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  • Writer's picturetgardner1167

Kuhn Gives Back to Sport and Community That Shaped Him

Most people would not believe you if you said you accomplished half the things Anthony Kuhn Sr. has. It may seem like hyperbole, but Kuhn has been a part of things one can only dream of.

Kuhn cut his teeth on the mat for Dan and Dave Fire’s North Tonawanda wrestling teams from 1992-96. Although his initial dream as a high schooler was to make it as a football player, Kuhn would choose the mat over the gridiron, with some encouragement from coach Dan.

Kuhn was looking to prove himself, not using his sub-100-pound frame as an excuse. And with his first career varsity win — coming via pinfall seven seconds into the bout — he would make it known that he would be a name on the rise.

Even when challenged by external factors in his home life, Kuhn was able to use wrestling as his outlet. But it was not until Kuhn was heading into his senior year where coach Dan challenged the former to step up and take on more of a leadership role.

Although he had already been a vital member of the Lumberjacks’ sectional championship season in 1995, Kuhn answered the call. He became a team captain, went the full season without missing a practice, and brought home several team awards as NT’s top 155 pounder.

Next up for Kuhn? Entering the ranks of the United States military.

Although he was only 17 when he enlisted, Kuhn would begin his active duty one month after his high school graduation. His love for wrestling never dissipated, but he was unsure if another mat opportunity would return, due to the military bringing on mostly collegiate grapplers to its wrestling teams.

Kuhn bought his time by competing in local post tournaments in Kansas, as he was stationed in Fort Riley. Unaware of who would coach him up in one of the Fort Riley championship tournaments, Kuhn recalled an old friend that had been living in the Sunflower State. It was coach Dan, proving once again to be the man in Kuhn’s corner. With Fire by his side, Kuhn was able to come out on top.

Next on Kuhn’s hit list? Making the All-Army wrestling team.

Kuhn never wavered over being denied the opportunity to compete on the team at first, and he had good reasoning. Once the selections came back, his argument was bolstered by the fact that two of the three competitors in his weight class that made it out of Fort Riley were guys that he defeated (one by way of pinfall, the other by technical fall).

Once the World Class Athletes program took a listen to Kuhn’s plea, he was among a group of nearly 90 participants that was then cut down to the top 14. Once again, Kuhn defied the odds and became a member of the All-Army team.

Under the tutelage of former olympians like silver medalist Derek Waldrip, Kuhn would spend one year with the squad. Despite being a 19-year-old mixed in with many in their mid 20s, Kuhn’s performance was so impressive he was one of only a few members selected to take on two-a-day practices in the Olympic Training Center, instead of the three-a-days for the rest of the bunch.

Kuhn honed his skills enough to even knock off the No. 2-ranked collegiate wrestler in the nation at the Rocky Mountain Regional Championships in 1999.

With a wrestling life this expansive, it’s only right that Kuhn gives back to the wrestling community. This has led him down the path of influencing the youth, building up Niagara Wheatfield Amateur Athletics (NWAA). As he and Bill Ploetz worked together, the facility helped build a feeder system for Niagara Wheatfield’s varsity program and others.

“I think what made me effective as a wrestler makes me effective as a coach,” Kuhn said. “Being 19 years old, and having the limited experience that I had, I didn’t make the All-Army team because I was the best wrestler available at the time. I made the All-Army team because I was a 19-year-old kid who broke bones, and tore ligaments, and tore my body up pretty good. But (I) got back on the mat and fought through it every time, (I) found a way to win matches.

” … My mindset has always been you don’t wrestle a name, you wrestle the match that’s in front of you. You wrestle the individual on the other side, and anyone can win that match on any given day. I tell the kids that I coach, all the time, that I went through my entire life beating people that I never should’ve beat because I didn’t give them the respect that they felt they deserved. I just went out there with the hope that I could beat them.”

Kuhn’s conviction has never wavered, even when a past staff from NT wrestling did not reach back out to him when he offered to volunteer. He would even face similar challenges from the NWAA when he first brought his kids into its facility.

As it always seemed, though, coach Dan was instrumental in getting his pupil into the fold, this time introducing Kuhn and his resume to Ploetz. Nearly a decade later, their work together reverberates on the Section VI mats each winter.

With over half a decade straight of youth sectional championships, 25-plus state champions, and national championship competitors, the NWAA is one of Western New York’s strongest amateur programs. Whether its former University at Buffalo wrestler Gary Chase coming in to coach, or joining forces with Angelo Cusatis and the Niagara Falls Wrestling Club (a.k.a ‘Powecats’) to form ‘Team Niagara,’ and even having kids come in from districts as far as Springville and Pioneer, the NWAA’s mentality of owning an aggressive wrestling style has drawn many in.

Ploetz — who has been running the NWAA for over 15 years, as it hosts athletes in other sports as well — knows how impactful their program is. With names filtering in like Wheatfield’s Angelo Mulvestudo, Jake DeWolfe, or Matt Cicco — and even kids who have moved on like Grand Island’s Jack Randle, Jake Miller and the Breeden brothers (Zach and Jason), or former Wheatfield wrestler and current Section III state rep Aiden Poe — Ploetz knows the NWAA has a winning formula.

In the process, Ploetz hopes kids live up to Team Niagara’s mantra: “remember where you came from.”

Although he splits his time working with NW and their junior varsity team, Ploetz has enjoyed his wrestling partnership with Kuhn. One piece that he has enjoyed about giving Kuhn so much control in the day-to-day operation is the vision he sets out for the kids heading in to each season.

It may not get through to everyone he comes in contact with, but Ploetz appreciates the passion Kuhn brings into his role.

“We have a preseason meeting every year, our first practice or our first couple of practices, (we) take all of our parents in the hall and talk to ‘em,” Ploetz said. “And (Kuhn) will tell ‘em chances are he will offend most of them throughout this season, and it’s a true statement because he’s going to be hard on the kids that want to learn. Some of the parents get a nice chuckle out of it and some of ‘em don’t know how to take it, but he tells them that every year.

“Does he actually offend everybody? No, probably not. But there’s some. And I believe it’s just because of his passion for the sport and to make these kids successful.”

Kuhn believes his time as a wrestler has helped with his professional life thus far. His post high school path is highlighted by his Army tenure, earning two bronze stars, a deployment into Iraq from 2004-05, being an Army Reserve drill sergeant and being the first sergeant of a drill sergeant company. This also set Kuhn up to start his own construction company, before receiving his bachelor’s degree and eventually completing law school.

The highs and lows of this ubiquitous life can be taxing, but it’s not anything Kuhn hasn’t seen before. He often looks back on a high school match he had with a former NW wrestler, telling his coaches before the match that he wouldn’t even surrender a point. Even after being thrown off by an outside switch — and nearly dislocating his shoulder — Kuhn was determined to hold him scoreless. In the end, another mission was accomplished.

Coach Dan has seen Kuhn’s growth over the years, going from a misguided teenager getting into typical high schooler mischief, to seeing him redeem himself in earlier mat losses against foes like Lewiston Porter’s Joe Condino. That’s why Dan and his twin brother Dave would go out of their way to pick him ahead of tournaments and road trips, even if that meant a 5 a.m. call. Fire’s praises over his pupil are endless, as he referred to Kuhn as “an American hero” and “a guardian Angel.” He acknowledged Kuhn’s selflessness, leadership and refuse-to-lose attitude as to what has led to his “storybook” life. It staggers Fire that someone with such a packed schedule can still manage to help military veterans as a board member for WNY Heroes and volunteer with the NW wrestling program.

Or that he’d be the one bringing a hospital bed to help his paralyzed former NT teammate, Scott Klepp.

“What’s the qualifications for the man of the year?,” said Fire, who Kuhn mentioned as his father figure and mentor. “I don’t mean to embarrass (Kuhn) but these are really concrete things he’s been doing. … (Kuhn) endured a lot of things but (Kuhn) was resilient. He was hard, he could handle any punch of life that was sent his way and he didn’t go into a pity party, he attacked. And I just knew (in my head) ‘the kid’s gonna make.'”

With his three sons — Tony Jr. (17), Mark (16) and Jack (9) — Anthony has been able to see his kids coming up in the wrestling ranks. They all may share the Kuhn name, but the three boys have all set themselves apart with their own wrestling styles.

The two oldest boys have had their success shown for NW at the varsity level; Tony wrapped his senior year up with a 22-14 mark and Mark finished his junior season at 31-16, laying the foundation for Jack as he trains inside the walls of NWAA.

Wheatfield varsity wrestling coach Rick Sweney has coached the Kuhn boys over the last few seasons, so he is well aware of how strong their family is in WNY’s wrestling community. Having first hand experience with some of the NWAA’s top grapplers, Sweney tipped his cap as to what Kuhn and Ploetz have built. That’s why Sweney has welcomed his friend’s volunteer coaching services with open arms in recent seasons.

“He’s just one of those guys, he puts everything he’s got into it man. He’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Sweney said. “He’s 100% into the program, he’s 100% into wrestling. And he doesn’t care if he knows your kid or not. … He doesn’t care where (a kid) came from, he’s just a part of the program. If he’s in your program, he’s a part of it.”

Anthony does not want to push his kids into the sport either, rather letting them figure things out on their own. Tony plans to continue wrestling collegiately at Niagara County Community College, while Mark wants to focus on baseball and becoming a doctor. As long as school comes first, and they commit to finishing what they started, Anthony doesn’t mind what path they choose.

Kuhn just hopes his kids can use wrestling the way he did in his youth. Instead of wallowing over his home life and hanging around the wrong crowd, Kuhn was able to use wrestling as a positive outlet, due to the type of people the Jacks’ wrestling room consisted of. Kuhn also knows that kids with similar upbringings as his own can benefit from becoming a grappler.

“Whether you have a strong family life or not, getting into this sport will make you a part of something,” Kuhn said. “It will give you the family that you might not have, and much like the military it will put you in a room with a bunch of people who you can train with, and work with, and push each other to be, essentially, gladiators out there on the mat, one on one.

” … It’s a group full of people who will do just about anything for you if you do it for them. … The thing about wrestling is that it teaches you to be able to keep your head, and to go out there and compete one on one, whether it’s a wrestling match, or a job interview, or for me now in court. I show up to litigate a case with the same approach that I’m prepared to wrestle a wrestling match.”

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