Wrestling's Last Supper

Old Red Bank Gym All But Gone

Monday, August 26, 2013 - by B.B. Branton

Shortly past dinner last Sunday, one by one the old Red Bank Lions returned to their den; 1960s state champions Jack Baker, Joe Pate, Joe Ward and Charlie Ayers.

No last minute checking of weight, no hurrying to lose that last quarter of a pound before the always anticipated pre-match meal.

But gathering to pay homage, to give a salute, to the place where it all started - the corner of Leawood Ave and Dayton Blvd.

- for the first great public school wrestling dynasty in Tennessee.

While only remnants of their gym - site of the first state championship inn1961 - still stand with a Red Bank Lions wrestling logo on one end wall - the stories and memories were still vivid of state titles and the sweat and hard work it took to grasp those brass rings.

Originally the site of Red Bank High School and in recent years the RB Middle School, the facility faces the wrecking ball as the new middle school is now adjacent to the current high school two miles away.

And behind the old gym is the pit ... the dungeon ... the place where on many a fall and winter afternoon future state champions honed their skills.

"It's the Holy Grail," exclaimed a smiling Pate who had not stepped foot in the Spartan-like 20x25 foot practice room in a few decades.

"We dug this room put with our hands in the summer of 1963 and then a couple of dad's poured the concrete floor and thatvwas our wrestling gyn," said Ward whose dad, Tommy, did the concrete work and Don Downey's dad, Chester, put in some steel support beams.

The now darkened room came alive as the alums, with flashlights in hand and pride in their hearts of of accomplishments earned decades ago, stood in amazement that they could have actually practiced in such a rustic setting as compared to today's spacious, state-of-the -art wrestling rooms in the area.

"We practiced in a classroom my sophomore year (winter of 1963) and then practiced here in the pit my last two years," said Baker, a three-time state champ, who not only practiced in a classroom, but made sure he applied himself between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., eventually earning an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship while winning Southern titles for the University of the South. 

Learning from the Greatest Generation: “Whether it was building our own wrestling room from scratch or winning state titles, the importance of hard work was instilled in us by our dad’s who came home after World War II and the Korean War and truly understood the meaning of hard work,” said Baker.

Current Red Bank Coach: “I need to bring our current wrestlers over here so they can witness for themselves where the great Red Bank wrestling history began,” said Red Bank new head wrestling coach Shane Turner whose brother Rabbit Turner, who wrestled first for Red Bank and then Soddy Daisy (1997 state runner-up), is the Red Bank Kids Club and Club Freestyle/Greco-Roman coach and former UTC wrestler Ben Reichel is the high school assistant coach.

Looking at the former Lions gathered outside the old practice room he said, “ I promise you that we will put a quality product on the mat this season, one that the past and present of Red Bank wrestling will be proud of.”

The Lion King: And joining the Lion legends last Sunday night for one more gathering, was the Lion King himself - Dr. John Farr who ran tough practices for a decade plus before moving to Chattanooga Central and later started a mat program at Chattanooga State.

A Baylor School grad who first learned sit outs and takedowns under the late Luke Worsham and then competed for the Chattanooga Mocs under Andy Nardo in the early 1950s, Farr guided the Blue and White to three state titles, 1963-64-65 and watched with pride as a number of wrestlers succeeded at the college level.

"Our first practice room in 1959 was the football field, since there was no room in the school for us," said Farr, who is a multiple hall of fame member and whose 1963 team still holds state records for most state finalists (10) and most champions (8).

"We had a lot of kids go from grass-stained noses and knees to a few cuts and bruises banging against the walls in the pit," Farr stated with a smile. "But it was all we had ,it made 'em tough and made 'em hungry to win."

But Farr, the author of the oldest in-season traditional tournament now known as the Chattanooga Central Invitational - rewarded his boys with trips to Oklahoma and Florida in the mid-1960s to face strong competition and stood toe-to-toe with the best in Tennessee, including McCalllie, Baylor, Tennessee School for the Blind, Notre Dame Father Ryan. 

And he knew the importance of wrestlers having a solid grasp of the sport well before their high school years.

Feeder System: The successful junior high and middle school programs have been the life blood of the high school program from Jim Morgan in the early 1960s to recently retired middle school coach Jim Wulf to new middle school coach Randy Munn.

A number of state champs have come up through the ranks to help the varsity, from the aforementioned state champs along with Billy Bunch, George Farr, Randy Faires, John Farr, Chris Meadows, Bill Bond and Jim Beatty in the ‘60s to Darren McKnight and Kevin Ward (who wrestled for Red Bank and Soddy Daisy) in the 1990s who helped guide coach Wulf’s teams to middle school championships.

“Coach Farr was tough, but fair as I remember that for some reason I, as a 160-pounder, was in his dog house and my punishment was having to move up a few weights and wrestle state champions Pez Whatley of Notre Dame and Bill Emendorfer of Cleveland,” said David Reynolds who wrestled for the Lions in the mid-to-late ‘60s.

“To say those matches were not close is an understatement, but I did survive,” Reynolds said with a smile.

And while there was a sense of sadness in each of the Lion wrestlers and coaches that the site where it all started is about to disappear, there were plenty of smiles about the legendary past with hope and encouragement for a bright present and future.  

Editor’s Note:  Season-Opening Night, Tues. Nov. 26 - The new wrestling gym at Red Bank High School will be officially named the John Farr Wrestling Arena that night as the Lions host Ooltewah and Tyner. All former Red Bank wrestlers and coaches are invited to attend.


contact B.B. Branton at william.branton@comcast.net

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