A stack of green folders rest on the back-row window sill in Room 121 at Manhattan High School. After 43 years, Manhattan wrestling coach Robert Gonzales finally has started a throwaway pile.
Before Gonzales announced his retirement from coaching last month, he kept every memento from his decorated career. Today, team photos and wrestling posters adorn the peach walls in Gonzales’ office, which is attached to his driver’s education classroom on Manhattan’s east campus. His first wrestling rule book (from 1979) rests on a dusty bookshelf in the back left corner, right next to the first trophy he won as a head coach (from 1989). And wedged between his desk and clothes cubby is a plexiglass Manhattan logo he salvaged in 2011, when the Indians renovated their old wrestling room into a weight room.
None of these keepsakes fit on Gonzales’ five-page resume, which includes three state titles, 365 career wins and, as of Friday, his induction into the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame. They barely fit in his office, where shelves are cramped with photos, awards and other memorabilia.
What will he do with them? Gonzales often hears that question from family members — particularly his wife, Brenda. The couple won’t have room for all of Gonzales’ trophies once they downsize from their four-bedroom home, and they can’t reside in Gonzales’ office forever.
Then again, decluttering never has been Gonzales’ strong suit. Every knick knack in his office activates a memory, and Gonzales values memories much more than “legacies.”
He chafes at questions about his lasting influence on Kansas wrestling. “Why should I care?” he says. But nobody needs him to.
Understanding Gonzales’ wrestling footprint is as simple as surveying his workspace.
“Over the years, I just accumulate stuff, and I don’t have any place to put it,” Gonzales said. “Every picture, every poster, every plaque in this room has a story.”
The first story rests against black cabinet doors with a sticky note affixed to its worn wooden frame: “1986-87 Heights wrestling team, varsity.”
The taped-on cutline names the 38 Shawnee Heights wrestlers crowding the yellow Ford Thunderbird convertible. Gonzales, their first-year coach, mans the wheel, rocking dark shades and smiling through his handlebar mustache.
The photo setup was Gonzales’ first edict as coach. The boys borrowed the car from someone in town because Gonzales wanted the Thunderbirds to pose with a Thunderbird.
They wore collared shirts because, as they were about to learn, Gonzales considered wrestling to be serious business.
“You’re going to dress up and look nice,” he remembers telling them.
Gonzales moved to Shawnee Heights from Topeka, where he spent six years as an assistant coach. Before that, he coached two years of junior high in Garden City, his hometown.
As a Garden City student, Gonzales drew college interest as both a defensive lineman and a heavyweight wrestler. He played both sports for two years at Garden City Community College, where he met Brenda, and planned to play two more at Fort Hays State. But his college career ended when he blew out his knee making a tackle against Southern Colorado.
After the injury, Gonzales joined the Fort Hays Staff as a graduate assistant. And though he moonlighted as a sportscaster for the local TV station (6 p.m. and 10 p.m.), he found coaching to be his passion. He followed “the bug,” as he calls it, to Garden City Junior High, Topeka West High School and, finally, to Shawnee Heights, where his passion was thoroughly tested.
On one of Gonzales’ first days as coach, Shawnee Heights athletics director Roger Toelkes handed him a list of four names.
“What is this?” Gonzales asked.
“These are the four kids that finished the year last year,” Toelkes said.
Dismayed, Gonzales walked to the office looking for more information on his lean roster. Instead, he found more bad news: two of the kids on his list had moved.
He responded by signing up to coach the Thunderbirds’ defensive line for head coach Mike Ford. Looking for reinforcements, Gonzales struck a handshake deal with Ford: I work for you, you work for me. In other words, if Gonzales committed to his football assistant role, Ford would funnel athletes toward wrestling. He’d even serve as Gonzales’ assistant … as long as Gonzales could teach Ford how to wrestle.
That’s right. Ford grew up in Madison, where his high school did not offer wrestling as a varsity sport. On the first day of wrestling practice, Gonzales told Ford his plan to teach the students stance, penetration, and drop steps.
“I don’t know what that means,” Ford said.
Gonzales’ freshman coach never had wrestled, either. So Gonzales spent the first month of practice coaching his athletes and his coaches.
Shawnee Heights squeezed 60 boys onto one mat cut in three strips. Some arrived wearing jean shorts and sandals. Others believed they’d signed up to wrestle like professional wrestler “Bulldog” Bob Brown from Kansas City’s Central States Wrestling.
Gonzales taught them the basics: neutral position, referee’s position — “How long’s the match?”
“It’s funny now that I think about it,” Gonzales said. “But back then I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
The Thunderbirds’ inexperience showed at their first tournament at Olathe. Gonzales was excited for his first meet as head coach, but the his team was overmatched.
In 24 matches, Gonzales remembers winning two. Shawnee Heights finished with just four points. He knew his team needed work, but four points?
“It was the most humbling experience I’d ever had,” Gonzales said. “I kept looking at that scoreboard, thinking: What do we have to do to get better?”
Gonzales’ first championship photo-op hangs from the left wall behind three shelves’ worth of Manhattan relics. Eleven Indians wear medals over their red-and-blue warmups inside Kansas Coliseum. Gonzales, wearing a black suit and blue dress shirt, holds the 2006-07 Class 6A state tournament bracket with his right hand.
The sign in the front row reads: “Keeping the tradition alive.”
Two years earlier, Gonzales was surfing USA Wrestling-Kansas website when he noticed Manhattan had posting its wrestling job. Lee Woodford, the Indians’ longtime coach, was stepping down because of health issues.
Gonzales phoned Manhattan athletics director Mike Marsh, who was not expecting the call.
“Coach Gonzo?” Gonzales remembers Marsh saying. “From Shawnee Heights? You want to come here?”
Marsh knew the Manhattan job would be popular, but in 2005, Gonzales looked like a Thunderbirds lifer. Nineteen years after his uneven beginning in Shawnee Heights, Gonzales had molded the program into a power.
In 1989, the Thunderbirds won their first trophy under Gonzales, finishing second at Olathe North. One year later, they finished 12-0-1 in duals.
By ‘92, Gonzales was recognized as the City of Topeka’s Coach of the Year for his turnaround at Shawnee Heights. He won it again in ’93, ’99, and every year from 2000 to 2005, but the Thunderbirds never finished higher than fifth at state. After reaching that high watermark multiple times, Gonzales pondered a new challenge.
“I had so much respect; I was enamored with Manhattan wrestling,” Gonzales said. “I’d proven I could win at Shawnee Heights, but I couldn’t help but wonder what Manhattan would be like with me as coach.”
One day after calling Marsh, Gonzales interviewed for the job. Soon after the interview, he accepted it. And this time, he wouldn’t have to build the program himself.
Sixty athletes wore white T-shirts and blue jeans on the Indians’ picture day, many of whom had been wrestling since first grade. Gonzales hired six assistants, which gave him the largest coaching staff he’d ever assembled. The Indians boasted two gyms and a wrestling room
“(The facilities) were huge,” Gonzales said. “It was all I could ask for.”
Armed with a championship infrastructure, Gonzales implemented a culture built on the the same principle he leaned on at Shawnee Heights: his time.
He coached the Manhattan youth club from 2005 to 2007; he spent weekends traveling to youth tournaments, or scouting opposing teams, or both. And when the Gonzales family “vacationed,” their destination often included a spacious gym covered in blue foam mats.
His commitment paid off. The Indians posed for state title photos in 2007, 2012 and 2017. They finished third in ’08 and ’18 and second in 2019. After the 2019 tournament, Marsh knocked on Gonzales’ door to congratulate his coach. He walked in on Gonzales’ staff searching for matches where the Indians could’ve neutralized their 1.5-point losing deficit.
“Guys, you won a trophy,” Marsh said.
“But we didn’t win the title,” Gonzales replied.
Gonzales’ hustle spilled into other avenues, too. He directed tournaments, created the Kansas chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and volunteered as a public address announcer at youth tournaments.
Amid the grind, Gonzales knew when to infuse levity into his practices. Manhattan assistant Shawn Bammes said Gonzales is known to break into dance when Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” plays in the Indians’ wrestling room.
“He creates that spirit,” Bammes said of Gonzales. “It makes the kids feel good, makes them feel welcomed. They walk in that room and they see Gonzo dancing in the corner to Bruno Mars or whoever, and we get a lot more relaxed and (start) having fun. We get better workouts.”
Last week, Gonzales posed for another photo — alone this time, in his office, wearing Manhattan shorts that revealed matching surgical scars on each knee. Dr. Craig Vosburgh replaced Gonzales’ right knee in 2017 and the left knee last March. Both men hoped the procedure would quell Gonzales’ chronic pain.
But seven months later (two weeks before wrestling season), Gonzales returned to Vosburgh’s office. Gonzales’ hip hurt this time ... so much so that he walked “stooped over” around school.
Upon examining Gonzales, Vosburgh delivered more bad news.
“Your hip isn’t good,” Vosburgh said. “You have no cartilage and no muscle. You’ve got to replace it.”
Gonzales’ body was responding to years of punishment, which continued long after the injury that ended his college career. As a young assistant at Topeka West, Gonzales dislocated his ankle wrestling Carl Smith, a 167-pounder who finished third at state in 1980.
At Shawnee Heights, Gonzales lost a front tooth (it’s still missing) after catching an errant elbow during a demonstration. And one morning, after a wrestler “threw” him at the previous day’s practice, Gonzales woke up unable to move.
He suffered multiple torn muscles and a partially broken back. He missed a month, and when he returned, his doctor delivered strict orders. “Don’t wrestle with the kids anymore.”
Gonzales followed those orders, but he also dove deeper into the wrestling world. Between 1980 and 2015, he served 35 years on the KWCA’s executive board, 18 years on the National Wrestling Coach Association board and 15 years on USA Wrestling-Kansas’ executive board, to name a few.
Each new venture demanded more travel, which created obstacles for healthy choices. Gonzales often ate two candy bars — he preferred Snickers — and a Diet Coke with lunch.
“All the things you do when you’re younger — they catch up with you,” Brenda said. “I tried to cook healthy at home, but I couldn’t control what he did on the road.”
In 2017, Gonzales felt a twinge of pain in his knee while shoveling snow, which triggered his still-going marathon of doctors’ appointments. Gonzales said that in the last year alone, he’s attended 52 physical therapy appointments for his legs and hip.
He’s still learning to walk again after his hip replacement, which Vosburgh performed Jan. 12. The surgery was planned for Thanksgiving break until Vosburgh’s hospital filled its capacity because of a coronavirus outbreak in the area.
Meanwhile, Gonzales’ pain persisted and worsened. He felt “fragile” at practices, where students always asked if he needed help moving around. He always refused, but everyone could tell he was suffering.
Finally, Bammes met with Gonzales in early January to convey the team’s concerns.
“You can’t walk,” Bammes said. “You’re going to fall, and something bad’s going to happen.”
Gonzales scheduled the surgery shortly after. He missed three weeks, during which his family intensified a conversation that began years earlier.
Brenda always wished Gonzales would spend more time at home. He’d taken steps toward that end in recent years, delegating most of his coaches’ association duties after the 2015 season.
But he still coached and taught and traveled. He still served as president of Kansas’ National Hall of Fame chapter. He still was too busy.
When his son, Tyler, became the coach at Junction City in 2019, Gonzales told Brenda he’d like to watch. He felt the same way about spending time with their granddaughters Abby and Addy, who live in Dallas.
After the surgeries, Brenda told Gonzales that this year seemed like the perfect time to put his words into action. She didn’t if her husband was capable of slowing down.
But she had to try.
“You’re gone almost every night,” Brenda told him. “Stay home, work in the yard, do a couple things.”
The last photo of Gonzales as Manhattan’s wrestling coach — anyone’s wrestling coach — features him raising his arm at this year’s state tournament in Park City. At the tournament’s conclusion, Gonzales grabbed some headgear, walked onto the mat and placed it on the ground ... wrestling’s ritual farewell.
After the hip replacement, Gonzales rejoined the Indians in time for their postseason run. They sent five wrestlers to state, two to the finals and one — senior star Damian Ilalio — home with a title.
Gonzales felt like he had contributed to Manhattan’s successes, felt like “part of the program.” But he still was fragile on the mat; his assistants still ran practices. He laced his wrestling boots, but mostly for show.
Gonzales wasn’t used to being just “part” of the program. He was used to running it.
So Gonzales made a decision. He told his wife, then Marsh, then his boys. The news hit the media, and the questions followed. Is he sure? (Yes.) Might he change his mind? (No, but he’ll gladly keep score if Manhattan needs someone next year.)
What will he do now?
The last question is the trickiest, but Gonzales has a plan.
First, once all his family members received their COVID vaccinations, they’ll plan a trip together. They usually meet at a bed-and-breakfast for reunions, according to Brenda. Next, Gonzales will attend more local sporting events as a fan. He listened to several playoff basketball games on radio, he owns a lifetime pass to all state events and he’s already picked his seat for Manhattan softball’s home opener against Lawrence next week.
Finally, he’ll teach three more years. By the end of his teaching tenure, he joked, his office will be filled with photos of driver’s education memorabilia.
Before Gonzales can hang novelty license plates, however, he must decide which wrestling treasures will stay and go. No doubt, the new project will prove extensive. But what else is he doing?
“I’m probably going to re-arrange my office,” Gonzales said. “Right now, I just put things up. Now that I’m retiring, I’ll have some free time. I can organize this stuff.”