Mike Bonic’s dad, John, started Mattoon Youth Wrestling Club nearly 50 years ago, and he now runs it today. Over those years, Mike has seen big changes — some good, some bad — take place in wrestling in particular and in youth sports in general. Jeff Owens spoke with Mike about the challenges to recruiting youth today, changes in the sport itself and what it takes to succeed on the mats.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: At what age did you start wrestling and what do you remember from that time?
MIKE BONIC: I started in fifth grade when my Dad, who taught at what was then Jefferson Junior High, held a clinic and then a little tournament for Mattoon grade school and junior high kids. I remember doing a lot of push-ups and chin-ups and learning techniques, then doing more push-ups and chin ups and getting more coaching at home.
CCS: Your dad was very instrumental in Mattoon wrestling, is that where your passion for the sport comes from?
MB: Yes, he started the Mattoon Youth Wrestling Club in 1973 and was one of the founding fathers of the IKWF (Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation) he also helped a lot of the current clubs in Central Illinois get started. I don’t know, probably, passion for the sport seems to be in the blood. My brother, uncles, cousins, nephews and of course my son all wrestled and we still love and follow the sport.
CCS: What values does wrestling instill in young boys and girls?
MB: Wrestling teaches kids several important things: character, responsibility, determination, the value of a good work ethic. There’s a team aspect in the sport of course, your teammates help you get better in the practice room and you encourage each other. But when you’re out there in that circle, it’s just you and your opponent. You can’t blame a teammate for making a bad play or an error that cost you the match. If you lose, there’s no one to blame but who you see in the mirror. Likewise, when you win: It’s because of your abilities and the work you put into getting better. It’s the ultimate: “You get out of it what you put into it” sport. Also, the strength and coordination you acquire through wrestling helps you in any other sport you participate in.
CCS: You stepped away from the club for a few years due to some back issues and family reasons. Does it feel good to be back, and how do you feel?
MB: I did have back surgery, but I actually stepped away mostly to take care of my now deceased wife after she got ALS, an awful terminal disease. It does feel good to be back involved. I love the sport, working with the kids, watching them improve. As far as how I feel, well, can’t get down there on the mat like I used to 30 years ago but we have several guys that I coached when they were kids that have come back and are coaching now, including my son, so they do most of the demonstrating. I fill in at practice some, but am more of a mentor now and help with the communication, organization of the club, running the tournaments, etcetera.
CCS: When you think back of almost 50 years of the Mattoon YWC, what comes to mind?
MB: Wow, almost 50 years. I guess what comes to mind is that it’s gratifying to see how the club and program has endured and evolved. And how it’s still getting better. The wrestling program in Mattoon is probably doing better right now at all levels, grade school, middle school and high school than it ever has. And that’s saying something, because we’ve been pretty successful over the years.
CCS: How many volunteer hours do you put in during the season?
MB: How many hours a week do I put in during the season? Hmm, well several, but not as many as I used to. Let’s just leave it at that.
CCS: How has the sport changed?
MB: I’d say the biggest changes are the efforts to keep weight cutting to a healthier level. Back in my day, there weren’t any regulations. People have finally wised up to the fact that if you lose too much weight you’re also losing muscle and strength. That and the participation of girls in the sport. Was never a fan of girls wrestling boys, mainly because the boy is in a no-win situation and we raise boys to be nice to girls and this is a tough, physical contact sport. But now participation by girls is high enough they have their own competitions. It’s actually the fastest growing sector of the sport.
CCS: Numbers seem to be up the youth level but high school wrestling numbers are down. Any idea why?
MB: Numbers being down is not just a problem in wrestling, you’re seeing it in all sports. I think it’s just a product of changes in society. Kids have a lot more options for their time now with technology, social media and such. And sports involves hard work, especially wrestling. I don’t think that is instilled in kids as much as it used to be.
CCS: When you think of what makes a great wrestler, what comes to mind?
MB: A great wrestler … the first thing that comes to mind is mental toughness, refusing to give up. But then you have to combine that with a good work ethic, to accept coaching and keep pushing yourself to get better.
CCS: Do you remember your first and last match? If so, what do you recall?
MB: My first match was in that clinic at Jefferson Junior High in (gah!) 1973. My last match was for Millikin University in the D-III regional.
CCS: How much longer do you plan on being involved with Mattoon Wrestling?
MB: I’ll always be involved in Mattoon Wrestling, as long as they’ll have me. Ha-ha.
CCS: MHS wrestling has had just two coaches over the last 30-plus years in Dave McDowell and now Brett Porter. Your thoughts?
MB: MHS has actually had a few more coaches than that. Bo Henry was the first, I believe, then we had Mike Cerqua. Vince Obremski for just a couple years before Coach McDowell started his run and then handed the program over to the very capable hands of Brett Porter. That consistency has definitely been a factor in the success of the program. Most people don’t know this, but Coach Porter was a D-I All-American who wrestled for Olympic gold medalist Bruce Baumgartner at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. We’re lucky to have him here.