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An investment for the decades

ryan mcgaughey/daily globe Doug Bullerman (left) does what he's done for more than 40 years -- coach young wrestlers -- during a practice last week at Adrian High School.

ADRIAN -- Doug Bullerman freely admits he has never wrestled a match in his life, but that doesn't mean he isn't a wrestling expert.

Indeed, the 62-year-old farmer and president of Son-D-Farms Inc. has made wrestling a centerpiece of his life since 1972 -- and he isn't ready to take the fall yet.

"I still manage the Adrian wrestling program for kids from kindergarten through sixth grade," said Bullerman. "It's a nice age to work with, and if you get 'em to learn it young, they gain a lot of experience so when they get to junior high and high school, they can step in there and hold their own."

In his youth, Bullerman was occupied during after-school hours helping on the family farm rather than with sports.

"I was a small, working farm boy," Bullerman shared.

After graduating from St. Adrian High School in 1968, he attended Jackson Vocational School for two years before spending time on active duty in the National Guard and returning to farming.

"But my third brother, Dean, started wrestling in seventh grade, and I started watching him," explained Bullerman. "He did real well, but I got the urge to teach my younger brothers so they'd have a little more advantage."

Fully infected with the wrestling bug, Bullerman recalls purchasing a wrestling mat and putting it in one of the family's upstairs bedrooms so his younger brothers -- Dale, Dean, Delbert and David--could practice their moves daily.

"It was on-the-job training for me," Bullerman said.

Bullerman observed and learned the skills soundly enough to help coach not only his younger brothers and at least 10 nephews in wrestling, but dozens and dozens of other Adrian-area youths over the years.

"We've had some great success, and won seven or eight state championships with different divisions -- USA Wrestling, and five Northland Youth Wrestling Association titles," he noted.

Along the way, Bullerman has become something of a legend in Adrian's wrestling history.

Bruce Loosbrock of Lismore, who coached with Bullerman for nine years before spending the past 11 years as a volunteer assistant coach with the Adrian High School wrestling squad, can spin seemingly endless stories related to Bullerman and wrestling.

"Doug is one of those coaches whose coaching never ended with practice or tournaments," said Loosbrock. "He always went out and visited kids during the summer and talked to a lot of mothers, because he said, 'If I can convince the mothers the boys should wrestle, they'll do it; don't waste much time with the fathers, because it's the mothers who have to agree,'" chuckled Loosbrock.

And Loosbrock fondly mentions Bullerman's penchant for constantly clutching a clipboard, on which he takes copious notes at practices and tournaments.

"His typical clipboard is at least three inches thick with notes, and he always writes down what kids did that day, what they have to work on at practice -- and occasionally the clipboard goes flying, but never at the kids," said Loosbrock. "His motto is, 'I yell because I care,' and he would tell kids who were crushed about a certain match, 'Don't cry now, I'll cry with you later.'

"He loves wrestling, there's no doubt about it, and Doug has been very influential with wrestling in this area," added Loosbrock.

Bullerman admits to regularly sporting shirts lettered with "I yell because I care," and says it is all in the name of wanting the kids to do their absolute best.

"I've had those shirts for practice and tournaments, and people recognize me because I wear them to all the tournaments," said Bullerman. "I do get excited when the kids are wrestling, not because I'm mad at them -- OK, sometimes I am mad -- but it's good yelling, trying to encourage them.

"Wrestling takes a lot of practice and hard work -- it's not a real easy sport, it's physical -- but they can get out of it what they put into it," he asserted. "If they want to try hard and give it all they've got, they'll do well.

"Kids have learned discipline, and that they have to practice before they're good enough to start winning," Bullerman continued. "The biggest thing that helps is having parents behind them who support them and take them to tournaments.

"It takes time and effort to be a good wrestler, and we wouldn't have the success we've had here without the parents doing what they've done."

Loosbrock and a former wrestling protégé of Bullerman's, Bruce Heitkamp, agree that Bullerman has given his all, and then some, for the benefit of the many young wrestlers he's coached -- especially when some might be lacking in the all-important parental support Bullerman cites as being critical.

"I can't imagine the amount of money he's spent on meals and housing for kids at tournaments over the years," said Heitkamp, who wrestled for Bullerman in the mid '70s to early '80s before moving on to the Adrian varsity wrestling team. Heitkamp's son, Hunter, now an Adrian High School ninth-grader, also learned wrestling from Bullerman.

"Without Doug having taken as many kids to the tournaments over the years, and without him helping all of the kids, despite financial challenges or lack of parental support, Adrian's teams wouldn't have been what they are without him," Heitkamp added.

Loosbrock agrees.

"I've seen him pull money out of his pocket countless times for entry fees, food or hotels," Loosbrock said of Bullerman, "and he'd tell kids, 'Don't worry about it, I'll get you there.' A lot of people might not realize he's helped so many kids out financially, even offering them jobs, and he visits kids he's worked with when they've gotten into trouble or dropped out of wrestling.

"He doesn't let them lay down and quit -- he'd say, 'Don't quit now, you might regret it later,' and I know a lot of kids have come back and thanked him for pushing them and introducing them to wrestling."

For his part, Bullerman is modest but honest about the time and money he's given to Adrian Youth Wrestling over the years.

"I've never charged any kids for any wrestling I've taught -- it's all been volunteer -- and we've tried to save parents some money with the wrestling club paying for uniforms for team tournaments and helping with the travel and tournament entry fees," said Bullerman, noting the Adrian club sponsors the membership cards for the young wrestlers and there are no fees for practices.

"I've hauled a lot of kids to these wrestling tournaments, because you need to be exposed to wrestling for a long time to get it -- it's an intangible thing, and you can't buy experience," Bullerman added.

"I make sure the kids have their uniforms and shoes, and always carry extras with me, plus a medical kit for headaches, earaches, toothaches," he laughed. "I tell the kids, 'Don't starve, just watch what you eat, do a good job of cleaning up.' I constantly remind them about good hygiene.

"There are a lot of things involved in being a good wrestler."

Over the years, Bullerman has taken wrestlers to tournaments near and far, from Sibley, Storm Lake and Emmetsburg, Iowa, to Fargo, Tulsa -- even Birmingham, Ala.

"We travel a long ways, and I enjoy it," affirmed Bullerman. "I'm married, and Sharon lets me go wherever I want to for wrestling, but we don't have children of our own so these wrestlers are my kids.

"If I get upset with them, I give 'em a piece of my mind then send them home with their mothers," he said with a laugh.

Loosbrock and Heitkamp have watched their own sons grow and blossom under Bullerman's wrestling guidance. Earlier this month, Loosbrock's son Stephen, a 174-pound freshman at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan,, wrestled at the national tournament in Des Moines, Iowa -- and Bullerman drove along with Loosbrock to support his former student.

"Doug supports wrestling at all levels and keeps in contact with the kids he's coached over the years," said Loosbrock.

Offered Heitkamp, "When Hunter was only 3 years old -- way too young to wrestle -- Doug was willing to let him come and run around the room with the kids during warm-ups, to help foster an interest in wrestling.

"Doug tries to welcome anyone interested in wrestling to participate, whether they're from Worthington, Iowa or Luverne," continued Heitkamp. "He's helped give Adrian a number of state-placing wrestlers, and he knows his role in our program. It's a great program to belong to."

And encouraging young athletes to work through their disappointments is another Bullerman trait.

"Three of our starters in high school wrestling had season-ending injuries during the year, and that was hard, even heart-breaking, to see happen," said Bullerman. "But that's life -- that's what we learn in wrestling, there are no free rides out there.

"If you work at it, you can still get injured as a senior, so kids have to learn how to handle defeat. You can't always and don't always win, but you've got to keep doing your best, keep plugging away, keep a good attitude."