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Mar, 2023

A Tribute To The Legendary Coach Dick Kleva

                One would probably wonder why in the wrestling off season, a coach would sit down at a desk and take time out of his life to write an article that will be read by few and many will not understand nor care about.   It is not coincidental why I’m writing this article on this 30th day of March in the year of our lord 2023, but rather based on inspiration.   That inspiration comes from learning of the passing of a Jersey Shore Coaching Legend who many consider to be the Father of Middletown Wrestling, Coach Dick Kleva. 

                One might also wonder why I, a youth wrestling coach in Wall Township, would care to write about a coach, whom I’ve only spoken to a couple of times.   What would be the inspiration to sit at a desk and write about a man, whom I knew little about his personal life or his family, and only know based on articles written about his teams and the legends that my father told me about him.  In the prior sentence you will find the answer for the inspiration.

                Prior to continuing, I’m going to give a bit of a disclaimer for those interested in reading.   I’m going to talk a bit about some history in this article which may be slightly boring for some, yet interesting to others.  At the end of it all, I hope the reader will understand the lasting impact that a life well lived and inspiring others can leave on the world for generations to come.   

                Coach Dick Kleva was the Head Football and Wrestling Coach for the Middletown North Wrestling Team during the years that my father was attending Middletown High School (Now Middletown High School North).  My father had graduated High School in 1970 and during his senior year, he was a starting offensive and defensive lineman for the Lions Football team that went undefeated while finishing ranked the top team in the state of New Jersey, and defeating football juggernaut, Toms River High School (Now Toms River High School South) in what the Asbury Park Press considers to be the greatest game ever played in the history of Jersey Shore Football.  Multiple articles have been written on this game and it is worth your time looking into if you are into Jersey Shore Sports history.  The Lions wrestling team, during my father’s senior year had also went undefeated and as the admittedly unsubstantiated legend goes, the team had finished ranked second in the state of New Jersey behind only the Phillipsburg Stateliners.  Dad was the starting Heavyweight for the Lions during the 1969-1970 season and until the day he died, he swore that the Lions would of beaten the Stateliners if they ever locked horns.  

My father, also named Frank Kuhl, had often spoken of Coach Kleva while stressing the impact that Coach Kleva had on his life.   For those that knew my father, he was also known in some circles as a bit of a coaching legend in his own right.   Growing up in a coaches home, anyone that has lived in similar circumstances will tell you that coaches use correlations related to sports to teach most of their life lessons.   My father was the epitome of a coach in every facet of his life.   From the way he dressed, to the way he acted, to the way he spoke, everything in life somehow, if only loosely, related to football and wrestling.   Dad ran a tight ship on his football and wrestling teams while stressing hard work, class, sportsmanship, and teamwork to his athletes.  I can also say from having lived with him, he cared deeply about his athletes.  It was not the type of caring that only mattered on the field of sports, but the type of caring where he put his heart and soul into trying to lead by example to show athletes that they could accomplish whatever they wanted in life.  It was the type of caring that he became a father figure when needed, a counselor and psychologist when needed, a shoulder to cry on, a voice of reason, and later a friend that his athletes could count on.   I have been told over and over again by his former athletes, about the impact that Dad had on their lives, in the same way as Coach Kleva had an impact on his life. 

My father had a fairly impressive coaching resume.   In football, while first learning as an assistant coach under the tutelage of Coaching Legend, Chip Labarca, he was part of coaching a State Championship Team.  Dad had later become the head High School Football Coach for the Keansburg Titans and during his five years as head coach, Keansburg won a co-conference championship and in another season qualified for the state sectional tournament during his final year as head coach.  When I was a freshman in High School at Middletown North, he had given up his coaching position at Keansburg to follow my career and coach my teams at Middletown North.   Dad spent over a decade as an assistant coach at Middletown North which included coaching a State Championship team in 1996 under head football coach, Mike Galos (Also a legend). 

Although his resume was impressive in football, I reflect on his coaching career and find his wrestling coaching career to be far more impressive.   He started by being the first Wrestling Coach in Keansburg Titans history in what was his first head coaching position of his career.  This was a short lived tenure as wrestling had not gained much steam in Keansburg in the early 1980’s and the program had folded.   After being asked to coach the Keansburg High School JV basketball team at Keansburg for a few years (Still not sure what he was thinking), Dad decided to seek a new wrestling coaching position as an assistant coach at Middletown High School North.  For the next 9 years he was the assistant coach to Head coaches Gerry Paradiso and John Oxley (Both Legends) at his alma mater.  This time was highlighted from 1995-1997 where the Lions were a state power-house to include the first and only state sectional in Middletown High School North History.  The 1996 State Championship team was the only time that my father coached my brother and I during the same season as I was a senior and my brother was a freshmen.   I would guess that 1996 was my father's favorite year of his long coaching career.

Dad coached his last season at Middletown High School North the year my younger brother, Mike, graduated from High School in 1999.  Although he continued to Coach football, he took some time away from wrestling until wrestling called for him to come back.   In 2001, Keansburg High School Athletic Director and one of Dad’s greatest friends, Tom Stark, had asked him to coach the Titans Wrestling Team.   Dad had stepped up to the plate, but he had a few demands.  One of those demands was to bring myself and my former team mate, Tom Stewart, on as assistant coaches for both the High School and Middle School Teams.  My brother, Mike had also volunteered as an assistant coach when he was home from college.   My guess for why it was so important to him to infuse the Keansburg High School team with members of the 1996 Middletown North team was to instill belief in the wrestlers that they can accomplish whatever they set out to do.  Four years later, Keansburg High School won their first wrestling conference championship in school history.  Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they doubled down the next season and repeated as conference champions.   Dad retired from coaching in 2008 and Keansburg has not won a team championship since that time.

Now I gave you a bit of history, but I told you there would be a direction to this article.   I also wanted this article to circle back to the inspiration and the reason it was written today.  Dad admitted on many occasions to me that he had very little natural athletic ability.  He also admitted that he had few natural talents which would lead him on a successful path.  Dad would often recall his first year of wrestling as a sophomore (Middletown High School students did not attend High School until 10th grade in the late 60’s) while noting that he was voluntold by Coach Kleva to wrestle.  I believe the quote Coach Kleva used with all his football players went something like “If your gonna play football for me, your gonna wrestle for me.” After Dad would give his interpretation of being forced to wrestle, he would display a slight smile and remind me that it was one of the best things that anyone ever did for him.  Dad would also recall that wrestling taught him to believe in himself while teaching him that regardless of the things he didn't naturally possess, he could do whatever he wanted to do in life when he worked hard enough for it.   

As any wrestler that has been around the sport long enough knows, very little comes easily on a wrestling mat.   Everything on the mat is earned and there are no excepted excuses and nobody to blame for lack of success.  Often times wrestlers don’t even achieve our goals that we work so hard for in this sport.  Short of winning a state championship in high school, a national championship in college, or an Olympic Medal, most of us are disappointed to some degree with the way we leave the sport.  Then we get away from the mat for a little bit.   Then we take a deep breath.  Then and only then do we reflect on what wrestling has done for us.  Who we were and our thoughts on what we could achieve before we got our hand raised for that first time compared to who we are and what we know we can achieve after our wrestling career is finished.  This sport teaches things that made it real easy for dad to correlate to life when teaching his life lessons.  

Society has in many ways looked for ways to get around hard work and there are things all around us that cast doubt on our physical, emotional, and mental abilities.   There are paths of least resistance that people look for, and in some cases find to be beneficial paths for themselves in life.  In a wrestling room, to be successful there are no paths of least resistance.   Greatness only comes from persistence, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, and learning to work harder than any rationally thinking human being could ever imagine.  With all of the comforts we are afforded in this world that we currently live, it may seem strange to someone who has never pushed themselves at something to the point of pure exhaustion, why an athlete would do it to themselves over, and over, and over again.   That being said, I still believe wholeheartedly, regardless of what anyone will ever say to counter my opinion, that the greatest skill that a person can ever learn in life is the ability to work hard.   A person with an unwavering and relentless work ethic can accomplish anything in life and there are no boundaries or limitations.

How does all this relate to Dick Kleva’s passing and why would I be so inspired to write this article in honor of him?   Dad learned things from Coach Kleva that he never knew about himself.  He learned to push beyond the boundaries that his mind had once created.  He learned there was nothing he could not accomplish and it was largely in part from his participation in two great sports while learning from a great coach that helped to create a great culture.   By the time Dad had started coaching, being part of a winning team was part of his pedigree, and he knew exactly how to create an environment that cultivated results.   I had the fortunate opportunity to learn from my father and in turn, success in this sport has become part of my pedigree.

 It is not uncommon for me to give the canned speech during the season when the timing is right, and a big match is coming up.   The same canned speech that I have memorized because I like the way it hits the room when the wrestlers are exhausted, the mats are soaked with sweat, and there is labored breathing due to the intensity in the practice room.   The speech comes when I can tell that the wrestlers are about to break both mentally and physically and it comes when I think the team has earned it.  I have them run at a moderate pace in the quiet wrestling room where the only sound is heavy breath, wrestling shoes slapping the mat while they run, and wrestlers moaning in discomfort.  The speech goes something like this:

 “I’m gonna give you guys a bit of a history lesson.  In 1970 at Middletown High School, my father’s wrestling team, coached by a guy named Dick Kleva, had went undefeated.  Those guys didn’t know anything special or use fancy moves and the only thing they focused on was basics- but the thing was-they did the basics better than anybody else.  They also worked harder than anyone else because they were relentless- giving up wasn’t an option.  That team finished the season ranked second in the state but until the day my father died, he swore they would of beaten Phillipsburg who were the only team ranked ahead of them!  Let’s fast forward to 1996 when I was in High School and I was being coached by my father.   That team pushed to the absolute limits of human physical abilities knowing only that they had to be tougher than everyone else and we finished the only team in Middletown North History as State Sectional Champions.  What’s the difference between teams that are average and teams that achieve great things?   It’s right here! Right now while you think you can’t go on any further!  When anyone else would give up, your not going to!   This is when great wrestlers separate themselves from everyone else!   There is no difference between you and those teams!  Show me something Knights!

There is just something that happens to wrestlers when this speech is given.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s like youth wrestlers sometimes need permission to push themselves harder than they thought they could go.   I find that every time I give this speech, every wrestler in the room is in an all out sprint at the end of it.   The wrestlers forget about the pain and the discomfort and they go to that place where they mentally can’t be broken.  It’s that point of the season where they dial themselves in and realize they are unstoppable if they want to be. That speech for me is a kind of a calling to the ghosts of legends past to motivate the team and for whatever reason, wrestlers respond to it as if they were in the Middletown North practice rooms in 1970 or 1996.  As the practice ends you can look into their eyes and see competitive fire blazing.  Whatever was taught that practice pales in comparison to what they helped teach themselves in those moments when they learned they could push further than they ever imagined. 

It should be noted that Dad passed away in November 2014.  It should also be noted that Coach Kleva heard of his passing from his home in Pennsylvania and he sent an orange and black bouquet of flowers in the shape of a football for Dad’s viewing and funeral.   Seeing Coach Kleva’s name on the bouquet brought a flood of emotions.  In that moment where I read the tag on the bouquet, Coach Kleva’s legend grew and the admiration that Dad had for him seemed all so appropriate.  A couple years later I had the opportunity to meet Coach Kleva at a Middletown North Wrestling Alumni banquet.   We spoke for only a few moments, and he could not have possibly known, and unfortunately, I did not tell him, of the impact he had on my life.   

While winning championships isn’t a pre-requisite to be considered a successful coach or a coaching legend, I do believe that it is an inevitable by-product of teaching the right things, doing the right things, and coming together as a team.   It usually takes a coach or group of coaches to create a culture where winning is that very by-product and this becomes part of an athlete’s pedigree.   Teaching athletes to believe in themselves, believe in their training, believe in teamwork, class, sportsmanship, and hard work is what makes athletes winners in both sports and in life.   The raising of a hand in wrestling is the by-product and the temporary reward for their hard work and efforts.   The real reward that comes to an athlete is later when the athlete realizes who they have become, when they realize that they can do whatever they want in life, when they don’t fear failure, and when they have learned a relentless work ethic to achieve their goals.  In my opinion, a great coach is a coach that makes people believe in themselves.   Great coaches have an impact on a persons life that lasts many years after an athlete is finished competing.   

This article was written as a tribute to the Legendary Dick Kleva-may he rest in peace.  This article is also dedicated to my father who was the most important coach in my life.   This article is also dedicated to all of my coaches who have impacted my life both in and out of the arena.   Finally this article is dedicated to the the many exceptionally talented coaches (Many, I would consider to be legends) that I have had the privilege of coaching with throughout the years.  My intention on this 30th day of March in the year of our lord 2023, is to also remind all of the coaches who read this, that the efforts that we put in today both on and off the mat, can both directly and indirectly impact many generations to come.   

Written by Wall Knights Wrestling Club Coach Frank Kuhl

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