COUNCIL BLUFFS — The white cloth is frayed in spots. It feels a little more like paper with every wash cycle.
A Fruit of the Loom tag reveals the T-shirt is a large, and the sleeves have been cut off at the shoulders. Only one thing identifies this worn piece of clothing as anything other than an old workout top.
Six black, block letters across the chest say it all: ANIMAL.
The distinction has set apart one Council Bluffs Lewis Central wrestler at a time for the last three decades. What began as sort of a joke in 1984 developed into an ongoing tradition in which a graduating honoree needs to decide which returner is best equipped to represent the spirit of the program.
Doug Kjeldgaard wore the shirt during the 1988-89 season on his way to a state championship at 145 pounds. Now L.C.’s head coach, he’s seen the dominance of the Animal moniker span generations.
Twenty-eight wrestlers have owned the shirt and averaged more than 41 wins per season with it. In the 30 years before this one, presiding Animal representatives have accumulated 11 state titles, qualified for state 28 times and racked up an all-time record of 1,259-112-2.
Many of these former standouts will meet for the first time and be honored in a ceremony between duals Thursday night at Lewis Central. Others are planning to return as part of an all-alumni wrestling reunion Saturday evening at the Mid-America Center.
“When I look back at all those guys and where they are now, it’s amazing the quality of people that have had that Animal shirt,” Kjeldgaard said. “It’s kind of a cross-section of society. But the thing in common is everybody — every one — are successful individuals in society and good citizens.”
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John Fuller jokes that the indignity isn’t lost on him. He’s well aware he’s the only Animal never to wrestle at state.
But his less-than-elite ability helped create a legacy that lives on. Coming off an average season as a junior, Fuller received a good-natured gift from his parents before his senior year. Looking for a way to support their tenacious teenager while on vacation that summer, they found a white shirt embossed with the singular word “Animal.” Maybe it would provide some encouragement.
Fuller went on to post a 19-7 record at 138 pounds, sporting the top before every match. When his winter was finished, he decided to give the shirt to then-junior Craig Wilwerding — a friend who often pounded on Fuller during workouts.
“It’s not necessarily the best wrestler, it was just the best leader,” said Fuller, who recently moved from Glenwood to Omaha with his wife, Deanna, after their last child graduated from high school. “I didn’t think it would be a 30-year tradition. Heck, I didn’t think it would be a three-year tradition. I would like to say it was my big plan, but it wasn’t.”
Wilwerding stored the shirt in a safe place during the offseason. He cut off the sleeves, and it was always near him the next year as he went 26-6 and finished fifth at state at 167 pounds.
Now 47 years old, Wilwerding recalls at first agreeing to wear the shirt only out of respect for Fuller. But as his career wound down, he found himself wanting to make a similar impact on a younger teammate. He passed the apparel on to Erik Petersen — a state qualifier in 1987 — before Doug Knotek assumed it and captured a state title in 1988.
Wilwerding spearheaded the notion of an Animal reunion, choosing now because “in 10 years, who knows where I’ll be?” A senior vice president of global operations for a logistics company based in Seattle, he’s planning to fly back to Omaha on Thursday for a walk down memory lane.
“It’s amazing how fast it all goes,” Wilwerding said. “It’s amazing how 30 years later this Animal shirt thing is still going.”
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Trent Paulson accomplished a lot in his wrestling career — multiple state titles, an NCAA gold medal while at Iowa State. He was even a World Team member for the United States in 2009.
Right up there with all of it was when teammate Aaron Smith handed him the Animal shirt at the L.C. year-end banquet in 2001.
Paulson, now an assistant coach at Iowa State, grew up watching other Titans excel on the mats. The Animal tradition remains unlike anything he’s seen at any of his other wrestling stops. He’d like to start something like it in Ames because of the powerful motivation it can provide.
“Those guys didn’t want to go out there and just win — they wanted to dominate,” Paulson said. “When they dominated, the wins took care of themselves. It’s not just a style but an attitude. It’s something you can carry over into all areas of life.”
Perhaps best of all for Paulson was the way his Animal shirt gnawed at his identical brother, Travis, who won three state championships and finished his Lewis Central career at 172-3.
“He was pissed,” Trent Paulson said. “Travis said, ‘That shirt’s mine,’ and tried to take it from me a couple times. But I never let him have it.”
The actual shirt has been replaced multiple times over the years. Early Animals say the original disintegrated after about five years because of so much wear, tear and washing. In 1995, wearer Adam Bendorf capped an unbeaten season with a state crown but lost the shirt in the arena.
Paulson remembers his top as being short — the kind he’d wear under football pads — and definitely an extra-large. He usually wore it at dual meets and before tournament finals.
The current version, held by senior 195-pounder Hayden Waldstein, has undergone more than one bleach treatment to remove blood spots. Waldstein — who ships out to basic training with the Marines on Sept. 19 — is one of four Titans to be an Animal for more than one season.
He hasn’t decided yet who will be the next steward of L.C. wrestling’s most cherished honor.
“I’m looking for someone who’s going to go out and work hard and give it their best on the mat,” Waldstein said. “Most important: Don’t quit, because I hate quitters.
“It’s a lot to live up to and you have a lot of expectations from people because you’re known as ‘The Animal.’ You need to go out and perform, otherwise it’s kind of embarrassing. But it’s tradition.”
Kjeldgaard said the Animal reunion could answer a philosophical question he’s long held. Did wrestling play a part in the character development of these individuals — men who have scattered all over the country to find success as physicians, businessmen and traders? Or were people like that attracted to wrestling?
Either way, it’s an experience that continues to impact its exclusive alumni. In advance of their Thursday meeting, many submitted thoughts and stories looking back on being an Animal. Common lessons learned included the value of relationships and hard work and the humility that losing can bring.
“The Animal shirt is something that is in the makeup of Lewis Central wrestling,” Kjeldgaard said. “It’s a tradition that is part of our program. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to take it on and pass it on to the next guy.”
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