Wrestling: Don Dravis was championship coach and pillar of community
If you competed against a Staples-Motley Cardinal wrestler during the Don Dravis era, chances are you might have gotten entangled in a cradle.
Dravis-coached teams perfected the move named for its similarity to the way a person holds an infant. The cradle is performed by grabbing the opponent’s neck with one arm and wrapping the elbow of the other arm behind the opponent’s knee. The wrestler then locks both hands. The cradled wrestler finds it almost impossible to escape.
Dravis, who died Sunday following a lengthy illness, was one of the nation’s most accomplished wrestling coaches. In 32 years as the Cardinals’ head coach, he compiled a sparkling 401-51-4 mark (.887). His teams won seven state championships and were runners-up four times. From 1980-85, Staples put together a brilliant run, winning six consecutive state team titles.
In addition, Dravis coached several individual state champions and state placewinners and was the recipient of numerous individual awards. Among them were twice being named National High School Wrestling Coach of the Year, getting inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame and the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Bartelma Coaches Hall of Fame.
He not only was a pillar in the wrestling world. Dravis, who often could be seen going through a series of gyrations mat-side, was tirelessly involved in his community. He was a long-time member of the Staples Lions Club and Staples Fire Department. He also volunteered countless hours with the local food shelf and Habitat for Humanity.
Glen Hasselberg, Norm Gallant, Mark Carlson and Mike Hajek are just a few of the individuals who were impacted by Dravis’ career. Following are their thoughts about Dravis.
Hasselberg had one of the most unique relationships with Dravis. Their lives seemingly were continuously entwined. They taught industrial arts together. They officiated football games together. And Hasselberg was the Cardinals’ athletic director during much of Dravis’ tenure.
Dravis sponsored and helped Hasselberg become a member of the Staples Lions Club. In retirement, if Hasselberg wasn’t golfing somewhere, and Dravis wasn’t hunting and fishing, they could be found at Tower Pizza in Staples, solving the world’s problems with their morning coffee group.
“I consider myself to be immensely lucky to have been that close to Don in the number of arenas we were involved in together,” Hasselberg said. “To be able to experience that — not very many people can say that. I not only taught right next to him, but I worked with him in the athletic end of it, in the officiating end of it, in the Lions end of it. I was pretty fortunate.
“In my judgement, this will be a huge loss to the community and to the wrestling world. He was just an outstanding, quality individual that will be missed by all.”
Currently the Wadena-Deer High School activities director, Gallant graduated from Staples-Motley in 1994. He started in the Cardinals’ wrestling program as a second-grader and wrestled through high school.
Gallant coached W-DC wrestling for several years. He consulted with Dravis before taking the W-DC wrestling job. W-DC and Staples-Motley are rivals roughly 17miles apart.
“When you're a kid or a community member, you think that's our enemy,” Gallant said. “I went to talk to Don about it. I said I felt kind of weird going to coach for the enemy and he said there are really good people over there. We're all just trying to do the same thing. At the end of the day, you compete between the lines, but afterwards you're friends.
“I know he felt that way and it showed. You can’t talk to anybody without them saying good things about him. He was a wonderful man.”
Gallant said former W-DC head coach Dennis Kaatz helped build the Wolverines into a state tournament contender thanks to Dravis — indirectly. From 1992 to 2002, the Wolverines wrestled in four state team tournaments.
“I think Denny would tell you the reason Wadena got good was because of Don, when we were trying to figure out how to beat him,” Gallant said. “I think all the way up and down Highway 10, Don set the standard. Everybody was trying to catch up to him and figure it out.”
Gallant said Dravis’ impact can be measured by looking around the state at the number of Staples-Motley grads who are coaching wrestling.
“There’s a stable of people who went into coaching because of him,” Gallant said. “I'm proud to be one of those guys that gave a lot back to the sport of wrestling.
“We had so much respect for Don. He was a pillar of the community. But above everything else, he was a nice guy.
“What I appreciated over my 20-year career as a coach is being at a coaching clinic or a dual tournament and I looked forward to sitting with him and Mary (Don’s wife) in the stands. He would always ask about your family. He cared about people. He was honest.”
Now the pharmacy manager at Tri-County Health Care in Wadena, Carlson is the Cardinals’ current head coach. He was a 3-time state champion for the Cardinals and competed in three state team tournaments before graduating from S-M in 1999.
He wrestled for Don Dravis only one season. Carlson wrestled his last four years for Dravis’ son, Jeff, who succeeded his father as head coach.
Carlson, who begins his second season as the Cardinals’ coach Nov. 18, said he talked to Don Dravis before taking the job. He said Dravis was always approachable and they talked about things like wrestling philosophy and building a K-12 program.
“I think what was unique about Don was he knew how to reason with kids, get the best out of each kid, and mold his coaching style to each kid,” Carlson said. “He knew how to motivate kids to do their best.
“It was always team first. He showed you what hard work was and he showed you how to work hard. Those were his key principles.
“He was a technician and a pioneer in wrestling with the Staples cradle. But he did a lot of other things besides technique which is what made him so special.”
Being an alumnus, Carlson respects and appreciates the Cardinals’ program and the tradition that Dravis built. His goal is to continue to rebuild the program and make it a top-tier program once again, one that would make Dravis proud.
“That's following in the footsteps of Don and having that respect for him,” Carlson said. “Obviously this is about him, it's not about where we are today, but we think about those things when we're in those situations: ‘What would Don do?’”
Hajek wrestled for Dravis in the 1970s, graduating in 1973. He said Dravis’ coaching and teaching made a lifelong impact on the person he is today.
“People ask what was the chemistry of his success with his teams and individuals? For me, I can tell you he was like a big brother, a best friend, or dad to many of us,” Hajek said. “He believed in each of us and we felt it. From that, we just did not, and most times, could not let him down.
“For many of us, Don was the industrial arts teacher that we learned from and gained confidence from and the coach that inspired us to ‘run through brick walls.’ As a teacher, he created a feeling of confidence to build things. I credit my life-long love of woodworking and confidence to build anything to Don and my industrial arts training.
“The grit that I gained from Don and the Staples wrestling experience is truly a part of my fiber and the persistence, desire and commitment to never give up on anything worth fighting for.”