Rex Wilson retired from teaching math in 1999. As he steps away from coaching track 16 years later, it isn’t the numbers that stick with him: It’s the stories.
Wilson isn’t great with dates, exact times his runners ran, or specific distances his throwers threw. What he remembers is the fire an opposing coach lighted under Jack Loomis when he insisted that a kid, last name Carriker, would “whoop his butt” at state. And he remembers the pride he felt when Loomis won the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard sprints at state that year.
Wilson has coached track for 55 years, all but four with Marion High School. He received a lifetime achievement award at this weekend’s state track meet. He has been an assistant in recent years. His last year as head coach — well, it doesn’t matter when that was. Not to him.
“I actually do not know,” Wilson said. “I suppose I could look it up. None of that stuff ever occurred to me to keep track of.”
In his last campaign, Wilson saw three throwers qualify for the state meet. Two, Kyle Palic and Kristen Herzet, made the medal stand. The third, freshman Tyler Palic, achieved a personal record.
As a head coach, Wilson coached all events; recently, he has coached throwing as an assistant. As a student at Fort Hays State University, Wilson threw javelin. He began coaching in 1960 in Isabel, a town near Pratt that is now home to fewer than 100 residents.
“I was a math teacher first,” he said. “Coaching was a supplemental kind of thing for me at the time.”
He coached baseball, basketball, and track. His baseball teams were successful, but coaching basketball did not mix with his temperament. He lost 25 to 30 pounds over the stress of a season, he said. After two years, he gave it up. Soon he was coaching track and field at Marion High School.
“After a couple of years, when they knew I wasn’t a kook, the support this community gave was just absolutely tremendous,” he said. “It has been all throughout.”
He said Loomis (class of 1973) and thrower Gary Melcher (1969) were two of the best athletes he ever coached. Loomis won a triumvirate of sprints at state; Melcher won a triumvirate of throws — discus, javelin, and shot put.
Loomis propelled the Warriors to state championships in 1972 and 1973, the last state titles for the track and field team.
Wilson did, however, coach the girls’ cross-country team for 15 years, capturing a state title in 1991.
That year, two athletes, Angie Bina and Iris Shanklin, were featured in a Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” section.
That’s another story.
Wilson looks back fondly, though not first upon the state glory. What he brings up first are weekend practices — the ones that weren’t scheduled, that he never asked his athletes to partake in. Whenever an athlete would ask him to come out Saturday or Sunday afternoons to help with something, he’d meet them at the track.
“I remember a couple of kids that medaled at state that wouldn’t have medaled had it not been for those practices,” he said. “I never had to ask them to do it. Some kids just had the drive.”
Wilson was willing to coach as long as he was needed. He told head track coach and athletic director Grant Thierolf that if someone else that was gung-ho about coaching track and field, he’d happily step down.
Having had a hip replaced five years ago, he walks slowly and with a cane. He praised students who, in recent years, would literally provide him a shoulder to lean on at meets.
“The kids have treated me far than I could have ever deserved,” he said. “I had two throwers lend me a shoulder to get from place to place during a meet. They’d say, ‘Coach, you need some help?’ and they knew the routine. It can’t be any better than that.”
During the season, Wilson was approached by one of his throwers who had heard a rumor that he was stepping down.
There was no truth to the rumor — not yet. About a week after that, he was out at practice, and Thierolf came walking across the field to where he was.
“I just knew that was what he was coming for,” he said.
Thierolf had found someone.
“I figured, well, 55 years is enough,” he said. “But if a thrower told me, ‘Could you come out with me for a while?’ I’d be there.”