Remembering former Blue Earth wrestling great
Al DeLeon found success on the mat as a wrestler and as a coach
The news of the death of former Blue Earth resident and three-time State wresting champion, Al DeLeon, saddened those who had gotten to know him from his days as a student at the local school on their way to lifelong friendships.
DeLeon, 82, died on Dec. 16, after battling Parkinson’s disease for many years.
“Al was one of the quickest wrestlers I have ever watched move around the mat,” Buccaneer teammate and friend, A.B. Russ, says. “At practice he would have a team member stand on the edge of the six-foot circle located at the center of the mat, he would do the same thing across from his teammate. Al would grab the other wrestler’s ankle before they could back out of the circle. He was that quick.”
DeLeon almost won a fourth State title but lost on a referee’s decision in the semifinals in 1956. He came back the next year and claimed the championship honors once again.
“Actually, he qualified for the State tournament a fifth time,” Gary Olsen, another teammate and friend adds. “He qualified as an eighth grader but his family was poor and he did not go.”
DeLeon was a member of the Blue Earth wrestling squad which had five individual champions in the same year, when there was only one class in the sport.
“It was his junior year in 1957,” Russ, who was also a champion that year, recalls. “Having five state champions helped establish Blue Earth as a wrestling dynasty.”
While DeLeon was obviously talented, Olsen says his work ethic is what put him on top.
“When he was younger, he asked the wrestling coach at the time, Keith Young, ‘How do I get to be state champion?'” Olsen recalls. “The coach told him he had to work hard. Al replied, ‘Is that all? I have been working hard my whole life.'”
Olsen said DeLeon’s statement was absolutely true.
“He chopped wood, fixed cars and worked in the fields among other things,” Olsen comments. “His mother had died when Al was pretty young; it was not an easy situation for the family.”
Olsen says he got a taste of working with the DeLeons one summer.
“I worked with Al, his father, who was Papa Joe, and his brother, young Joe,” he explains. “It was hard work and they were all speaking Spanish and I did not like it that I could not understand what they were saying.”
But it was a catalyst for further growth in the relationship of the two young men.
“Al started teaching me Spanish,” Olsen explains. “That led me to take Spanish courses in high school and college and I eventually became a high school Spanish teacher.”
But the conversation once again returned to DeLeon’s attitude.
“He and his family had such a strong work ethic. They were always striving to be better and he took that attitude with him on the wrestling mat,” Olsen says. “The mantra of “Never Give Up” has been around a long time and Al certainly lived that way.”
Olsen says they were coached that way in high school.
“Coach Lybbert would tell Al, ‘If you lose we better have to carry you off the mat, because you better have given everything you had,” Olsen comments. “Iowa was known for their wrestling at the time and Blue Earth would wrestle at least five or six Iowa schools each season because the coaches knew it would make us better.”
DeLeon’s wrestling success continued at Mankato State College where he won three conference titles and was runner up in the National Collegiate Tournament at least once, according to Russ.
He is also a member of the Minnesota State Mavericks Athletic Hall of Fame.
Mankato State was also where he would meet his future wife, Lois, who was from Tyler. The DeLeons were blessed with three children; John, Justin and Marlene.
DeLeon would move to Iowa after college. He taught Spanish and coached at Britt/West Hancock High School from 1962 to 1995. His teams won state titles in 1971, 1972 and 1973. In addition to the three state titles, DeLeon coached the Eagles to seven state runner-up finishes. His career dual meet record was 273-138-15.
DeLeon was also honored with the Lifetime Service to Wrestling Award by the Iowa Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Al had a way with kids, whether it was his Spanish students or wrestlers,” Olsen says. “He was so nice, so personable and had a way of encouraging them which produced excellent results.”