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Photo by Sasha Bassett
Two Bulls wrestlers practice at the new facility.
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Photo by Sasha Bassett
A sign points to the Bethalto Bulls wrestling club’s new facility off Illinois 140 on the westernmost edge of Bethalto. The new building is about 5,000 square feet and will feature a workout area, training room, fitness area and large observation room for parents to watch their wrestlers on closed circuit TV.
BETHALTO — In 1987, Steve Bryant and his son Steven joined the Bethalto Boys and Girls Club wrestling program — Steve as a coach and Steven as a 7-year-old just starting out in the sport.
Little did anyone know what that relationship would mean nearly 30 years later, not only to that wrestling program but to the overall Metro East wrestling scene.
The program, then called the Boys and Girls Club Mat Rats, started in a bleak, dimly lit area at the Boys and Girls Club in Bethalto that was only big enough for about 20 wrestlers. In 1989, Bryant, head coach Ed Coffman and then-Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Dan Smith decide to overhaul the program, and the Bethalto Bulls Wrestling Club was born.
Once the program began to excel behind Coffman’s leadership — in 1991, Steven became the first Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state champion from Bethalto and for the Bulls wrestling program, and the Bulls were crowned the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation Dual Team State Champions that same year before winning the individual team title in 1993 — it quickly outgrew its small training area and bounced from location to location for several years trying to accommodate sometimes more than 120 wrestlers. The group finally settled in with the Civic Memorial High School Eagles wrestling program at the Bethalto West district site.
That was until the elder Bryant and the Bulls made the official announcement last week they have found a new permanent home. Bryant and his wife, Barb, are renovating nearly 5,000 square feet into a state-of-the-art wrestling facility that will be the new home for the Bulls. The facility will be just off Illinois 140 on the westernmost edge of Bethalto.
The new facility will not only house a new wrestling room but also a workout area, training room, fitness area and large observation room for parents to watch their wrestlers on closed circuit TV, then eventually an outdoor training course. Bryant said the Bulls are now able to train the complete wrestler — with an excellent coaching staff and the nicest facility in the Riverbend, there is nothing holding them back.
Bryant’s grandson Mason, 8, is now a member of the Bulls organization, and son Steven is an assistant coach behind head coach Jeremy Christeson.
“I feel it’s time we gave back to this great organization. They deserve a little bit of appreciation,” Bryant said. “If Barb and I can make one coach or parent as happy as I felt when the referee raised Steven’s hand for his first championship, then the donation is well worth it.”
After leaving the Bulls program a couple years after his son moved on to high school, Bryant became an assistant coach at the high school level. Bryant eventually filled his spare time by becoming mayor of the village of Bethalto for 16 years. Retiring from the position in 2013, he decided just last year, with the urging of his son and some other parents, to get back to where his heart has always been — wrestling.
“He is in his element when he’s working with kids,” Barb Bryant said. “He absolutely loves the sport, but he loves the kids even more.”
The Bryants started discussing the “payback” a couple years ago, and when a longtime tenant decided they needed a larger facility, everything went on fast forward. The couple decided it was time to give the Bulls what they deserve — their own home. “Anyone who believes in themselves can be a wrestler — you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be gifted, you don’t have to run fast, and you don’t have to be able to throw a ball 90 miles per hour,” Bryant said of why wrestling holds a special place in his heart. “You simply have to believe.
“Believe and put forth the effort through desire, dedication, determination and hard work. You must be willing to sacrifice, you must be willing to accept all the responsibility, win or lose. It’s only you and your opponent. There’s no one else to blame.”
Those who truly dedicate themselves to the sport become better students, better athletes, better siblings and overall better people who are willing to sacrifice for what is important, Bryant says. Several former wrestlers are current coaches, either with the Bulls or other youth clubs, and some are even high school and college coaches.
The Bulls’ motto is “hard work pays off,” and Bryant’s great-nephew Vinny Zerban is a prime example of that life lesson. Vinny became the Bulls’ 23rd Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state champion in 2016 and has his eyes set to join his older cousin Steven in the select group of multiple-time state champions. He has also added to the list of more than 50 state place winners, more than 20 national champions, more than 60 national place winners and nearly 30 All-Americans.
Bryant also said the nucleus of every successful wrestling club is the parents, and the Bulls have an excellent core group of parents who support their kids, the club and the sport. As in the past, the club has an open-door policy allowing wrestlers from surrounding communities to be members of the program. Several high school wrestlers from the surrounding area were originally members of the Bulls program and went on to be state champions for their high schools.
The elder Bryant was also officially named Trimpe Middle School’s head wrestling coach at a recent school board meeting. Bryant said he hopes to instill the same traits into the Trimpe program that are part of the Bulls history. Bryant also said he believes the Bethalto program will make great strides over the next few years with new Civic Memorial head coach Chris Jordan being the driving force.
“It’s time to bring back the tradition of commitment, competing and excellence to the Bethalto wrestling community,” Bryant said.