WATERLOO, Iowa — During his lifetime, there weren’t many battles Willie Gadson lost. Unfortunately, there was one foe Gadson couldn’t lick.
Sunday morning, Gadson lost his battle with lung and bone cancer, one night after his son, Kyven, won the 197-pound Big 12 championship for Iowa State.
“At 11:38 a.m. this morning, March 10th, 2013, Willie Gadson passed away. Arrangements are being made for the funeral right now. Our family would like to say thank you to all for your love and support,” confirmed Kyven on the Battle for Coach Gadson Facebook page.
Gadson, who took a leave of absence at the beginning of January from his head wrestling coaching position at East, a position he had held since 2004, was diagnosed with cancer last spring.
He had been undergoing treatments at both the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and here in Waterloo.
At East, Gadson coached 16 state qualifiers and 10 state placewinners, including Kyven to a pair of state championships. His best team at East came in 2008 when the Trojans finished 10th in Class 3A with four state placewinners — Kirk Sallis Jr., Keelan Moore, Tray Pendleton and Kyven Gadson.
The legacy and impact he had on the East program reaches far and deep, and the news of his passing was reported during a broadcast of the Big Ten wrestling championships in Champaign, Ill., Sunday.
Wartburg College head wrestling coach Jim Miller said he has long admired Gadson, recalling a breakfast they shared when Willie told his life story, one that wasn’t always easy and included picking cotton as a youth growing up in the south.
“He was a giant in the sport,” Miller said. “He learned a lot of hard lessons growing up, and he employed them in his life to be successful.
“I admired him for what he stood for. There was no playing around with Willie. We will miss him in the wrestling world, for sure.”
Even before Miller knew Gadson as a person, he said he admired him.
“I enjoyed watching him wrestle. He laid it on the line every time, win or lose,” Miller said. “And knowing kids he coached, to a man they swore by Willie Gadson. They knew he was real. He was invested in their lives.”
Many people posted tributes to Gadson on his Battle for Gadson Facebook page.
“Today, my friend, mentor and coach lost his battle with cancer,” John Rameriz wrote. “I had the privilege to be coached by such a tremendous wrestler by such a dedicated husband by such a fabulous father and great human being!”
Alonzo Beckham posted, “Coach Gadson may no longer be with us physically, but the memories and moments he shared with ourselves and others will live inside of us forever. The lessons he taught and individuals he shaped will continue to apply the values he cherished to people we encounter in every day life and eventually our future generations.”
Gadson attended Huntington High School in Long Island, N.Y., and was a two-time NJCAA All-American at Nassau Community College in Nassau, N.Y., before he transferred to Iowa State, where he earned Division I All-America honors for the Cyclones in 1975 and 1976.
After his competitive career, he turned to coaching and was the head coach at Eastern Michigan from 1992-97, leading the Eagles to their first Mid-American Conference championship in 1996.
Several members of his Eastern Michigan team attended a benefit for him on June 30 at the Isle of Capri.
“You have helped our lives in so many ways. Thank you for everything that you taught us in the time we had with you. You will be missed dearly. My thoughts and prayers go out to your family at this very difficult time. Rest in peace Coach,” posted former EMU wrestler Frank Haliburda on Facebook.
Gadson also had stops at the prep level, including a stint as an assistant at Iowa City West before landing at Waterloo East in 2004.