Nearly eight years before Tyler won his first of four state championships, McClure, a mail processor for the U.S. Postal Service, wrote the young athlete a letter congratulating him on the impending feat, folded the page into an envelope and sealed it with a rubber registry stamp bearing a distant future date.
“He had the endurance, the aggressiveness. He was tenacious.” McClure said of Tyler, now a sinewy senior who recently clinched a 53-0 season and brought home the state 1A-4A title in the 145-pound weight class. “He has what it takes to win.”
McClure should know. In 1983, he became Wellborn High School’s third wrestling state champion.
Yet, Tyler wasn’t just coached by a state champion. He was also raised by one.
The same night McClure won his title, Joe McCarson claimed top prize in the same weight class as his son, 145 pounds, bringing Wellborn’s wrestling champion count to four.
Wellborn has since added several more wrestling champions, in great part thanks to what
happened after McClure and Joe McCarson graduated.
McClure started a youth wrestling league in nearby Pell City. One day the phone rang. Joe McCarson was on the other end.
McClure summed up the conversation: “Joe said, ‘I’ve got a kid. How young do you start?’”
Tyler was just 5 years old, but his father had already seen signs of a natural athlete with the right traits for wrestling.
“Tyler was a grappler early on,” Joe said. “At five he was already doing moves, not complicated ones, but he got it right away.”
Within a couple years, Tyler was already competing in national tournaments, wrestling above his weight class and his age group.
Before reaching the seventh grade, he had faced some 480 opponents, and only 14 of those outscored him or pinned him on the mat.
Tyler said the youth wrestling program and extensive traveling to high-level competitions helped get him where he is today, which is a place in Wrestling USA magazine’s list of best 2009-10 high school seniors in the 145-pound weight class and a scholarship to attend Marion Military Institute in the fall.
In fact, the youth program is where most, if not all, of Wellborn’s recent crops of state champions got their start.
BUILT FOR SUCCESS
McClure said a combination of factors have contributed to Wellborn’s rise to dominance in Alabama high school wrestling.
Through the youth program, young athletes have the opportunity to begin training at an early age against tough competitors from around the country, which creates a large pool of seasoned talent. Add to that the drop in classification from 5A – when McClure and Joe McCarson were blazing the trail for Wellborn wrestling – to the 1A-4A competition group, and the small community holds the recipe for dominance in the sport for years to come.
Estimates put the number of kids in Wellborn’s youth wrestling program at about 30 or 40. By the time they reach the varsity team, they could have anywhere from 30 to 100 matches a year imprinted on their muscle memory.
Prospects for the Wellborn Panthers’ “rebuilding” years look good, despite Tyler and six other seniors graduating in May. Returning state champion Dalton Carroll, a sophomore who reigned over the 140 weight class this year, has two more years on him, and state runners-up Desmond Frklic (135) and Chase Cooper (189) will also be on the team.
The more distant future also looks bright, as Wellborn Elementary fourth-grader Matt King, 10, took first place in an Alabama State Wrestling Tournament in Hoover in the 80-pound weight class last month after placing second in the Tulsa Nationals in January. He is the only wrestler from Alabama to be recognized in Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine and has lost only one match in the state in two years. His father, Shannon King, also was a Wellborn High wrestler (‘92).
McClure has another theory about the “cream rising to the top” and Wellborn wrestlers “raking in the state championships.”
Many of the Wellborn men who came of age as wrestling began to take off at the high school are now fathers, and their sons have the advantage of drawing from the older generations’ experience and knowledge.
“There’s a lineage of athletes,” McClure said. “Now they’re starting to drawn in cousins and friends.”
As long as Wellborn keeps its youth program, McClure expects that Panther wrestling will continue to get better.
McClure counts Tyler as an athlete whose father made a difference in his wrestling career.
He recalls Joe’s devotion to Tyler as a dad and assistant coach, even his anxiety when his son was on the mat.
“Joe would be on the edge of his seat, sweating. He coached the corner with me. I thought he’d have a stroke,” McClure said. “You could see he would feel every move. I watched him and I wasn’t sure he was going to make it sometimes.”
As Tyler became more dominant, McClure said, Joe calmed some, but then the stakes were higher.
At age 7, Tyler’s ability impressed McClure so much the coach remembers thinking Tyler would one day put up better numbers than both he and Joe.
Is it fair to say the acorn grew beyond the shadow of the tree?
“Oh Lord, yeah,” Joe said. “If as parents you don’t put your kids in a position to surpass you, you’re not doing your job. I wanted him to surpass me in life, and he surpassed me by a mile. There is no measurement there.”
Joe is also proud that Tyler is headed for college, something Joe decided not to pursue after he graduated from high school.
Watching his son succeed in the sport he loves felt similar to the first time he saw his children when they were born, Joe said.
Father and son, two-time state champion and newly minted four-timer, respectively, shared a moment at the state tournament on Valentine’s Day this year in Huntsville.
Tyler, who had been accustomed to winning for so much of his athletic life, had struggled with a shoulder injury for much of his junior year. Weak and out-of-shape, he didn’t compete for stretches at a time and suffered a disappointing loss at the 2009 state tournament.
“I told him I loved him, I was proud of him for what he came through,” Joe said, referring to the injury. “Working through that was emotional for him. And to come back, the way he came back, how could you ask for more?”
Mostly Joe was proud of Tyler for how hard he worked toward his accomplishments, but he admitted there aren’t too many father-son MVPs in the state, so he let himself be proud of that, too.
WRESTLING IS KING
It surprises no one that wrestling, the most decorated sport at Wellborn High, does not top the list of Panther’s most celebrated sports.
“Not in the South,” Tyler said. “Wrestling just isn’t a spectator sport like football, basketball or baseball.”
As long as the Southeastern Conference doesn’t have wrestling, that will likely continue to be the case.
Yet, no other group of Wellborn athletes quite embodies the community’s identity as fierce and scrappy competitors like the wrestling team.
The high school recently recognized its wrestlers and their accolades with a pep rally. Unaccustomed to such attention, the team smiled bashfully as their coach read their names to the wild cheering of classmates, resisting as cheerleaders tried to get them to copy the moves to one of their choreographed cheers.
While throngs of fans may not fill the gym during the Panthers’ wrestling matches, the community still takes great pride in the athletes’ accomplishments and the renown they bring the community.
“They have the wrestling program in that area, that county,” McClure said. “I think that’s what they hang their hat on.”
Gigi Alford is a student in the University of Alabama/Anniston Star Masters in Community Journalism Fellows program.