For coach, scholarship
fund is his highest honor
November 12, 2008
It's been an interesting journey for Tom Kroll. Recently Tom was forced to reflect on his journey through life, something this humble man seldom does. You see, Tom has been a high school wrestling coach for 33 years and he was honored by his former wrestlers with a scholarship fund set up in his name. The "Tom Kroll Scholarship Fund" will be administered by a charitable organization called "Friends of Wrestling" and will help provide college assistance to youth for continued education.
Tom agreed to talk with me a short time ago.
"It's been an honor to work with these young men over the years and to have them honor me with this scholarship fund. Well, I was speechless." Tom told me.
"It's been an honor, a pleasure," he stated, emotion clearly heard in his voice.
Tom was born into a sports-minded family, his father owned a weight lifting gym in Chicago.
"Those were interesting days, my father trained a couple of weightlifters who actually went on to become world champions," Tom remembers.
World War II ended the gym for his father, who then began building boats in Wisconsin. His father did all sorts of odd jobs to make money for the family. In Wisconsin, Tom and his brother developed an interest in hunting and fishing, something he cherishes to this day. It was a good life, but a hard life.
Tom was a good student and athlete. He earned a scholarship to Illinois State and wrestled (1957-61) until a neck injury ended his competitive days.
Tom's first teaching job brought him to Hudson Michigan.
"I heard Michigan was hiring teachers, I loved the outdoors and knew I wanted to go if I could. Why wouldn't you? There is hunting, fishing and fresh air," Tom told me smiling.
After a short stint in Hudson, Tom landed a teaching job at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, in 1967. (Tom and his wife later bought a home in Almont.) He taught woodshop, physical education and history classes. But what really excited him was the opportunity to start a wrestling program, which the school didn't have previously.
"Stevenson is a huge Class A school, it was like a dream come true for me. When we started the first year I had 25 young men come out for the team. Those kids knew nothing about wrestling, it was starting from scratch," Tom recalls.
It didn't take long for Tom to build a respectable program. His college experience served him well and soon Stevenson was a hotbed of wrestling talent. The team of 25 wrestlers had grown to as high as 110, with a varsity team, a B team, a JV team, a novice squad and requiring a host of assistant coaches.
"We really were very good for a long time. We always sent multiple kids to the state finals," Tom said proudly.
Tom's son, Charlie also wrestled for him, which he recalls as a very rewarding time.
"Charlie was very good and it was a pleasure to have coached him, and for us to be coaching together for so long now, I can't tell you how nice it is," he stated.
Now Tom is not the kind of person to let grass grow underfoot. He is constantly challenging himself. Which brings me to the early days of professional wrestling. Tom has a little history in this world as well, and I had to ask him about it.
Immediately, Tom looked at me and pleaded, "Oh come on, you're not going to put this in are you?"
"It's a story that just won't die!" he continued.
One of his fellow coaches and friends, Jim Meyers of Madison Heights, got tangled up in the fledgling pro wrestling entertainment, which was growing fast in the late 60s. He talked Tom into being his manager as a way to make a little extra money during the summer months. So for at least one summer, Tom traveled the pro circuit with his friend, who had the stage or pro wrestling name "The Student."
"Those guys were crazy! Jim talked me into it and I did it because he asked me to. I would escort him into the arena and make some wild statements to get the crowds worked up," he explained, a hint of embarassment in his tone.
"Jim wore a mask as "The Student" because he didn't want other people to know who he was. He came from a respectable wrestling background, but it was a show, it was entertainment and the TV cameras loved us," he went on to tell me.
It was a job and one he really wasn't that proud of, calling it silly and ridiculous. Yet it added to his life experiences.
There was another part-time job Tom landed where his wrestling background helped him at times, border patrol for the Department of Justice and Immigration. Tom worked the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel and Ambassador Bridge from 1986 to 2003. Most of Tom's work at the border revolved around illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
"You know we have a lot of problems in this country, we take criticism, but you know what, there are a lot of people trying to get into this country. And they are coming to get jobs," he continued.
In his days at the border, Tom has met a lot of interesting people, celebrities, politicians and sports stars.
One story he likes to tell is the friendship he developed with many of the professional hockey players, and one in particular, Steve Yzerman.
"Steve spent a lot of time crossing the border, as you might guess, and over the years we became friends. Steve knew I was a teacher and often would sign autographs for me to pass out to my students who showed improvement in their schoolwork. Can you imagine their faces when I gave them Steve's autograph? He is just that kind of person," Tom fondly recalls.
Tom and his son Charlie have been coaching wrestling for several years in Almont. They took a program that was struggling to one of the largest programs in the area. Tom believes in getting young men involved and could care less about records or wins and losses. Although he remains one of the winningest coaches in Michigan, closing in on 500 dual meet wins in his career. In 2002 he directed Almont to an 'Elite Eight' state final appearance.
"People always ask me when I'm going to give up on coaching. And I tell them, when I stop enjoying it and when I stop learning," he says proudly.
"It's been an honor and a pleasure to work with these young men over the years. It's been a pleasant ride," Tom emotionally concludes.
Is there a greater compliment a former athlete can offer his coach other than making sure his name will always be remembered? The "Tom Kroll Scholarship Fund" will make sure of that.
If you would like to make a contribution to Tom's scholarship fund, visit the Friends of Wrestling website http://friendsofwrestling.com