USA Wrestling Black History Month:...

Black History Month: Trailblazers opened doors for future generations

By USA Wrestling | Feb. 27, 2015, 10 a.m. (ET)

Kenny Monday battles Alexander Savko of Belarus in a freestyle dual meet in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. Monday was the first African American Olympic champion. USA Wrestling file photo.

Trailblazers are those who do things which others have not done before, those with a pioneer spirit that helps change history and affect the path of the future.

As part of the celebration of Black History Month, USA Wrestling, working with its partners at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, have updated a list of “firsts” among African American wrestlers in the United States.

These impressive people may have been the first African Americans to reach certain achievements within the sport, but their ability, leadership and example have opened opportunity for so many others in the generations to follow. This updated list is at the bottom of this story.

Bob Pickens is the answer to this trivia question: Who was the first African American who stepped on the wrestling mat at an Olympic Games? Like many others, it took a caring mentor during his youth that helped start his Olympic journey.

Pickens grew up in Illinois, a big tough kid with little direction or focus. It was a coach, the legendary Elias George, who introduced him to wrestling at Evanston Township High School, something that changed his life forever. George became his mentor and a lifelong friend of more than 55 years.

“He was the first person in my life who saw promise in me. He saw something in me through a confrontation, which led him to challenge me to come out for wrestling. If he didn’t challenge me that day, I would not be where I am today. It comes down to the principles he instilled in me and the toughness I learned to succeed in my life,” said Pickens.

A state high school champion in wrestling and all-state in football, Pickens went to the University of Wisconsin where he wrestled and played football. He was given a chance to try out for the 1964 Olympic team in freestyle wrestling, which ultimately led to making the Greco-Roman team.

“I had to wrestle against Larry Kristoff. I didn’t have the single focus on wrestling like some of the other guys there. I only wrestled a couple of months a year. Kristoff was focused entirely on wrestling and he beat me. But then, if you lost in freestyle, you were given a chance to make the Greco-Roman team. I wrestled against Jim Raschke and won. He later became Baron Von Raschke in pro wrestling,” said Pickens.

There were three African Americans on the 1964 Olympic wrestling team, Pickens and freestyle wrestlers Bobby Douglas and Charles Tribble. Since Greco-Roman went first in Tokyo Games, it was Pickens who was the first African American to wrestle in the Olympics. The three, as a group of friends, made history together that year.

“I wasn’t aware of the scope of it then as I am now. We were bonded closely together as three guys on the team. We did a lot of things together. We were walking together in the Olympic Village. One Black player asked, ‘Who are these guys? They don’t play basketball?’ We all understood the magnitude of being on the Olympic Team, period. That’s whether you are Black, Orange or Green. It was a huge responsibility and opportunity to represent your nation,” said Pickens.

Douglas just missed winning a medal, finishing fourth, and Pickens finished sixth in his weight class. Pickens looks back at it now with pride, saying “nobody can ever take that away from us.”

Pickens finished school at the University of Nebraska and went on to play football in the NFL for the Chicago Bears. As much as he appreciated his chance to be a professional athlete, wrestling remains his sport and passion.

“I love wrestling. Wrestling was my A game, and football was my B game. Wrestling gave me so much great opportunity. As exciting as pro football sounds, there is nothing like wrestling, that mano a mano battle that tests you,” said Pickens

Some of these pioneers not only reached one milestone, but had multiple achievements which were firsts for African American wrestlers.

Kenny Monday was a four-time high school state champion and Junior National champion out of Tulsa, Okla. He was the member of a predominantly black team at Booker T. Washington High School, which won state titles as a group. Growing up, Kenny felt some resistance and obstacles based upon his race.

“As a young kid growing up in Oklahoma in the ‘60s, it was an issue. When I was eight or nine, I was frustrated. I beat a kid soundly and the referee made some bad calls. I got upset, but my dad said it was not going to help me. He said, ‘you have to dominate. If you don’t want the refs to be involved, take them out of it.’ That motivated me. I wrestled with a different intensity and took my wrestling to another level,” said Monday.

He went on to star at Oklahoma State, where he was a three-time NCAA finalist and an NCAA champion for the Cowboys. Monday was immediately successful in international freestyle wrestling.

In 1988, Monday defeated Olympic and World champion Dave Schultz to make the U.S. Olympic freestyle team which competed in Seoul, South Korea. In an exciting performance, Monday reached the Olympic finals. He scored an overtime takedown to defeat Adlan Varaev of the Soviet Union for the Olympic gold medal at 74 kg/163 lbs., making him the first African American Olympic wrestling champion.

“After I made the team in 1988, Coach Bobby Douglas and I talked about it. Bobby was an Olympian and a great wrestler. I grew up watching Jimmy Carr on the 1972 team, Lee Kemp, Bobby Douglas and others. Following those guys was motivating to me. When I knew I had the opportunity to do that, it gave me even more incentive to accomplish my goal,” said Monday.

Monday was not done raising the bar. He added a World title in 1989. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in spite of a severe arm injury, Monday won an Olympic silver medal, the first African American to win two Olympic medals. Monday went on to make the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team which competed in Atlanta, Ga., the first African American to make three Olympic Teams.

During his competitive career, Monday was among many other successful African American wrestlers who also set high goals and reached great achievements in their careers.

“I was on teams with guys like Kevin Jackson, Melvin Douglas, Chris Campbell and Nate Carr. They are still my dear friends. They were great workout partners who made me a better wrestler. We trained and we travelled the world. We were together on some of the best teams in history. They are lifelong family and friends,” said Monday.

Toccara Montgomery was a trailblazer in women’s wrestling. She was a Cleveland youth who got involved in wrestling, and went on to become one of the world’s best. While still in high school, Montgomery was already making international teams for the United States and winning medals for her country.

Her race was not the biggest challenge that she faced in the early years of her career, but being a girl in a sport which was just opening up to women was an obstacle at times.

“More than anything, it was gender more than race that was a challenge. I grew up in Ohio, a strong wrestling state. At the time, they weren’t thinking about the possibility of female wrestlers on their team and in the sport. Gender played more of a role. So much of the adversity I faced growing up, I attribute to my success. In that situation, you break or you get stronger,” said Montgomery.

In 2001, Montgomery was the first African American to win the ASICS High School Girls Wrestler of the Year award. She went on to compete on the women’s wrestling team at the University of the Cumberlands, and in 2004, she was the first African American to win a U.S. Women’s College Nationals title.

A two-time World medalist on the Senior level, Montgomery made history later in 2004 when she made the first U.S. Olympic Team in women’s freestyle wrestling, which competed at the Summer Games in Athens, Greece. She was the only African American on that historic team of four U.S. women wrestlers.

After her competitive career, Montgomery went into coaching, and in 2010, she was named head coach for the women’s wrestling team at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., another first among African Americans.

“Some of those things, like winning that high school award or becoming a women’s coach, I never thought about and never planned on doing. They just came about because of my involvement in wrestling. But I am very honored to be the first to have achieved these things,” said Montgomery.

Being a trailblazer and a role model is something that has come along as part of her journey within wrestling.

“Most people don’t realize they are role models or trailblazers. It is bestowed upon you. You look back and say ‘maybe I am a role model for these young people.’ I do want to give back to wrestling. I have received so much from the sport. I want to show other people how to get the same benefits. If I can do that for others, it is a bonus,” said Montgomery.

Monday also has found that he was a role model for young people all across the nation. It really hit home recently when he had a talk with retired NFL star Ray Lewis, who was a Florida state high school wrestling champion.

“Ray said that I was a role model of his when he was coming up. He was a state champion in Florida when I was still competing. I remember that his coach once told me about Ray, and that they watched a lot of video of me wrestling. Ray is writing a book and will put that in there. Stories like that I encounter all the time. I’m in my 50’s now and I run across grown men who were inspired by my career. It makes me feel good,” said Monday.

Now, Monday is passing on his wrestling legacy to his own family. Two of his sons, freshman Quincy and junior Kennedy, won Texas 6A state titles last weekend for Arlington Martin High School.

“I am reinvesting my time and trying to help get them ready. It is really fun watching them grow and develop. It is great that they have the freedom in life to pursue their dreams. It is really cool,” said Monday.

Serving as a role model and mentor has been a passion for Bob Pickens, who after his pro football career spent a lifetime affecting the lives of young people through work and volunteer leadership. In addition to a successful career in business, Pickens went on to become the Vice President of the Board of Commissioners for the Chicago Park District.

His community volunteer leadership has included the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Michael F. Sheahan Youth Foundation and Boundless Playgrounds for special needs kids. One of Pickens’ current projects is getting African American men more involved in mentoring programs.

“I am a people person. After 47 years, I am still active and working. I connect the dots with people. My whole life has been about sharing whatever capacity I have with others,” he said.

HISTORIC FIRSTS FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN WRESTLERS
- 1949 - Harold Hanson of San Diego State wrestles in the 1949 NCAA tournament
- 1954 - Simon Roberts of Davenport wins an Iowa state high school championship
- 1957 - Art Baker of Erie Academy wins a Pennsylvania state high school championship
- 1957 - Simon Roberts of Iowa wins an NCAA championship
- 1958 - Simon Roberts of Iowa wins a Big Ten championship
- 1959 - Bobby Douglas of Bridgeport wins an Ohio state high school championship
- 1959 - Art Baker of Syracuse wins an EIWA championship
- 1960 - Houston Antwine of SIU-Carbondale wins an NAIA championship
- 1960 - Hallow Wilson wins first AAU championship at heavyweight in Greco-Roman
- 1962 - Joe James of Oklahoma State wins a Big Eight championship
- 1962 - Rudy Williams and Hallow Wilson wrestle for the U.S. at the world championships
- 1963 - Joe James wins a gold medal in the Pan American Games
- 1964 - Bobby Douglas, Charles Tribble and Robert Pickens wrestle for the U.S. in the Olympics
- 1964 - Don Benning becomes the head coach at Nebraska-Omaha
- 1965 - Jim Nance of Syracuse becomes a two-time NCAA champion
- 1965 - Charles Tribble of Arizona State wins the Gorrarian award (most falls) at the NCAA tournament
- 1966 - Bobby Douglas wins a world championship medal (silver)
- 1967 - Clarence Seal of Portland State and Willie Williams of Illinois State win NCAA College Division titles
- 1969 - Carl Adams of Iowa State becomes a true freshman NCAA All-American
- 1970 - Don Benning coaches Nebraska-Omaha to an NAIA team championship
- 1971 – Jimmy Carr of Pennsylvania wins USA Wrestling (then USWF) Junior National Freestyle title
- 1973 – Lloyd Keaser wins Freestyle World Cup gold medal
- 1973 – Jimmy Carr wins Junior World freestyle gold medal
- 1973 - Lloyd Keaser wins a world championship gold medal
- 1975 - Fletcher Carr of Kentucky becomes the first coach with a Division I All-American
- 1976 - Lloyd Keaser wins an Olympic medal (silver)
- 1978 - Leroy Kemp of Wisconsin and Jimmy Jackson of Oklahoma State win their third NCAA title
- 1978 – Leroy Kemp wins NCAA title and World gold medal the same year
- 1979 - Darryl Burley of Lehigh wins an NCAA title as a true freshman
- 1980 - Howard Harris of Oregon State selected Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA tournament
- 1982 – Leroy Kemp wins his third World Championships gold medal
- 1984 – Greg Gibson wins Olympic silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling
- 1986 – Laurence Jackson wins ASICS High School Wrestler of the Year award
- 1987 – Bobby Douglas inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame
- 1988 – Kenny Monday wins gold medal at Tbilisi Tournament in the Soviet Union
- 1988 - Bobby Douglas coaches Arizona State to an NCAA team championship
- 1988 - Kenny Monday wins an Olympic gold medal
- 1988 – Nate Carr makes Olympic team, joining brother Jimmy (’72 Olympics) as an Olympian
- 1989 - Leah Kawaii wins a World silver medal in women’s freestyle for the USA
- 1991 – Chris Campbell wins Yarygin Grand Prix gold medal in Russia
- 1992 - Bobby Douglas named U.S. Olympic Freestyle head coach
- 1992 – Kenny Monday wins his second career Olympic medal (’88 gold and ’92 silver)
- 1992 – Chris Campbell becomes oldest American Olympic wrestling medalist at age 37
- 1996 – Kenny Monday makes third U.S. Olympic freestyle team
- 1999 - T.J. and Joe Williams become the first brothers to win NCAA Championships
- 2000 – Byron Tucker wins University World Championships freestyle gold medal
- 2001 – Toccara Montgomery wins ASICS High School Girls Wrestler of the Year award
- 2001 - Kevin Jackson named USA Wrestling National Freestyle Coach
- 2002 - Dremiel Byers wins first Greco-Roman world title for the U.S. in the heavyweight division
- 2002 – Teyon Ware of Oklahoma receives National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dave Schultz High School Excellence National Award
- 2004 – Toccara Montgomery wins U.S. Women’s College National title
- 2004 - Toccara Montgomery wrestles for the U.S. in the Olympics
- 2005 - Iris Smith wins a gold medal at the women's world championships
- 2005 – Kevin Jackson elected to United World Wrestling International Hall of Fame
- 2005 – Lakia Henderson of Florida wins USA Wrestling Junior Nationals women’s freestyle title
- 2006 – Spenser Mango wins University World Championships Greco-Roman gold medal
- 2008 - Official U.S. Olympic freestyle coaches are Kevin Jackson, Kerry McCoy and Lee Kemp
- 2008 – Randi Miller wins an Olympic bronze medal in women’s freestyle
- 2009 – Victoria Anthony wins Junior World women’s freestyle gold medal
- 2010 – Toccara Montgomery named head women’s wrestling coach at Lindenwood University
- 2013 – Jordan Burroughs wins his third straight World or Olympic gold (2011-13)
- 2014 – Victoria Anthony becomes four-time WCWA Women’s college national champion

Do you know of other firsts for African American wrestlers? Send them in to us at gabbott@usawrestling.org