Colorado has produced 21 four-time state high school wrestling champions. Four more can accomplish that feat in 2019. But before them all, there was Bob Thompson. This is his story.
By Ray Coca
When Bob Thompson went out for wrestling as a seventh grader in 1954, the Montrose High School Indians were building a reputation as one of the best teams in Colorado.
The youngster did not know much about sports and nothing about wrestling, but he was on a path to be a part of one of the must respected teams of the 1950’s. Ultimately Thompson would become Colorado’s first, four-time state champion in 1959.
‘When you’re tired, think of 32-8’
During a time when wrestling was the most popular sport, Montrose and Grand Junction were involved in a tense, bitter rivalry. Both teams were considered the best in the state and when the two schools met, the fire marshals were on full alert, because a ‘standing room only’ crowd was a sure bet. It did not matter where the meet was held, fans started filling the gym at 5 p.m. to ensure a seat for the 8 p.m. contest.
Only 60 miles separated the two most feared teams in the state between 1956 and 1963. However, Grand Junction was a formidable foe and was the only team in Colorado to win a Division I championship during the Montrose run of consecutive state titles during the eight year span. Grand Junction won the 1958 team crown—which prevented Montrose from capturing seven in a row and breaking the state record set by Denver North (six).
On a cold night in January of 1960, one of the most talented Tiger teams in the history of the school took on the dominate Indians on their home mat and walked away with a 32-8 victory. The Indian matmen won only one bout, via pin, in the dual and tied one. At the time, it was the worse defeat in Montrose wrestling history. Ten years later, a sign was still hanging in the Montrose practice room, which read: “When you get tired, think of 32-8.” The sign was a symbol of pride, tenacity, tradition, and perseverance, and it vocalized a proud program that did not take any defeat lightly.
A frail lad, a fierce competitor, and the first of his kind
Bob Thompson was in the middle of the rivalry and helped lead the Indians to three state team championships during the 1956, 1957, and 1959 seasons.
Many fans only view an athlete when they engage in varsity competition, but there is more to success than winning in the sports arena. Bob Thompson was a great champion, the first of his kind, but along the way to the top; he endured many setbacks and disappointments.
The frail lad, who missed a lot of school because of a bout with Rheumatic Fever, was born on a sheep ranch, 12 miles north of Lake City (CO) and attended a small, two-room elementary school.
Eventually, the family moved to Montrose, leaving behind, as Thompson explained (via email): “Our alcoholic teacher, who would show us reruns of ‘Tom Mix’, and the ‘Cisco Kid’, while he nursed his hangover and all of the playground fist fights.”
“When my brother (Ron) and I started school we were socially and academically behind the other students. Neither of us had the skill to even read a ‘comic book,” Thompson said. “This is where the environment and community support stepped in . . . the understanding teachers, plus the overall Montrose school system recommended special classes to help us improve and play catch-up to reach a manageable student level. I will always be grateful to those wonderful teachers and the Montrose school system — that is why I became a school teacher.
“A friend, Orlando Garcia, talked me into going out for wrestling. I never played any sport or even knew much about sports, before seventh grade. But it was fun and I liked it; we had a good junior high coach (Don Oglesby) who worked us hard and gave us lots of exercise, which paid off because my health started to improve,” Thompson commented about his first wrestling experience.
“Our high school coach (Monroe Horton) was not only loved by his team, but also by the entire student body and the Montrose community. Coach Horton, who was in his 50’s, could do five one-arm chin-ups with each arm. He never put pressure on us to win, he would simply explain ‘to always do the best you can.’ So, I was very happy to be able to attend Montrose High and then real lucky to have three outstanding teammates to workout with: Bob Hollingshead, Dave Shipley and Jim Holman.
“Because of turmoil at home, I wanted to stay late at the school gymnasium. So I asked Coach Horton if I could stay and practice my moves after practice. He told me that I could turn off the lights and lock the door after 8 or 9 o’clock. Sometimes coach would stay and workout with me. One night I fell asleep on the mats and about 11 o’clock, the police showed up, wondering why the lights were on in the wrestling room. They were nice and just asked me to leave and turn off the lights.
“I wasn’t very good at take-downs, so I copied former Montrose state champ Walter ‘Woody’ Martinez’ style (wrestling from my knees in the natural position) and I improved. As a freshman I could wrestle hard for the six minute match and not get tired. I give credit to my dad for encouraging me at the ranch, digging post holes and pitching hay. I wasn’t a polished wrestler yet, but being in such good condition, I was able to be just as strong and competitive in the third period, as in the first. So, I was lucky to win (1956) the 165 pound weight at state; thanks to my school, teachers, the great teammates, but most of all to Coach Horton.
“During my freshman year, it was so overpowering at state, that I didn’t even know what was happening. I didn’t even know that I had won first place, until my coach told me that I did. Actually, I thought I had one more match to go,” Thompson explained.
‘Fat, lazy, and being lucky to win’
After a solid freshman season, Thompson suffered through injuries, plus a stint of ineligibility. The upcoming seasons for the defending champion were erratic and wrestling became difficult just to get on the mat and compete.
“As a sophomore I broke my left ankle playing football against Price (UT). After the injury healed, I was asked by the new coach (Jack LaBonde), to move up a weight and wrestle a two-time state champion (Leonard Lordino); in hindsight, I should have wrestled my own weight (165), because against Lordino, I tore the cartilage of the same (left) leg and was out of wrestling until the week before the Western Slope State Qualifying Tournament. I was out of shape and hadn’t been able to practice wrestling; but somehow I got lucky and squeaked by some of my opponents,” Thompson explained.
Starting his junior season (1958) and ineligible to participate, Thompson said: “The problem with my grades, was all my fault and I was just stupid. Being somewhat popular because of my success and not able to play sports because of my injuries, I had plenty of time to goof off, date girls and drive around in my new car — so I didn’t study or do homework; I flunked the first semester of my junior year. I couldn’t practice and was fat and lazy. When the second semester rolled around, I was out of shape but when tournament time came around, I was lucky and squeaked by again, to win the state a third time. It was two years of being lucky to win.”
With his senior year (1959) approaching, the injury bug struck again. Thompson addressed the final year of varsity wrestling: “The season started good and we had a great year playing football, but I suffered an illegal block on my right knee and tore the cartilage in the last game and could not wrestle until three weeks before the qualifying tournament.”
However, Thompson made the most of his senior year, by pinning four straight opponents at state and sparking the big red machine to its fifth team championship (’50, ’54, ’56, ’57, ’59).
At the state tournament, the ninth grader did not overwhelm the opposition, winning 5-0, 4-2, 2-1 and 3-2 decisions. In his first state qualifying tourney, Thompson went to state as a runner-up at the district tournament after losing to Bert Potter of Palisade 8-6. However, the next three years he dominated at state, winning 12 matches, with eight pins.
The only time Thompson almost lost and pushed to the maximum at state, was during the semifinals of his sophomore season when he nipped Doug Jacobs of Golden 1-0, on an overtime, referee’s decision.
At the time the rule was: when two wrestlers were tied after regulation, there would be three, 30 second periods; with two judges and the referee determining the outcome by voting for the wrestler they believed to be the best, if the overtime, again, ended in a tie.
Thompson, a Colorado High School Activities Hall of Fame inductee, commented on his overall prep success: “I don’t believe I had any better athletic ability, then other Western Slope wrestlers but I had more luck, had strong community and school support, great coaches and exceptional competition in the wrestling room with my teammates that enabled me to win four state championships. And, you know what helped the most, was to have really tough competition from the Grand Junction and Fruita wrestlers.
“I didn’t think or plan too much about what would happen, when I participated in sports, I just did what coach asked of me, did my best and hoped everything would come out OK,” Thompson concluded.
Stryker becomes the second
Montrose and Grand Junction overpowered and ruled Colorado wrestling by winning a combined eight straight team championships from 1956-1963; Montrose won six and Grand Junction two, but Grand Junction finished second three times and Montrose once during that span. The two teams produced 31 individual champions which included the first two, four-time state champions in Colorado history.
It was a bittersweet year for Montrose in 1963 as another wrestler was emerging as a challenger to Thompson’s record. Dale Stryker won gold medals in 1960, 61, and 62, while in a Montrose uniform but he was married prior to his senior season. The Montrose School District ruled that married students could not participate in sports and Stryker had to find a new team.
The 127-pounder traveled 60 miles north and joined the rival Grand Junction team. Coach Carl Cox wasted no time in finding Stryker a part-time job, a place to live and of course a slot in the line-up, to wrestle for Grand Junction.
Yes, Stryker won his fourth gold and helped Grand Junction win the team title, dethroning Montrose and stopped the Indians from winning five straight team titles.
Ray Coca is a former Colorado three-time District and State champion, represented the United States on the first International Exchange Program to Japan, National Collegian All-American and national runner-up, author and amateur wrestling historian.