When Lou Giani took over the Huntington High School wrestling program in November 1970, junior Willie Gadson helped the famed coach turn the Blue Devils into a winner almost overnight. Gadson went on to cover himself in glory on the college level before turning to coaching himself. The 1972 Huntington grad passed away on Sunday, March 10. He was 59.
Willie Lee Gadson spent his early years in the south, where he worked in the cotton fields with other family members. He moved to Huntington when he was 11. Meeting Giani was a turning point in both of their lives.
“Willie was an exceptional athlete and an all-around great person,” Giani said. “He was always positive and incredibly hardworking. He’s one of our best ever.” The two maintained a friendship that was in its fifth decade at the time of Gadson’s death.
Gadson was a league champion and Section XI runner-up for the Blue Devils. He went on to win two junior college national titles for Nassau Community College, where he went 45-0 under coach Chuck Henke, a Huntington School District resident who sent two sons through the Blue Devil program.
After winning his second national crown for Nassau, Gadson was recruited by legendary Hall of Fame Iowa State coach Dr. Harold Nichols, who coached the famed Dan Gable. Gadson didn’t disappoint Cyclone fans, capturing two Big Eight championships and All-American honors as a junior and senior.
Gadson had a motor that never seemed to tire. His natural athleticism, combined with raw strength and speed and a work ethic second to none, made him a feared wrestler. He won two Midlands tournament championships (considered by some to be the Super Bowl of wrestling) and earned a fourth place medal in the 1982 Tbilisi tournament in the Soviet Union, which was regarded to be tougher than the Olympics.
Following the close of his competitive career, Gadson turned to coaching. He enjoyed stints as an assistant at Michigan and Iowa State and a five year run as the head man at Eastern Michigan University, where he led the program to its first Mid-American Conference title in 1996 when he was named MAC Coach of the Year. When he decided to return to Iowa to be closer to his family, Gadson coached at Iowa City West High School and finally at Waterloo East since 2004.
After deciding to drop a few pounds, Gadson noticed that he was still losing weight even after reaching his target last year. He went to see his doctor and following a series of tests received the devastating diagnosis: Stage 4 lung and bone cancer. The Huntington mat great underwent treatment in Iowa and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota over the next 11 months before succumbing on March 10 at 11:38 a.m.
Gadson coached his son, Kyven to a pair of Iowa state high school crowns. Kyven Gadson won the 197 lb. Big 12 championship for Iowa State one day before his father passed away. He is seeded sixth at his weight in this coming weekend’s NCAA Division I tournament in Des Moines.
Despite his illness, Gadson continued coaching at Waterloo East, before finally stepping aside in January when he took a leave of absence. He developed 16 state qualifiers and 10 state place-winners at Waterloo East during his career there.
Funeral services were scheduled for Monday, March 18 at Waterloo East at 11 a.m. A memorial service in Huntington is being planned for this spring.
Gadson and his younger brother, Charlie, are two of the most legendary and accomplished wrestlers in Blue Devil history. The pair is well-known and well-liked around the country, but truly loved in the Huntington community.
Paul Widerman, another of Huntington’s all-time mat greats, who won two state titles and went on to captain the Harvard College wrestling team, was saddened by the news of Gadson’s passing.
“In the Huntington High School wrestling program, Willie and Charlie were icons; amazing stars and mentors paving the way for all of us that followed,” Widerman said. “They were mythical young legends that came as junior high school age boys from ‘down south somewhere’ to live in Huntington with their aunt. None of us that followed really knew the details. But, we did know they didn’t know any wrestling when they started. These two were living myths bigger than life. They became our mentors and brothers. They became incredible wrestlers and champions in so many ways on every level of the sport.”