in Greco-Roman wrestling as an athlete and a coach for the past four decades, died in early September at age 61. He wrestled at the now-defunct University of Kentucky mat program where he was an NCAA qualifier. He excelled in the 1980s and 1990s as a wrestler while competing at 100 kilograms (220 pounds) on the Senior level in Greco. He placed fifth at the 1993 World Championships and was named USA Wrestling's Greco-Roman Athlete of the Year. He made 12 U.S. National Teams during his career. JJ then went on to a long and highly successful career as a coach with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club, earning a place on numerous United States coaching staffs over the years.

Joe Seay and Kevin Jackson coach Sammie Henson at the 2005 World Championships (Photo/Larry Slater)

Joe Seay, 1998 inductee into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for his decades of involvement in the sport as a wrestler as well as a high school, college and freestyle coach, passed away at 80. He was a Kansas state champ for Wellington High School ... then wrestled at the now-defunct mat program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where he was a three-time NCAA championships qualifier from 1962-64. In addition, Seay competed in international-style wrestling. After Seay launched his coaching career at Bakersfield South High School in California, he then took the helm at the then-brand-new Cal State Bakersfield wrestling program. Seay then headed to Oklahoma State, where his Cowboys went 114-8-2, earning back-to-back Division I team titles in 1989 and 1990. With that, Seay became the first collegiate wrestling coach to claim both Division I and II team titles.

Donny Wichmann

Donny Wichmann, champion wrestler and assistant coach at Augsburg University who only recently was announced for induction into the National Wrestling Coaches Association NCAA Division III Hall of Fame, passed away this summer at age 53 after a four-year battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Considered one of the top middleweight wrestlers in Augsburg history, Wichmann claimed three MIAC (Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) individual titles in the late 1980s, and earned All-American honors at the 1989 NCAA Division III National Championships. After completing his on-the-mat career, Wichmann served as an Augsburg men's wrestling assistant coach for 19 seasons.

Jim Morgan and John Farr -- two men who shared University of Tennessee Chattanooga wrestling heritage and made major contributions to the sport in the Volunteer State and beyond -- both died on the same date -- January 18, just hours apart. Morgan, 80, guided the Mocs' wrestling program for 16 seasons, from 1969 to 1983, posting a career record of 209-70-3, making him the winningest coach in UTC wrestling history. Farr, 84, a wrestler at what is now UTC) in the 1950s, later launched a number of high school wrestling programs in the Chattanooga area. Farr also directed state tournaments, officiated NCAA Division I tournaments and served on the High School National Federation Wrestling Rules Committee.

George Heebner, long-time Pennsylvania high school wrestling coach and official who was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame a decade ago, died in early June 2... just three days after his wife Brenda.

Ben Knaub, former Colorado high school and college wrestler who served as a high school coach for nearly a quarter-century, and as a mat official for a dozen years, passed away in early September at age 92.

Ray Judkins, considered to be the father of the wrestling program at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College -- the two-year public community college in Miami, Okla. -- passed away in October at age 82. Judkins launched the Golden Norse wrestling program at NEO in 1975, guiding it to two regional championships, two conference titles as well as a number of invitational tournament championships.

Minnesota Hall of Fame coach Don Dravis -- who guided the Staples High School to seven state titles -- died in November at 82.

Anthony Dunbar, former North Carolina State University wrestler who had wrestled at Cary (N.C.) High School then returned to his prep alma mater as coach, passed away in his sleep just before Christmas at age 40.

And, in a truly heartbreaking situation, Tracy Lee, 51, a long-time attorney who had just realized his dream of being hired as a high school wrestling coach in Florida (having wrestled at Sarasota High School), died immediately after a match with a college-age wrestler at the Sunshine State Games in June.

Men of many hats

InterMat paid tribute to individuals who died in 2019 after having experienced multi-dimensional involvement in the sport of wrestling.

Larry Sciacchetano
Larry Sciacchetano, who had served as president of USA Wrestling, was instrumental in the formation of the United World Wrestling Hall of Fame, while also serving on the Board of Governors for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame board -- and had found success as a coach and wrestler -- passed away in October at age 77.

Frank Lignelli, whose connections to Clarion University athletics as a wrestler, coach and athletic director spanned from the end of World War II to 1990, died in September 1 at 94. As the Pennsylvania school's official announcement stated, "He can truly be called the person responsible for Clarion's outstanding athletic tradition and was the catalyst for the Golden Eagles' greatest successes for more than six decades."

Robert "Bob" Dieli Sr., an icon in central Ohio wrestling as a high school wrestler who then joined the roster at Ohio State, then went on to launch the Ohio Wrestling Club, serve as a coach at all levels (including at international events), and arguably known to the widest audience as host of the popular "Matside with Bob Dieli" show on Columbus cable TV for a quarter-century, passed away in late June. He was 94.

Pat O'Connell, assistant wrestling coach at Joliet Junior College outside Chicago who was instrumental in bringing back the school's intercollegiate mat program in 2017, passed away at the end of March after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 62. He had wrestled at Joliet East High School and at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, then served as a teacher and wrestling coach at high schools in the Joliet area before coming to JJC.

Don Gooder, the last surviving founding member of the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame which honors individuals who have been instrumental in growing the sport within the state of Iowa, passed away in late September. He was 86.

Don Sayenga, long-time amateur wrestling historian well-known for his historical column "The Oldest Sport," an enduring feature in Amateur Wrestling News from 1964 to 2014 and two-time winner of that magazine's Bob Dellinger Award (presented to the nation's top wrestling writer), died Feb. 26 after a long battle with cancer at age 84. Sayenga had wrestled heavyweight for Pennsylvania's Lafayette College in the 1950s.

Died in service to us

A trio of men with wrestling backgrounds died in service to their country this summer. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Scott A. Koppenhafer -- a former Colorado high school wrestler who went on to compete at Adams State University -- was killed in combat in Iraq in August. Koppenhafer, 35, was a critical skills operator with 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. That same month, Army Paratrooper Pfc. Brandon Kreischer, a former wrestler at Bryan High School in northwest Ohio, was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan at age 20, one year after his graduation. And, a member of the West Point wrestling team, Cadet Christopher J. Morgan, 22, died from injuries in a vehicle rollover while on the way to a field training exercise near the U.S. Military Academy. Morgan, a member of the Class of 2020, had wrestled at 184 pounds, compiling a 28-22 overall record, with 13 of those wins resulting in bonus points. Prior to taking to the mat for the Black Knights, Morgan wrestled at West Orange High School, where he placed fifth in the New Jersey state wrestling tournament in the 182-pound class as a senior in 2015.

Gone too soon

Over the past twelve months, InterMat paid tribute to a number of individuals who had left their mark on the oldest and greatest sport at a young age.

On New Year's Day 2019, Alex Sebahie, 21, a New Jersey state championships medalist for Paramus High School and former Rider University wrestler, was killed in a one-car crash on the Garden State Parkway. New Year's Day.

Kenny Anderson, three-time NCAA Division III wrestling champ for Wartburg College less than a decade ago, then served on the coaching staff at his college alma mater before moving on to Cornell College of Iowa, passed away on October 20 in New Orleans at age 29. In August, Vinnie Harvey, Iowa state championships finalist for St. Edmond High School in Fort Dodge who continued his mat career in his hometown at Iowa Central Community College, drowned in Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa. He was 23. Zander Laurin, 16, a Florida high school wrestler scheduled to become a lead petty officer in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps in St. Augustine, was struck and killed by a driver this week while on his morning run.

The year 2019 ended on a sad note for the wrestling community in north-central Ohio, with the death of Jesse Campbell, 31, a 2007 Ohio state champ for Sullivan Black River High (and wrestled at Ohio State) who coached first at his high school alma mater, then at Crestwood High near Ashland, killed in a head-on car crash on December 30.

Patriarch of a famous wrestling family

Lee Roy Smith Sr., father of Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Lee Roy Smith Jr., four-time NCAA champion Pat Smith and three-time All-American Mark Smith, passed away in March… just as the Cowboys were winning the 2019 Big 12 Wrestling Championships, their 53rd conference crown. He was 85.

To learn more about any of the individuals named here, simply type the person's name + "InterMat" in your favorite search engine such as Google or Bing.


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