By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
TEMPERANCE – Just before the Temperance Bedford wrestling team was to enter the arena at Kalamazoo’s Wings Event Center for opening ceremonies of the MHSAA Team Finals this winter, head coach Kevin Vogel told Connor Bartlett he had a job for him.
“I had no idea what it was,” Bartlett said. “Then, he called me up to the front and handed me the flag.”
Bartlett had been chosen to usher in the event. It was a moving tribute to the 17-year-old Bedford athlete who, about a year ago, wasn’t sure he would still be alive.
“It was a great honor,” Bartlett said. “I had never been to the state finals before. I didn’t know anything about the ceremony.
“We were the first team to enter the arena. They had me carrying the flag for the City of Kalamazoo. I led my team and all of the wrestlers into the arena. It was amazing. It’s something I’ll never forget. To be at the forefront of my team and lead them was fantastic.”
Bartlett was the perfect choice to lead Bedford into its first trip to Finals weekend since 2016. The senior wrestler missed his junior season on the mat while he battled testicular carcinoma. At times, he was forced to make peace with the possibility that the cancer might win.
“I always kept that in mind – that I wanted to get back on the mat. That was a big source of inspiration and something I wanted,” he said.
Bartlett went to Ottawa Lake Whiteford until his freshman year, when his family moved into neighboring Bedford Township. He had never wrestled before but had heard about Bedford’s storied wrestling program.
“My brother had started wrestling a year or two before me,” he said. “I had always heard about Bedford’s wrestling program. My freshman year came, and I played football at Bedford. I thought I would wrestle as a way to stay in shape for football. I ended up loving wrestling so much I decided to give up football and concentrate on wrestling.”
That first year on the mat, he said, there was a huge learning curve.
“My first year was pretty rough,” he said. “I only won a single match all year.”
His sophomore year saw rapid improvement, enough that he won a JV tournament.
“I do not consider myself a natural at wrestling,” he said. “It was 100-percent hard work. Actually, most of it was the great coaches that Bedford has.”
He anticipated an even more improved season as a junior, but that had to be put on hold. Near the end of his sophomore school year, Bartlett was watching TV at home when the right side of his body went numb. It felt, to him, like it fell asleep. He didn’t think much of it until a short time later he was at school and it happened again. This time, it was his entire body that went numb.
“The paramedics came,” he said. “I knew something was wrong.”
After a series of tests, doctors soon discovered Bartlett had testicular carcinoma. If that wasn’t enough bad news, doctors told Bartlett it was stage four.
“It had spread to my lungs, my brain and part of my kidney,” he said.
He began chemotherapy treatments almost immediately. He had tumors removed, went through more treatments and had a bone marrow transplant that kept him hospitalized for about 40 days. It was during that time that Vogel brought the Bedford wrestling team on a surprise visit to see him at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. The visit had a major impact on him, Bartlett said.
“That was pretty big,” he said. “I had so much support.”
While doctors continued treatments, scans and tests, Bartlett never lost faith.
“It was pretty severe,” he said. “The doctors told me everything. I didn’t want them to hold anything back.
“Throughout the process I was at peace. I was calm. I had 100-percent faith if I died, I would wake up in heaven. I had no doubts about that.”
While things looked bleak at times, Bartlett pressed on, determined. The treatments worked. Finally, the last spot of cancer on his lungs went away, and the cancer remains in remission. He’s had a couple of follow-up tests and is cancer-free now.
He rejoined the wrestling team this year. Bartlett had lost between 20-30 pounds but was able to get back to his wrestling weight for the season.
“I had done some stuff, but I had just started to lift and run around the time the season started,” Bartlett said. “Once I got used to it, I was just working out with the team. It was an ongoing thing. It felt good to get back into the swing of things. I was done with that portion of my life.”
It was about midseason that he began to feel like he was back in wrestling shape. He ended the season with a 13-14 record.
“It was better than I could have expected,” Bartlett said.
Now that wrestling season is complete, Bartlett is focused on the next stage in life. He wants to go to college, study nursing, and become a missionary through the church in Lambertville where his dad, Brett Bartlett, is pastor. He wants to take the message of God to other countries. A couple of years ago he went on a mission trip to Hungary and helped put on what amounted to a vacation Bible school for children. “It was awesome seeing all of these kids accept Christ,” he said. “It was great to be part of that.”
Bartlett is grateful for his church, family and teammates who stuck with him through the entire ordeal. His dad, mom (Kim) and three siblings were always by his side.
“They were with me 100 percent,” he said. “I always had someone by my bedside. They gave up part of their lives to be with me.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Temperance Bedford’s Connor Bartlett leads his team into the Wings Event Center arena before the Division 1 Team Quarterfinals on Feb. 28. (Middle) Bartlett prepares to carry the City of Kalamazoo flag during the procession. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”
Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.
Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.
“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”
Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.
He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.
“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.
“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”
After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.
However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.
That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.
“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.
“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.
“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”
Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.
“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”
After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.
“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”
Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.
Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.
Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.
“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.
“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”
The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.
“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.
“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”
Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.
“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.
“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”
The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.
“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”
Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.
“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.
“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”
Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.
“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”
Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.
“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.
“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”
Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.
“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)