By Chris Hayre
Oak Park-River Forest wrestling coach Paul Collins lights up when he talks about his wrestlers’ accomplishments — off the mat, that is. He proudly and rapidly fires off the names as if he is on a time limit.
Collins called Stanford University-bound senior Gabe Townsell the most talented kid he ever has laid eyes on.
“He taught himself how to play piano, he writes phenomenal poetry and just so happens to be a national champion wrestler,” Collins said.
The passion and intensity in Collins’ voice does not waver when talking about another one of his senior wrestlers, Chris Yen, who received an academic scholarship to Johnson & Wales, a culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island.
“To be the next great American chef,” he said.
OPRF won its third consecutive dual state title last month, but the winning – and there is plenty of it – does not tell the entire story of the Huskie wrestling program. It is a family affair built on the foundation of developing exceptional wrestlers and even better people. The program’s rallying cry of being “In Relentless Pursuit” applies to parents, coaches and wrestlers alike.
“Nobody else is doing this,” said Collins, who is also a special education teacher at the school. “No other teams in the building, no other teams in the country, no other teams in the state are doing the things that we’re doing together.”
Collins, 34, who just completed his second season as head coach, has a long history as a Huskie. His father, Niall, coached the program from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Paul wrestled at the school before serving as a longtime assistant to former OPRF coach Mike Powell.
Powell stepped down from the top post in 2014 due to health reasons, but remains heavily involved in the program. It was Powell’s vision to accelerate the program’s resources and opportunities that led to the creation of the Huskie Wrestling Family non-profit organization.
“He really saw that to develop a team, it needs to be a year-round, multi-faceted approach,” said Jonna Borgdorff, mother of former OPRF wrestlers who still spearheads many of the non-profit’s responsibilities. “You can’t just coach hard in the room and then leave teenagers or grade school kids out to make their own mistakes. You need to be involved with them all the time.”
Behind every pin, there is a parent feverishly raising money so the program can afford to participate at the most competitive wrestling tournaments in the nation. Wrestlers are also afforded other enriching experiences, including last summer when Collins took six seniors to Louisville, Kentucky for a service project with Habitat for Humanity.
Townsell said the trips allow for wrestlers to give back, work as a cohesive unit and become closer off of the mat. It also is another way that Collins, Powell and the other coaches can articulate their goal for them to be complete people.
“I think you’ve got to look at them being more concerned and more caring about the kids and them developing as young men and young women – character – then wins and losses on the wrestling mat,” said Richard “Doc” Townsell, Gabe’s father and coach of the Little Huskies wrestling program.
While winning remains paramount at a national powerhouse, Collins doesn’t measure the program’s ultimate success by takedowns and pins.
“It’s never about how good of a wrestler they were,” Collins said. “It’s never about that. It’s always about the kind of man they were when they left this program.”