By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Tyler Stenberg remembers wrestling against a nationally-ranked opponent at a tournament in the fall of 2013 at Muskegon Community College.
His father, Rick Stenberg, was in the audience, sitting in a wheelchair.
It was the last time Stenberg’s dad had the chance to watch him wrestle. He died a few weeks later.
Stenberg lost that match by one frustrating point.
Forward to February of 2014, when Stenberg was wrestling at the national junior college finals.
He was competing against the same opponent he faced when his father was watching, and was losing by five points. There was a time out in the action, and Stenberg was looking for some extra motivation.
He felt like he could still turn to his dad, like he always had in the past.
“I just looked up and said ‘Dad please help me with this,'” Stenberg said. “Then I came back and beat him. I got the takedown in overtime and won.”
Stenberg will be on the mat Wednesday when the Muskegon Community College wrestling team hosts the second annual Rick Stenberg Memorial Duals at Reeths-Puffer High School.
Stenberg didn’t wrestle in the first memorial tournament last year. It was too soon after his father’s death, and he and his brother, who was also on the MCC squad, were spending some time away from competition.
But this year’s he’s excited about taking part in a tournament that’s named after his biggest fan. He said his mother, brother and grandparents will be there to watch.
The event will begin at 5 p.m. with two high school matches featuring the Reeths-Puffer wrestling team. The MCC squad will wrestle Grand Valley State University after the high school matches.
Admission is $5 and all proceeds go to the Rick Stenberg Scholarship Fund, which benefits Reeths-Puffer wrestlers and other athletes.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Stenberg, an MCC sophomore who is ranked third in the nation in the 149-pound weight class. “It’s a great experience knowing it’s for him. Wrestling at my old high school is going to bring back some memories. I can’t think of a time my dad wasn’t there. Any time he got a call for business, he would tell them why he couldn’t do the job. He had to watch his kids wrestle.”
Rick Stenberg was a standout wrestler in the late 1970s at Orchard View High School. He started teaching the sport to his sons, Cody and Tyler, as soon as they were old enough to understand the concept, and taught and supported them over the years.
He had the pleasure of watching his sons become All-State wrestlers at Reeths-Puffer High School.
Rick Stenberg was not Reeths-Puffer’s coach, but he was the next best thing. He was the team’s top booster, doing anything he could do to help, according to his son.
He would operate the scoring table. He would take young wrestlers aside after matches and give them advice. He would always be there with a few bucks for wrestlers who had empty pockets.
Rick Stenberg loved wrestling, and he loved watching his boys compete.
“When we took a bus to a tournament an hour away, he would be there a half hour before us, with food already made – crock pots full of food, jugs of Gatorade and water,” Stenberg said. “He was more excited than we were. It was crazy how involved he was. It was awesome to always have him there.”
Stenberg’s older brother, Cody, joined the MCC wrestling team in 2012 after graduating from Reeths-Puffer. Stenberg did the same in the fall of 2013.
Stenberg started his freshman season full of hope for the future, with no idea that his world was about to unravel.
The horrible news came in November, 2013 that Rick Stenberg had pancreatic cancer.
Stenberg and his brother learned their father was going to die on Nov. 17, which was also their dad’s birthday. He passed away Nov. 30 at the age of 55.
“They caught it in the fourth stage,” Stenberg said. “There was no turning back.”
Stenberg remembers wrestling at a tournament in Illinois last season, the week after his dad watched him compete for the last time. He came home and showed his father a video of a match he was particularly proud of.
“I wrestled a freshman who was really good and I beat him,” Stenberg said. “I showed my dad the video, and his eyes were closed the whole time. He couldn’t even watch it.
“I just ran out of the room crying. That’s when I really realized he was dying. Before that I had been telling myself that he was going to get through it. I finally realized he wasn’t going to be there next year.”
Both Stenberg and his brother left the wrestling team their father passed away. Cody started managing the family business and didn’t return.
But Stenberg felt a pull after a couple of months and rejoined the team.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did it for him,” Stenberg said. “He wanted me to keep going. I knew he did.”
At the junior college national tournament last season, Stenberg not only rallied to beat the wrestler he lost to in front of his dad, but won two more matches the first day of the event and won All-American honors in the 149-pound weight class.
“He’s a pretty good athlete,” said MCC wrestling coach James Tietema, who was an assistant coach last season. “I think his first tournament back last year was about this time. He had about six weeks to get in shape (for nationals). Working as hard as he does, getting back into shape didn’t take him too long.”
This season Stenberg has picked up where he left off, posting more than 20 wins against only three losses for the Jayhawks. His personal goal is to win a national title in his weight class this year, then wrestle at a four-year college next season.
He says his father still motivates and influences his wrestling, every day of the season.
“I just used a move this weekend (at a tournament in Indiana) that he taught me in the basement when I was five,” Stenberg said. “I showed my buddy on the team, and he said it was a really good move. I told him I learned it from my dad.”