Late wrestling coach Belcher once carried Bay program on his back
Hamilton grappling mentor passes at age 57
Long before he started carrying Milwaukee City Conference wrestling on his broad, strong back, the late coach Craig Belcher kept another mat program afloat for much longer than was probably worth his while.
Belcher, who passed much too soon at the age of 57 on Nov. 8 from a brain aneurysm, carried the flag of Whitefish Bay grappling for about a decade in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was back in the day when the Blue Dukes sometimes struggled to get five or 10 athletes on the team. If they were lucky, they had 15.
But Belcher helped keep it working. He stayed positive and kept working. He found talents like state-place-winning 125-pounder Jerome Mathis and state-qualifying and highly athletic 189-pounder Robert Smith.
After Belcher left Bay to become coach at Milwaukee Hamilton in 1995 (a job he held until retirement last spring), the Blue Dukes program ebbed and flowed again and again as it searched for another with the energy and will to pull it back on its feet.
It found that someone with Dale Loebel, who has helped the Blue Dukes back to respectability and full lineups. Bay has even qualified people for the state tournament in each of the last two years.
Loebel remembers well how hard Belcher worked. He also recalls a decidedly unpolitically correct individual who liked his Johnny Walker, his cigars and the Three Stooges (all three were represented in his casket at a crowded Krause Funeral Home on Saturday).
Huge loss for city program
And he also remembered a man who was dedicated to his craft, someone who won 400 dual meets in his career (his plaque honoring him for his 300th win was also next to him on Saturday) and who understood all too well how difficult it was for City Conference wrestling programs to hang in there and survive without the funding and backing and culture of success that suburban teams take for granted.
"Losing Craig is a tremendous blow to wrestling in the city," Loebel said. "He has been the glue that has kept it all together. I don't know who will follow him, but they won't fill his shoes. Craig was all in for those kids. He worked extremely hard to build his program at Hamilton.
"More than that, he was passionate about making kids lives better through wrestling. In MPS, where the culture is basically basketball or nothing, those guys are fighting an uphill battle that is steeper than anyone can imagine. Craig understood that challenge and kept grinding forward."
Belcher hired referees for City dual meets and kept going to the large Dave Ratka Dual Meet tournament that was held every January and also hosted the Hamilton Duals. He didn't always have the largest numbers at Hamilton, but he almost always had a state-level kid around every February. Even his daughter, Araby, won 52 matches for him over a four-year period (1997-2000) and more importantly, wrestlers at Hamilton who stayed with him, tended to graduate in disproportionately large numbers.
Kept mentor involved
He also remembered people.
Belcher would take his long-time mentor and friend Bob Spicuzza to the state tournament after Spicuzza retired. It was Spicuzza who had recommended him for his first head-coaching job back in 1978.
"I was always impressed by that (continuing to keep Spicuzza involved)," said former West Allis Central coach Dan Gaynor who was at the wake Saturday, "… and he worked so hard to keep the city's junior varsity programs alive so that city wrestling would survive."
"(He was) the guy who was compassionate enough to let Spicuzza into his room and along to tournaments so Bob could still be a part of wrestling," Loebel said. "Who else would have done that?"
The line went out the door at Krause on that beautiful Saturday afternoon. Many were wrestlers, some were not. Belcher was also a counselor for 20 years and so influenced people in different ways other than with sweat, effort and pain.
There was a large photo album of memories created by Hamilton wrestlers from the 1999-2002 era. Lots of pictures of victorious pins, and also a few where Belcher was consoling a kid after a tough loss.
I spoke to a few of his wrestlers who gathered nearby. They want to work with the Hamilton program and make sure it survives despite this devastating loss. A young, well dressed African-American woman sat on the couch in front of the casket crying and simply could not be consoled.
She was another person Belcher had reached in a meaningful and heartfelt way.
Belcher was buried in his beloved Milwaukee Brewers jersey with a Bible nearby. There was a Hamilton spirit flag draped over the front edge that said "You can't beat that Wildcat pride."
Father figure to many
Loebel understood the road Belcher had traveled and how many times he had to retrace and repeat his steps just to earn a small piece of success for his athletes.
"People outside the city have no idea the lack of family structure the kids face daily," Loebel said. "By the time they got to Craig at the high school, they were basically on their own. Craig became much more than coach. He became father, mentor, and a million other things to those kids. In that war, you lose far more battles than you win. It takes an amazing person to keep getting beat down but still continue to get up and fight another day."
The service was at St. Marcus Lutheran Church and internment was at Wisconsin Memorial Park. Prior to that, there was a celebration of his life at Gus's Mexican Cantina in Franklin.
No doubt, understanding how complicated and involved in life Belcher was, it probably lasted long into the night.
"In an age where many are out for themselves, coach Belcher was out for the kids," Loebel said. "While he had his personal goals for wins, etc., he also had the larger picture in mind. … While he wasn't perfect, none of us are. Deep down, he wanted more for others than he did for himself."
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