Remembering “Rocky” Welton: Legendary Buffs’ wrestling coach passes away on Independence Day at age 83

15-Year Coaching Reign resulted in 6 Class 6A team championships

In the wrestling world of Kansas high school sports, one only had to mention the name “Rocky,” to know that someone was talking about Wallace W. “Rocky” Welton, the legendary coach who guided Garden City High School to six Class 6A state team championships in the 1990s.

But to only identify the man who many deemed the “Father” of high school wrestling in Kansas would certainly seem to be short-sighted. He was more than a coach.

Welton, who retired from GCHS in 1999 after that sixth state title, passed away in Abilene on Independence Day, July 4, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  He was 83. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Welton family has delayed any public memorial service.

Memories go way back in the storied history of Rocky Welton, and there was no shortage of them in conducting interviews with many who knew him the best.

Monte Moser was an assistant to Welton during his entire 15-year head coaching career at Garden City. Steve Mesa, now the head coach at Shawnee Mission Northwest, wrestled all four years of varsity for Welton during the 1990-93 4-Peat state team championships. Larry Gabel, another legendary high school wrestling coach at St. Francis, was one of Welton’s peers and knew him as a fierce competitor. Carlos Prieto, currently the head GCHS wrestling coach and himself having led the Buffs to four straight team titles (2013-2016), and had been acquainted with Welton for many years. Heather Unruh, one of Welton’s daughters, who not only got to grow up with Rocky as a father, but also was the team statistician for the Buffs from 1990 to 1992 in that early heyday of Buffs’ dominance.

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Rocky Welton with 1990 and 1991 Class 6A state team championship trophies. (Photo courtesy Garden City High School wrestling)

ASSISTANT FOR LIFE

Moser, who would serve as Welton’s primary assistant for all 15 of his seasons leading the Buffs’ program, also would eventually lead the GCHS program during the 2000’s decade before retiring. His recollections of Welton are many and wide-ranging.

“I actually knew him, and of him, when I came to Garden City from Oakley,” Moser said. “He (Welton) coached my older brother at Oakley before he coached at Goodland. I was hired in 1983 as an assistant wrestling coach and to teach English and journalism. Rocky’s first state champion was David Whelan from Oakley.”

Moser recalled as a youngster in Oakley watching the Plainsmen football team practice, with Welton being one of the assistant coaches.

“We’d sit and watch practice and then the coaches would play touch football after,” Moser said, “and they invited us younger kids to play with them. They made us feel part of it (program). I interviewed for a job at Goodland when Rocky was the head coach there, but didn’t get it and then got hired here in Garden. Two years later, they hired Rocky to be the head coach. It was a gift of a lifetime.”

Moser said that their styles were different but their goals were similar. Using responsibility and discipline as two cornerstone concepts, he said it was a relief to have someone like Welton as the head coach.

“He was more like what I was used to from a coach,” Moser said of Welton. “Prior to his arrival, I had gone to one of our first tournaments in Colorado and the Garden kids were unruly and rude and it was hard to watch. Rocky comes along and had rules, and he explained why we did things a certain way. Right away, there were no short-cuts. He got the kids in shape, mentally and morally.”

Moser had high praise for his mentor and colleague for the type of person he was away from the sport.

“He was such an upstanding person,” Moser said. “He would do almost anything for the boys to give them the opportunity to succeed in wrestling and in life.”

Moser said he could remember early in Welton’s first year at the Buffs’ helm that they were watching one of the wrestlers that Moser had been overseeing and working with to improve.

“I asked Rocky ‘what should he do to get better’ and his response was, “Yell it out to him. You’re the one coaching him.” He allowed me to coach and it was like I was the one wrestling with the kids so I knew them better than he did. He gave his assistants that freedom and responsibility.”

Moser said that many people might be surprised that as good a coach that Welton was, he was probably an even better educator in the classroom.

“I always thought of him as highly educated and one of the most literate persons I had met,” Moser said. “He was as well-read as anyone I knew. He was a bird-watcher and I can remember going out with him and he had this book on birds, and he would check off different species. This book on Birds of North America was his guide. I never dreamed I’d be doing that with a wrestling coach!”

A history teacher, Welton was considered to have some liberal leanings, Moser said. Sometimes the two would talk politics, but it always came back to understanding what the Constitution had to say and to have the ability to reason with people about policies.

Moser said one aspect of the program’s success during that 15-year run was Welton’s ability to delegate duties to his staff and to student managers.

“If I could get some of the miniscule things out of the way, like ordering food on the road trips and to make sure transportation was in order, then all he had to worry about was getting the kids ready,” Moser said. “Our goal as a staff was to get him (Welton) a little riled up, perhaps a bit angry so the boys would perform better. I remember he’d have us get breakfast at McDonald’s for the boys since that was some of the food they were used to eating.”

Moser said Welton’s sense of service also was demonstrated by his running for the USD 457 Board of Education after his retirement from coaching and teaching. He served for one year before him and his wife, Phyllis, moved to Abilene to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

“I think he didn’t have a problem moving to Abilene at all,” Moser said. “Phyllis had followed him to his different towns to coach all those years. He could be such a contradiction. He could be so compassionate and gentle with people, and yet he could also be hard-nosed with his wrestlers when that was needed. I remember he would open his garage door at the house and then invite the kids in to just talk. He was the only one I knew that could do that with the kids. That’s why you see many of those boys today giving back much of him to the sport and to the next generation of youth.”

THE NAME “ROCKY”

While he couldn’t say with absolute certainty, Moser said the story he had heard about Wallace W. Welton getting the nickname Rocky, the story he was told went something like this:

“Growing up in Little Rock, Ark., he, like many of his young friends, would sometimes get into rock fights. One day, Welton didn’t show up and the other side of the fights asked, ‘Where is that Rocky boy?’ The name kind of stuck I guess,” Moser recalled. “The W. of Wallace W. is a mystery. I was told once that he told his oldest daughter what the W stood for, but she was sworn to silence.”

MESA A PROTÉGÉ AND NOW A COACH

Steve Mesa clearly remembers Rocky Welton watching him and his middle school teammates wrestling at the Garden City YMCA in the late 1980s, just a couple of years after Welton had arrived in Garden City to take the reins of the Buffaloes wrestling program.

“We had a good team coming up and he’d keep an eye on us in junior high,” said Mesa, who was a member of the four-peat Buffs state team championships from 1990 to 1993. “His biggest task was how to control our group because we were very good wrestling, but also an ornery group.”

Memories are many for Mesa, saying that every day was a challenge and an opportunity for his group of wrestlers as they learned under Welton and his assistants.

“At times, he (Welton) would just simply scare the crap out of you,” Mesa said with a laugh. “I don’t think we could really grasp his temperament. One thing that I would tell you is that he was the best at demonstrating a move. He was very thorough. He was long-winded and very physical when he’d show a move on you in front of the team.”

Mesa recalled one incident where he was doing a move with coach Welton and thought he would resist the coach.

“I put my foot out, and coach said, ‘You wanna go with me?’ He put me in my place,” Mesa said. “I went home and I’m crying and excited and told my parents I didn’t want to go out for wrestling. He just demanded respect and you gave it to him.”

Mesa, just one of less than a handful of wrestlers who wrestled varsity all four years on those state championship teams (119/130/135/135-pound divisions), said every day he is in the wrestling room or at a tournament, something he learned from Welton always seems to pop up.

“He molded me and he structured everything to detail which allowed him to get the most out of us,” Mesa said of Welton’s coaching philosophy. “He taught us how to practice and how important it was to have a routine that is special to each kid. A lot of us in that group became teachers and coaches and we learned discipline all because of him. To me, he’s the Father of Garden City wrestling. He established the tradition and he’s the one whose legacy carries on to this day.”

Mesa had coached 10 years, 8 as the head coach, at Olathe South before moving to Olathe Northwest, where he has served as the head coach for the past 11 years. He got an early start in the coaching profession, though, as an assistant to Welton for one year in the late 1990s.

“He was the master and when I was an assistant, I learned more about why he pushed us as wrestlers,” Mesa said. “All of the pieces of the puzzle and that everybody is unique. He gave us ownership in the program. He told all of us assistants that they (wrestlers) are your guys, but I’ll help you out. During the season, we were always on egg shells, but after the season he was such a gentle man.”

Alluding to even more insight into the makeup of Rocky Welton, Mesa said, “He was the kind of the Jedi and he played mind tricks on everybody. He’d put an arm around and he would love you. He was a man of the community and cared about your families.”

Another part of the Welton legend is how he would work with the freshmen and then watch them mature year by year until they became senior leaders.

“When you came in as a freshman, you were like a wide-eyed little kid and by the time you were a senior, you were passing on the lessons to the new freshmen,” Mesa said. “He had his moments of humility as well. He taught me that it was alright to not always be right. He would admit when he was wrong and it made me appreciate him so much. He was the driving force of everything.”

COACHING FROM THE OPPOSING CORNER

Larry Gabel and Rocky Welton had a long and storied history in Kansas high school wrestling.

Gabel, who had a brief 1-year stint coaching and teaching at Abe Hubert Middle School in Garden City early in his career, would find his way to the northwest corner of Kansas to coach at St. Francis. He turned that small-class school into a wrestling powerhouse.

During more than two decades of coaching, Gabel’s teams won five small-class school state team titles (1978/1979/1980/1984/1996), and some of those early years came against Welton’s Goodland teams.

“From the first time I met Rocky, I liked him and respected him,” Gabel said during a telephone interview. “You could tell the kids loved him. I remember how well he worked the officials and he was excitable in the corner.”

Gabel said in his first year at St. Francis, he hosted a tournament but didn’t have proper 50-pound scale for weigh-ins, so he improvised with a 30-pound and two, 10-pound scales.

“He came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing son?’ He took turns with a couple other coaches ripping me and said I had to have a 50-pound scale. I told him it was my first rodeo. After about the 15th time ripping on me, I told him I was sorry about the scale, but if he said one more thing I was gonna deck him. It was then he told me I was going to be ok.”

Gabel described Welton as passionate about wrestling and that he just had a way with kids, indicating that he was always speaking up on behalf of the kids.

Gabel said it was a rare quality that stood out about Welton in that he was admired and respected by administrators, other coaches, wrestlers, and people in the community.

“I think you could always tell that he was proud of the community where he coached,” Gabel said. “His teams were always tough, well-disciplined and fundamentally sound.”

Gabel said he last visited with Welton a few years back at the Class 4A state tournament in Salina, with Welton remembering who he was and had a positive chat recalling many of their past battles.

“I’m not sure there’s anyone who brought more to Kansas high school wrestling than Rocky,” Gabel said.

PRIETO: CARRYING ON THE TRADITION

There have been just three head wrestling coaches at Garden City High School since Welton retired after the 1999 state championship season. The most recent, Carlos Prieto, guided the Buffs to a second, 4-peat, capturing 6A state team titles in 2013-14-15-16 behind the efforts of his son, Michael, who became Garden City’s first four-time individual state champion.

“When I came into the ranks of coaching wrestling, I remember having a chance to meet him and I knew all that he’d done for Garden City wrestling,” Prieto said. “His legacy carries on and he had such a great impact on the community.”

Nearly a decade after his retirement, the old Garden City Invitational was renamed the Rocky Welton Invitational and it has now grown into one of the premier wrestling tournaments in the central plains, with teams competing from Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas.

“Rocky was a great teacher and a great coach and people loved him,” Prieto said. “He was just a great person. I’ve heard so many stories from coach Moser. I try to use the same philosophies and I hope I can continue what he created and continue the legacy.”

At the time of his first meeting with Welton, Prieto was coaching in Ulysses and had placed five wrestlers in the finals of the Garden City tournament.

“He came up to me and said he wanted to shake my hand and told me I was doing a great job,” Prieto recalled. “It was a big compliment from a legend and he assured me I was doing the right things. He was a great man and it’s something I haven’t forgotten.”

During the early 1990 reign, Mesa was joined by teammates Jack Otero and Myron Ellengood as the only four-time varsity wrestlers on the state championship teams. During the run of 2013-2016, Prieto’s son, Michael, was joined by Alec Castillo as the only two to compete all four years at the varsity level.

“It just shows you how difficult it can be to sustain excellence,” Prieto said. “Coach Welton was able to get that from his boys and that’s what we’ve endeavored to do here now.”

HEATHER UNRUH: DAUGHTER AND FAMILY

Heather (Welton) Unruh had the rare opportunity to see Rocky Welton in almost every role he played – husband, father, coach, teacher, friend, and colleague.

“Growing up as a little girl I was always jealous of the other coach’s kids because they got to sit mat side, and we had to be in the stands,” Heather recalled of those early years of watching her father coach in northwest Kansas (Oakley, Goodland).

One of the most memorable moments came when as head coach at Goodland, Welton’s Cowboys were in the process of winning their third Class 3A state team championship, but he was also watching one of his wrestlers – Doug Duell – win his fourth straight individual state title to become the first Kansas prep to accomplish that feat.

“He seemed to have a sense of the occasion,” Heather said. “I remember someone saying to me, ‘Your dad just coached the first four-time state champion.’ It seemed to make it pretty special and it was.”

Heather, a GCHS graduate in 1992, spent three seasons keeping statistics for the Buffalo wrestling team, traveling to all the duals and tournaments for those special times.

“I spent most of my weekends with those teams and there was a bunch of excellent athletes,” Heather said in a recent telephone interview. “Dad would take those and make them superb.”

Heather recalled that her dad always wanted the wrestlers to compete at their highest level and never take anything or any opponent for granted. One example of that came during the state tournament where the Buffs had compiled enough points on day one to win the tournament no matter what transpired on Saturday.

“Dad didn’t want them (team members) to know so the boys never knew where they stood on the second day,” Heather said. “He wanted the boys to wrestle for the team and not just for themselves. He always wanted them to do as best they could do. We had to keep that information quiet so he could get the same effort on Saturday that they gave on Friday.”

As a daughter, Heather saw the other side of Rocky Welton that many students, teachers and wrestlers never witnessed.

“Dad had a very big heart for his students and one time he walked a friend down the aisle to get married,” Heather said. “He felt like kids just needed an opportunity to succeed. Mom (Phyllis) was the calming force in the family. Dad said one time, ‘God grinned at me when he gave me Phyllis.’

It was a marriage and lifelong love that lasted 60-plus years when they married on Aug. 22, 1959 in Salina. Both attended Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina and that is where the two met.

“Dad was at a Tony’s Restaurant and saw a pretty cute girl there,” Heather said in explaining how the two met. “Dad was running around with her (Phyllis) older brother, Sammy, and asked about his sister. According to Heather’s story, Sammy told Rocky to “get your own date.” Phyllis then did the same thing with her brother and he said, “get your own damn date.” It was all the encouragement they both needed.”

Heather was able to see her father in every role he took on – father, husband, teacher, coach, friend, and confidant.

“I had 0 Hour sociology and then first hour history, so I had a lot of my dad to start every day that one school year,” Heather said. “At dinner in the evening, Dad would tie those lectures together at the table. The one thing I remember him emphasizing about government was the word “sovereignty.” His explanation was that it meant complete political authority, at all levels.”

Heather said her dad had a not surprising soft spot for her and her sisters and girls in general as opposed to the boys who were in his classes and who wrestled for him.

“We could sweet talk him and he just had a soft spot for us,” Heather recalled. “The man loved babies. He would see them and he would want to touch them. He loved them. He couldn’t get enough of his first granddaughter after had had grandsons.”

Heather said her dad had many life learning lessons as a young boy, being raised by a single mother who worked and spending many hours with black friends at their houses.

“I don’t think he had a racist bone in his body because he just accepted all people for who they are,” Heather said of her dad. “He taught us that because he was so accepting of everyone. He always told us that people are good no matter their color and that we had to be accepting of everyone, too.”

Heather said her mom was a knowledgeable wrestling wife, having watched her brother win a state championship at Salina High School.

image_5c6945e6-264e-4747-8ce4-f98f62d70dc7.mom and dad
Rocky Welton and his wife Phyllis. (Photo courtesy Heather Unruh)

“She was familiar with the sport, and she would find pictures of wrestling in books and share them with Dad because he didn’t have a big wrestling background,” Heather said. “I always remember the quietness of her strength. She was the constant and safe haven for us. I aspire that I and my husband would be one-tenth of what Mom and Dad had in their marriage.”

In the closing months of his long battle with Alzheimer’s, Heather said she was certain that her dad knew or was at least familiar with the faces that came to visit.

“Mom would lean in and want a kiss and he just puckered up,” Heather said. “He just knew there was love that they had. Us girls, he was just always happy to see us. There were threads there to know that he loved you. Dad could always give you a great hug. He knew his daughters would always take care of him and it just fills you heart to know the kind of man he was.”

OBITUARY:

Wallace W. “Rocky” Welton

ABILENE – Wallace W. “Rocky” Welton of Abilene, KS, passed away on July 4th, 2020 at the age of 83. He was born June 27, 1937 in North Little Rock, Arkansas to Harold Welton and Geraldine (Sweeten) Wails.

Rocky attended schools in Fort Smith, Arkansas and Salina, Kansas. He graduated in 1955 from Salina High School. Rocky graduated from Kansas Wesleyan University in 1959 with a degree in History and Physical Education. He was a multiple All-KCAC football award winner and a member of the KWU Athletic Hall of Fame.

He married Phyllis Duff on August 22, 1959 in Salina, KS. They began their married life in Liberal, KS where he was tossed in as a last minute replacement as head wrestling coach. He began his love affair with the sport.

Rocky continued his coaching career in Oakley, KS, Clay Center, KS, Goodland, KS and Garden City, KS. While coaching in Goodland he led his teams to three state team titles and Kansas’ first four time individual state champion. His tenure in Garden City resulted in six team championships and many individual placers.

Rocky had a dual record of 268-91-12, 30 individual state champions and 166 overall state placers. He would comment, his greatest accomplishment as a coach was having former wrestlers become coaches and, more importantly, good men.

He was a founding member of the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association. Following his retirement he was inducted into the KWCA Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame, the KSHSAA Hall of Fame and recently the Garden City High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Garden City High School also honored Rocky by naming their annual wrestling tournament the Rocky Welton Invitational.

He is preceded in death by his father, mother, step-father Edwin Walls, sister Judy McMahon and brothers-in-law Sammy and Gary Duff.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and daughters Shawn (Rob) Lowe, Nancy Kelly (Richard Perkins), Meriam (Tate) Thompson and Heather (Kevin) Unruh, 14 grandchildren and many sons.

Celebration of life service will be announced at a later date. Memorials may be sent to Dickinson County Hospice or the Alzheimer’s Association.

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