Winter Sports Heroes


December 21, 2011 by David Gillaspie

by David Gillaspie

(written for

A dark and cold winter makes warm well-lit indoor spaces all the more attractive. Instead of clouds and rain, we seek a clear, dry, place.

Warm, well-lit, clear and dry?

This sounds like an ideal place for a wrestling match, and Oregon has had many of them. Two Oregon wrestlers belong in the company of the state’s greatest athletes.

Sports fans usually think of the midwest and eastern states when they think of wrestling. They expect battle tested athletes to emerge from the barren landscapes of Iowa and Oklahoma, from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

You find the same guys in Oregon wrestling rooms. Athletes from coastal towns like North Bend, from inland cities like Roseburg, and farm towns like Hermiston all rode the wrestling bus to places bigger than they started from. Wrestling loves rural roots. It’s an odd twist that the two who rode it to the first World Championships in American wrestling history both came from Oregon’s biggest city.

While most casual sports fans attribute regional manual labor for successful wrestlers, it doesn’t always hold up. Roseburg wrestlers aren’t always the strongest because they’re loggers in the off-season anymore than Hermiston guys get strong from working the fields, or North Bend wrestlers from pulling crab rings.

Iowa wrestlers might be strong from pushing pig carcasses in a slaughter house. Oklahoma strength might come from bulldogging steers. Wrestlers from Portland, Oregon don’t have those advantages. Kids from Lincoln High and Marshall High took a different track, one that led to world titles.

Rick Sanders took the wrestling bus from Lincoln High School to Portland State University, then to Mar del Plata, Argentina when he became the first World Champion wrestler from America. Fred Fozzard rode the bus from Marshall to Oklahoma State University to Argentina with Rick Sanders. He became the second American World Champion only because Sanders was a lighter weight and wrestled first.

Sports fans might wonder if the two men from Oregon would have been good enough to compete at traditional wrestling schools. Mr. Fozzard answered the question by attending Oklahoma State after winning two Oregon high school championships. As an OSU Cowboy, Fozzard was a three-time all-American with one national championship medal in 1967. He accomplished this with one arm, carrying the effects of childhood polio in the other.

Imagine winning big in a sport that requires extreme gripping strength and you only have one-handed grip.

Fred Fozzard proved he could roll with the big boys. NCAA Championship Wrestling history lists Oklahoma State as the Division I team winner thirty-four times. It doesn’t get much bigger. And he wasn’t finished.

A close inspection of the record from the 1969 World Wrestling Championships show Fozzard as the gold medalist with no medals awarded to second or third place. During a later interview Fozzard refers to a behind-the-scenes deal for cheating, for trying to throw matches by other countries so their wrestlers could move up. Once the dirty dealing came to light, tournament officials paid special attention to the 180.5 weight class and the right guy won.

Rick Sanders at Portland State University poses a different question. Why didn’t he attend a traditional power program instead of PSU? Wouldn’t a better wrestling school make him a better wrestler?

Following three state championships while a Lincoln High student, including 1963 when he and Fred Fozzard were both champions, Sanders walked across the street to his college. Would he turn out to be a high school wonder and burn out, or would he have more in the tank?

The answer came right after graduation.

In 1963 Sanders attended a training camp aimed toward the ’64 Tokyo Olympics where he worked out with a youngster named Dan Gable. His Oregon Sports Hall of Fame citation credits him with beating Gable 6-0 in a match, the only time Gable failed to score. While any link to Dan Gable is impressive, if their match was in ’63, Gable would have been a high school freshman to Sanders’ graduated senior status. Good timing for our man.

As Portland State grew, Rick Sanders blazed a trail no one will ever follow. He finished his college career as the only wrestler to win titles at every level from NAIA, NCAA Division II, and NCAA Division I while being named outstanding wrestler in each. In another odd coincidence, he and Fred Fozzard were both college national champions in 1967.

Besides collegiate wrestling, Sanders was committed to freestyle wrestling on the international stage. He climbed the ladder to the top of the podium, finishing third in the world in ’66, second in ’67, an Olympic silver medal for second place in the ’68 Mexico City Games, then his World Championship gold in ’69 where Fozzard again joined him as one of the best.

Rick Sanders’ wrestling career ended with a silver medal at the ’72 Munich games. After the Olympics Sanders decided to hitchhike through Europe the way he traveled America. He died in an auto accident at 27.

From all accounts, Rick Sanders was a free-spirited wanderer blessed with more athletic skills than an entire league of basketball players. His methods may have run counter to the greats of his sport, but he led from the front and didn’t look back. With beard and long hair, he seemed to have more in common with others who passed away early. 

Those who died at the same age in the ’70’s include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman, and Jim Morrison. More telling is blues great Robert Johnson who died 1938 and was suspected of trading his soul for greatness.

The twenty seven year old Johnson’s song titles could be Rick Sanders’ biography.

Cross Road Blues:

Standin‘ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

Walkin‘ Blues

I woke up this morning, people, I looked ’round for my shoes
You know I had those mean old walking blues
Yeah, I woke up this morning I looked ’round for my shoes
Yeah, you know I had those, ooh, mean old walking blues

And, Hellhound On My Trail

Gotta keep movin
Gotta keep movin
Hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail

Rick Sanders was poetry in motion to watch. He moved with a free form style of the moment instead of memorized repetition, then disappeared into the mythology of sports too early, leaving bits and pieces for others to pick up and use.

That’s the way of the greats. Their legends never die.



8 thoughts on “Winter Sports Heroes

  1. Rich says:

    Great post on some of the fine history of our sport. I’m definitely going to pass this on to my dad and old high school wrestling coach; I know they’ll really enjoy it.

    • David Gillaspie says:

      Hey Rich,

      As they say in the blog biz, push that post; everyone else take a look at

      You’ve noticed a few posts or maybe just this one that works the context of wrestling, not wrestling. The difference is one locks in a positive wrestling attitude,the other applies it. Writing about its a whole ‘nother thing. All the musician deaths at age 27, along with a rock star looking wrestler was a surprise, which led to the 27 year old Robert Johnson and a run of his blues.

      So Rich, for the staff at DG’s B&B and I, do a little interviewing with your dad and coach about the greats of their time as well as their own greatest times. I’m sensing a guest post in the making? Don’t leave a small wrestling world smaller. You’re on the clock, lol.

      Let me know if you have any trouble subscribing to DG’s B&B. (see how that works)


  2. markmmullins says:

    Ah, historian extraordinaire, once again showing that passion for knowledge will drive some to distraction and others to inspiration. Keep goin’ Dave, the world needs you.

    • deegeesbb says:

      To my readers regarding friend and DG’s B&B member Mark Mullins: This was the senior leader of our high school wrestling room. He was a state and national freestyle champion, an all-American from Jr. Nationals when they were in Iowa City the year before I hitch hiked out with our pal Stewart Abbe.

      Mark’s younger brother was roommates with Rick Sanders at a national tournament we all went to in Stillwater.

      MMM wrestled for the Sooners.

      His first year Oklahoma won national titles in football and wrestling. I’ve asked him for a blogger’s interview and he said he might. He is an inspirational figure with a great wrestling and academic story, but not sure if he wants to tell it here.

      He needs some encouraging words and he’s listening. Any help is good help. Thanks.

      Mark, if you know what the world needs, and you might, it needs inspiring stories like yours. It needs to know the decision making process that turns wrestlers into doctors. Only a few know that drill. More could use it.

      Dear Readers, help convince Dr. Mullins to drop anchor for a DG’s B&B exclusive.

  3. Jay P says:

    Amazing history lesson. This is only a near term look at a long term sport though. Makes me wonder how many other amazing stories of courage, determination and outright greatness there are attached to this sport? Surely every champion has one. It seems each one starts with an average kid in an average town, aspiring to be anything but average.

    • deegeesbb says:

      Hey Jay, good point. Every success story has a thousand supporters wondering how they got so good. Each failure is pointed one direction. Abraham knew Rick Sanders and Fred Fozzard. He got a kick out of showing Sanders’ moves no one else could do. Have you seen any video? When we asked how Fozzard won so much with his arm so weak, he said, “His weak arm is stronger than both of yours will ever be, together.” You know he must have hooked a whizzer with a vengence.

      The weird part of the research was how often they were at the top together, high school champs, college champs, world champs all the same years.

      Look around McMinville and you’ll find wrestlers with the hardware to back up their stories.


      • Jay P says:

        David, haven’t heard from your bro. He didn’t respond on facebook. Maybe you can contact him and let him know I’m interested in some videos. Btw, the first year wrestler gig is quite a rollercoaster ride. Abe had a knack for getting the best out of people. We had a guy in the wrestling room my freshman year who sufferd from polio as a child. Abe got the best out of him too. That kid could out lift half the team and beat most of the 98 pounders in the room.

        • deegeesbb says:

          The amazing part about wrestling is you can do it as good as anyone else regardless of arms, legs, blindness, deafness. The good ones take adversity in stride and turn it into an advantage. Those are the guys you want to listen to when you ask a life altering question. Their example crosses all boundaries when you stand back and wonder what you’re supposed to do in any given situation. Set a goal and hit the road toward it. Wear a problem down until it looks more like a solution.

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