DV’s Matthews’ life changed 15 years ago with word of slaying - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

DV’s Matthews’ life changed 15 years ago with word of slaying

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Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011 6:00 pm | Updated: 3:28 pm, Thu Dec 13, 2012.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to show people their direction in life.

John Matthews is a Desert Vista guidance counselor and assistant wrestling coach today, but before Jan. 26, 1996, he was working for the Miller Brewing Company in New Mexico making good money in the corporate world.

Then the news came.

On that day the amateur wrestling community was devastated with word that U.S. Olympic wrestler and world champion Dave Schultz was shot to death by John du Pont, a financial backer of the sport, at du Pont's estate.

Much like the Tucson shooting last week it left people dumbfounded as to the reasoning. It was senseless. No one had answers.

With the Schultz shooting, Matthews, a fellow Olympian, was able to turn it into a positive.

"It really affected me," said Matthews, 59, of Ahwatukee Foothills. "One of the best in the world is no longer here. It showed me another path. You have all of this experience and you have to give back. My passion to help others has always been there. I thought this is what I have to do and that's really why I got back into coaching."

The news of Schultz's death sent shock waves to Matthews' soul. He started rethinking his bitterness toward the sport that began after the 1984 Greco-Roman Olympic Trials.

Matthews represented the country in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as the 163-pound Greco-Roman entrant. He didn't place in '76 and, although he made the team, didn't get a chance to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (after being considered the favorite as the 1979 gold medalist at the Pan-Am Games) as the United States boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Matthews was the first alternate to Chris Catalfo. Matthews felt he was relegated to an alternate's role because of politics that came with a new coach. Catalfo was considered No. 1 despite the fact that Matthews had ruled their career matchups except for their most important one.

"I dominated the weight class for all of those years," said the 1978 World Cup Silver medalist. "They say they always want the best wrestlers to represent the country. Well, when you beat a kid five times (over the course of several years) and lose once, you should get a chance to wrestle off again. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.

"I left a little bit bitter and for 15 years I never went back."

But after the Schultz shooting, Matthews kept hearing how the man he beat twice in two challenges was referred to as a legend and it hit home that he was wasting his knowledge and experience.

"I dusted off the wrestling shoes and went to a local high school (in New Mexico)," he said. "People were referring to him as a legend, and I am going, ‘Wow, I beat that guy. You were OK in your day. You know what, brush yourself off and keep being OK.'

"With all that experience, in a way, it is like a doctorate degree. You can't keep that bottled up anymore. Pass it on."

The wrestlers in the Thunder program have been the benefactors since 2000 when he and the family found their way to Ahwatukee Foothills.

"He made an immediate impact," said then-assistant and current head coach David Gonzalez. "You'd never know he was an Olympian by the way he carries himself, but when he gets in the room it comes flowing out and his knowledge is unmatched."

His presence in the school, of course, isn't limited to the wrestling room. He gets a new set of students each year to lend a hand.

Being a student counselor is a great place for an Olympian to pass on his/her perspective. Who is better equipped for a four-year journey than someone who had the discipline of an Olympian, who lives and strives for one specific goal for four grinding years, the same amount of time it takes a freshman to prepare for college?

The same goes for the Thunder wrestling program. There are many terrific coaches in the state, but Matthews is a former USA Junior World Team coach, who won the Veterans Greco-Roman National title in 2003 at age 51, and still steps on the mat.

"There is no way I'd be where I am at without him," state-placer Ace Martinez said. "He works with you and purposely makes mistakes that a high school wrestler would so you are prepared for every possibly situation."

Matthews, a Flint, Mich., native, has been through a lot in his life. He grew up in foster homes, competed internationally and dealt, with the help of their three children, with the death of his wife, Becky, three years ago on Halloween due to lung cancer.

And, yet, when you come across Matthews none of this is evident, especially his time spent as an Olympian. All of it, however, combines to give him a great perspective that is passed on throughout the halls of Desert Vista as a leader, a father, a sounding board, a coach, an inspiration and someone who always sees the positive of any situation.

"You can't run around pouting all of your life and living in the past," he said. "I don't know if you ever get over those types of things, but you keep moving forward. Being the competitor that I am, it took a lot of the same mind set to get through those things. When you are down and you can't get up, you have to do whatever it takes."

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