Age bears down heavily on Wes Christensen.
Living nine decades on earth hasn’t left him with a virile body or a spry mind. Sitting across a table from the man, you can almost see the broadening weight of each and every decade peering out from behind his glossy blue eyes. Those same eyes once carried a fire that forged boys into men. Now, the every-present flame from days gone by is often little more than a spark.
But on this day, as Christensen sits outside the home of his younger brother, Ike, the spark lit a fire again in those eyes. A dozen or so men sit around the aging Christensen — many of those men having reached a ripe older age themselves. All of them have written short, heartfelt messages in the front pages of a copy of “The Trial of Porter Rockwell.” The book wasn’t written by him, he just “loves Porter Rockwell” as his daughter, Ronda Winterton reports. Those men write those words as they look back to the days where a short, long-since-bald man changed their lives.
Curtis Thompson is one of those men whose life changed for the better thanks to his four-year interaction with Wes as a wrestler at South Cache High School in the early 1960s. One of the first things Thompson noted about his old coach was that without him, he “probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, another former wrestler, Lynn Matthews claimed the exact same thing.
“Wes probably had as big an impact in my life as about anybody, other than my parents,” Thompson said.
When it came to life lessons, Thompson said he learned important qualities like honesty and integrity from Christensen. In terms of wrestling and as a coach, Thompson and his fellow former wrestlers recalled a tough coach who ran them hard.
“He was hard-nosed, but he was fair,” Thompson said. “If you had some discipline coming he would discipline you. But he was fair, he was a fair coach when it came to his kids. He treated them real well.”
Christensen pushed his players to the limit, but not beyond. And they all knew that. Winterton, who met a great many of her fathers athletes, saw his player’s faith in him first hand.
“I had one kid tell me one day ‘If coach told me to walk through a wall, I would try and do it,’” Winterton said. “Because he wouldn’t tell me to do something I couldn’t do.”
Thompson broke down these wrestling lessons down to one sentence: “He taught me to be a winner.”
Perhaps the most integral part of “being a winner” in the philosophy of Wes Christensen was competitiveness. It was a concept taught by word and action, and one that bled through from Christensen’s own life experience.
Born into a family with nine kids — seven boys — including himself, competitiveness came as naturally as the flow of a river.
“They loved to compete, those boys,” Winterton said of Christensen and his six brothers. “They didn’t care what it was, if it was basketball, they’d all play basketball. If it was boxing, they would all compete with boxing. If it was see who can get the most eggs cleaned, because they’re dad raised chickens and eggs to sell, then they would compete to see who could clean the eggs the fastest. Everything was a competition.”
Christensen took competitiveness very seriously as a person and a coach, and not just in the traditional “beat your opponent” kind of way. Sports were about competing to win and doing it the right way.
One story Wes remembers well came during his time at Ricks College when he felt one of his wrestlers wasn’t being very sporting. The young man was clearly better than his opponent and, in Christensen’s words, the kid was “toying” with his competitor. So Wes “hollered out a couple of times” to get his athlete to actually compete, but to no avail.
Instead of telling off the young man after the match, Christensen took action by walking onto the mat and telling the referee the match was over, citing the fact that he, as a coach, had the authority to end the match if he felt it was necessary.
“I’ve seen all of him I want in there and he needs to learn a lesson,” Christensen told the ref according to his own recollection.
When recalling this story to his old wrestlers, Christensen attached a simple moral: “If they don’t want to wrestle, they can sit on the bench next to me.”
Later, Christensen added that he obviously wanted his kids to compete but didn’t want them to be “bullies.” That was a huge key in his lessons of competitiveness.
That philosophy, both as a person and as a coach, first paid off when he took a small group of wrestlers to the 1963 state championship meet, where they took second. A year later, he took many of those same wrestlers, including Thompson, back for one last go. South Cache consolidated into Sky View the next year.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Thompson, who went undefeated in four years as a wrestler, and Dean Kerr, South Cache accumulated enough points that, even before the final round of bouts, the team had secured the first-ever state championship trophy for their school in any sport. No one even had to compete in their last match. But that wasn’t ever an option for Christensen.
Sticking to his unwavering belief in always competing, he didn’t even tell his wrestlers of their assured victory. The one athlete who figured it out, Christensen swore to silence so as to ensure that every athlete gave his all in the final fight.
South Cache wasn’t the first stop on Christensen’s resume. He coached at Teton and Aston High before South Cache, Sky View and later Ricks College where he stayed the longest and from which he eventually retired. But in his years at South Cache and Sky View, Christensen changed Cache Valley coaching and he changed the young men in his charge.
“He treated them like friends,” Winterton said. “If they got sick or injured, they came home (to his house) and mom would feed them. If they were homesick, they would come over and mom would make them a good, homemade dinner and they’d come and work around the home — we had an acre yard and field with a couple horses — and (Christensen) would bring them out and treat them just like a son.”
Years later, sitting among many of his sons, adopted in the fires of competitive high school wrestling, Christensen was as lively as ever he was as a coach. But for him, one of the most gratifying things wasn’t that he coached champions, it was that he coached young boys who later became real men.