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Butch Keaser, Genuine Hero, Still Grapples To Help Others

February 14, 2011

By Keith Mills

The medal sits somewhere in Butch Keaser's home in Ashland, Va.  

"It's either downstairs in the basement or in the bedroom," Keaser said. "I'm not really sure."

The medal is not just any medal. It's the silver medal he won in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But instead of displaying it on a living-room mantel or family-room shelf, Keaser sits it amid the many other trophies and awards he won as one of the finest competitors in the history of U.S. wrestling.

Wrestling great turned coach Butch Keaser (left) shared his wisdom with a group of youngsters at a recent Navy Camp.

But there is one thing his wife, Kate, does proudly display

"I received a 40-pound granite plaque, an image of myself, when I was inducted into the wrestling Hall of Fame," Keaser said. "That's the one she has out."  

Lloyd Weldon "Butch" Keaser is now 60 years old. Retired from IBM, he is an assistant wrestling coach at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, where he makes the 60-mile commute every day from northern Virginia to assist Asmar Hagler and his Wildecats wrestling team.

Keaser is always, and will forever be, a Baltimore native son who not only made it, but made it big in a variety of ways -- business, education and certainly in wrestling, where he was the first black wrestler to medal in the Olympics.

"A lot of people want to give me a lot of the credit, but I had a tremendous amount of help,” Keaser said. “I was surrounded by a lot of great coaches, wonderful coaches who showed me the way. It was all a very humbling experience."

And 35 years later, he remains as humble and as modest as ever.

Along with his brothers Mike and Clyde and sisters Angie, Ruth and Deborah, Keaser grew up in the Pumphrey section of Brooklyn Park, an all-black community in northern Anne Arundel County. As a freshman at Brooklyn Park High in 1964, he was a baseball and soccer player and a huge fan of pro wrestling.

" Ronnie McCall was my next-door neighbor, and we used to go out in the backyard and emulate all of these wrestling moves we'd watch on TV," Keaser said. "Well, one day Ronnie pulled what's called a 'switch' on me. It's a wrestling move that I'd never seen before. I asked him where he learned it, and he said on the high school wrestling team. He talked me into going out for the team."

Keaser tried out for the team the very next day, and he made it. There was one problem, though. The kid he beat out as a freshman for the 103-pound weight class roster spot was McCall.

Keaser played soccer at Brooklyn Park for Butch Young and baseball for coach Chuck Bragg, while he wrestled for Dick Purdy and the late Ron Pritchard. He graduated in 1968 after going 22-0 his senior year with 20 pins, and although there were no state championships at that time, Keaser did win three Anne Arundel County and two District championships.

As a sophomore he lost only once (to Chuck Selby of Andover, whom Keaser later beat for the county championship) and caught the eye of Navy coach Ed Peery, who invited him to an Olympic Development camp after his junior year and recruited him to attend the United States Naval Academy.

Keaser graduated from Navy in 1972 as a two-time All-American. That same year, he was an alternate to the U.S. Olympic team, losing only to Dan Gable, who went on to win a gold medal in the Munich summer games and is considered one of this country's greatest wrestlers ever.

Keaser spent the next five years in the Marine Corps, where he served as an instructor at the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., and continued to wrestle. In 1973, he won a world championship and in 1976 he made the U.S. Olympic team.

His roommate at the Olympic Trials in Brockport, N.Y., was Larry Avery, the Big 10 heavyweight champ from Michigan State, who is one of Keaser's best friends, a former teammate at Brooklyn Park High and a neighbor in Pumphrey.

"How do you figure that?" Keaser said. "Two kids from tiny little Pumphrey in Anne Arundel County together at Olympic Trials -- to this day it's one of the biggest thrills of my career to share that experience with one of my best friends."

Avery just missed making the team, though Keaser earned a roster spot at 69 kiligrams (149 pounds) to become the first Baltimorean to earn an Olympic wrestling berth.

"Words can't describe what an honor that was," Keaser said. "Attending the academy and representing your country, that was one thing. Doing it at the Olympics with USA on your shirt was another, just a tremendous thrill."

Peery, the legendary Navy coach who passed away in June 2010 at age 75, was by Keaser's side throughout the journey.

"Dick Purdy knew coach Peery," Keaser said. "That was the connection, and I experienced a great deal of growth under him. He was like a father to me. I mean I was almost part of his family."

In a strange way, so was the wrestling team at Mount St. Joseph, coached then by Neal Adelberg. Peery's son, Greg, was a prep All-American at Mount St. Joe for Adelberg. In August 1976 Peery, his father Rex, Greg, Adelberg and Guy Zanti, another member of the Mount St. Joe wrestling team, drove to Montreal to watch Keaser represent Baltimore and the United States in the Summer Games.

Adelberg, who now organizes the Mount Mat Madness wrestling tournament and remains a huge advocate for local wrestling, documented the trip a few weeks later in Maryland Wrestling News, a publication he started when he took over for Hal Sparks as Mount St. Joe's wrestling coach.

"Ed rented a Winnebago," Adelberg wrote. "I did some shopping, we all threw some clothes together and off we went to spend seven fantastic days visiting the 21st Olympiad. Together we shared the nervous moments, the thrills of the victory and the agony of the lone defeat. In a few short days, it became obvious to all of us that Keaser is of gold-medal quality, which is longer lasting and more brilliant than the silver medal earned at the Olympics."

Keaser's lone defeat in Montreal became one of the most bizarre episodes in Olympic wrestling history. He beat Yasaburo Sugawara of Japan during the semifinals to earn a berth in the finals opposite Pavel Pinigin of the Soviet Union. Wayne Baughman, a former University of Oklahoma All-American and three-time Olympian, led the Team USA coaching staff.

"Because I had so few black marks (penalty points) heading into the finals, the coaches said I could lose by as many as 11 points and still win the gold medal," Keaser said. "So I went out and did what I thought I had to do, but I did not want to get pinned."

He didn’t get pinned, but he did lose, 12-1. Unfortunately, the information the coaches gave Keaser was wrong. Instead of the cushion being 11 points, it was actually only seven, so instead of winning the gold medal, he was awarded the silver.

"When the match ended," Keaser said, "I thought I had won the gold medal. Everybody blamed the coaches. I mean they took a beating from the media and fans. But I don't blame them. I blame me. I should've wrestled my normal match, should've stayed aggressive and just took my shot."

Stunned and disappointed, he returned to Baltimore a few days later, though a hero's welcome in his hometown erased the sting of defeat. With Anne Arundel County executive Bob Pascal leading the way, Pumphrey Elementary School was renamed the Lloyd Keaser Community Center, an honor he still cherishes to this day.

"I had no idea that was happening," Keaser said. "Mr. Pascal was part of the celebration. All of my family and friends were there. To this day, it's the biggest honor I've ever received, even more than the Olympics or the world championship. The school was closed a couple of years earlier because of desegregation and to have my name on it was just unbelievable. I still keep pinching myself." 

Adelberg and Keaser have remained close. They teamed the last two years to take a group of Maryland wrestlers to Fargo, N.D., for the Junior National Freestyle and Greco-Roman championships, while Keaser has settled in now as an assistant to Hagler at Wilde Lake.

"When I retired from IBM, I thought about getting into coaching, and I scouted around for some things,” Keaser said. “I was told to contact the athletic director at Wilde Lake ( Vince Parnell). When I met Asmar, there was an instant connection. I love the guy and I love his priorities. He's all about education and the kids' welfare.

"We have a diverse population at Wilde Lake. We have kids who want to go to school and continue their education at the next level and we have some at-risk kids. Asmar understands that. He treats the kids with respect and he demands respect. He wants to win, but it's so much more than just winning and losing. I could not be in a better place."

Injuries have taken a toll on the Wildecats this season, though they are still one of Howard County's dominant teams with junior Alex Polonsky (112 pounds) and senior Alvin Harris (189) both likely to make runs at state championships, much like Zach Brown did four years ago when he won a state title at 215. Brown is now a starting middle linebacker at North Carolina, an All-America candidate and proof that any goal can be achieved.

"We had a kid go to West Point a couple of years ago," Keaser said, "and we've had some kids go to Navy and some Ivy League schools. I tell them the way it is. I don't pull any punches. I tell them how crazy it can be. But I love these kids. Asmar has allowed me to come in here and work with the kids and it definitely helps keep me young."

Issue 158: February 2011