Willie Gadson started his elite wrestling career by pinning opponents at Huntington High School and became a two-time All-American at Iowa State before a long, respected career coaching the sport.
Gadson died Sunday after a yearlong battle with bone and lung cancer in Iowa. He was 59.
His son, Kyven Gadson, won the 197-pound title for Iowa State at the 2013 Big 12 Wrestling Championships this past Saturday -- the night before his father's death. Kyven will compete at nationals next week, and his uncle said he couldn't have had a better high school coach than the athlete's own dad.
"When I watch Kyven wrestle I'm in disbelief," said Charlie Gadson of Huntington, Willie's younger brother. "Willie was working with him since the second grade. He would watch and replay films and study all the time with his son. I feel that's why Kyven is so good."
Gadson, the wrestling coach at East High School in Waterloo, Iowa, guided his son to a pair of high school state championships.
Willie Gadson earned All-American honors in 1975 and 1976 at Iowa State and finished third at 177 pounds at the NCAA Championships in 1975 and sixth in 1976. Before that, he compiled a 45-0 record at Nassau Community College.
Even more impressive, said Lou Giani, his wrestling coach at Huntington School, Gadson was the 190-pound Midlands Tournament Champion in 1977 and 1978. Gadson also placed fourth at 180.5 pounds in 1982 in the Tbilisi Tournament in the former Soviet Union -- a tournament many in the wrestling circle consider to be the toughest in the world.
"He was a great champion and role model for Huntington. You couldn't find a better athlete or human being," Giani said.
After his competitive career, he turned to coaching, first as an assistant at Iowa State from 1979 to 1982. He was the head coach at Eastern Michigan from 1992 to 1997, leading the Eagles to their first Mid-American Conference championship in 1996.
"I was hoping all the time that he would become a coach," Giani said. "He was great with teaching kids all that he knew."
"He touched so many lives because of wrestling," his brother said. "He invested in the kids he coached and had such passion for wrestling. He was a natural wrestler but he was also a great brother."
In addition to his son, Kyven, Willie Gadson is survived by his wife of 32 years, Denita; two daughters, Dawn and Brook; and another son, Jared.
Funeral services will be Monday at East High School.