Simons; One of the Sport's Best Ever
May 12, 2003
While watching my home state's own college great, Eric Larkin, win his first NCAA title, be voted the tournament's outstanding wrestler and named the Dan Hodge Trophy winner, I began to think of all the greats that came before Eric. When you speak of the great ones, people pretty much begin the topic with mention of Dan Gable and talk about Pat Smith, Dan Hodge or more recently Cael Sanderson. I find it sad, however, that there are current college wrestlers who have not heard of or don't know much about my choice as maybe the greatest collegiate wrestler who ever donned a singlet, and that person is none other than Elliot Gray Simons.
Gray Simons has accomplished things which no other wrestler has ever accomplished. Most will never realize the success or garner the accolades that this humble human being has accomplished.
Right out of high school, without the benefit of a redshirt year, Gray not only won the NAIA national tournament but was voted the tournament?s outstanding wrestler. Now this fact alone is noteworthy, but Gray managed to win the NAIA title three more times and and was named the Outstanding Wrestler for four straight years. You might ask; how can you compare an NAIA wrestler from tiny Lock Haven State College in Pennsylvania to the Division I greats. Well, it just so happens that in those days, the NAIA wrestlers were eligible to compete with the big boys, and compete he did. Elliot Gray Simons won the NCAA Division I tournament three times and was voted the outstanding wrestler two times.
In the 1960s freshmen were not eligible to wrestle in the Division I tournament, so we won't even know if Gray would have been a four-time Division I national champion, but all indications are that he very well could have. The top three finishers during Gray's freshman year were Andy Fitch of Yale, Dick Wilson of Toledo and Bob Taylor of Oklahoma State, all of which he defeated either in college or in freestyle. It?s reasonable to assume Simons would have won eight national titles while in college. The fact that he won seven and was voted outstanding wrestler six times bolsters my opinion that Simons should be considered the greatest American collegiate wrestler of all time.
Now when did Gray get his start; you might ask? Actually it was in physical education class and intramurals in the eighth grade. Now as Gray started his high school career, it didn?t hurt matters that his high school coach was none other than the legendary Billy Martin. Coach Martin must have done his job well, because most who ever saw Gray wrestle refer to him as the top technician ever to step on the mat. Mike Chapman, in his "Encyclopedia of American Wrestling" refers to Gray as a "superb technician with quickness, skill and perfect execution of an infinite variety of moves".
The fact that Gray won all seven national tournaments that he entered during his collegiate career should be enough, but there are some things that few know, that make this feat even more astounding. Being a seven-time national champ should warrant at least a partial scholarship, but Gray was never on scholarship. Instead he worked almost constantly to pay for his college education. Gray received his degree in four years, something else that's almost unheard of for full-time athletes.
Right after winning his first NCAA Division I title as a sophomore, Gray tried out for the Olympic team. In the finals of the Olympic Trials, Gray defeated Fitch. As a twenty-year old wrestling in his first Olympic Games, this young grappler took fourth place. Gray went on and made the Olympic team again in 1964. He was eliminated after the fourth round.
After college Gray joined the Army, serving two years at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. It was during this time that he was able to train under coach Leroy Alitz, the West Point coach. Under Alitz, Gray prepared for the 1964 Olympics in Rome. After the service, Gray coached at his alma mater Lock Haven State, Indiana State and Old Dominion, where he is currently employed. Coach Simons has coached two NCAA national champions and has coached several All-Americans.
Today Gray enjoys lifting weights and riding his bike. Gray was an avid motorcycle enthusiast, but a near fatal accident has put his riding days on hold. Gray ran over the side of a highway marking cone when he was looking in the rear view mirror at an approaching car. Gray's bike flipped and he sustained six broken ribs, a punctured lung and a broken scapulae. I told Gray that I had also sold my motorcycle after a near mishap.
As a college wrestler, Gray had an impressive 91-2 record. By today's standards he would have been 91-1, since one of the losses came during his freshman season at the hands of a graduate student in an open tournament. The other loss was to the defending national champ Paul Powell from Pitt. Gray's four NAIA titles and his three NCAA crowns, coupled with the six outstanding wrestler awards, earned him an induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978.
It was an honor for me to meet Gray and get acquainted at this year's NCAA tournament in Kansas City. He was most cordial and helpful. Seeing the Arizona State Sun Devils finish in a respectable fifth place and seeing Eric win the NCAA title and OW award were the highlights of the NCAA tournament, but meeting Gray was right up there. Now the next time you hear wrestlers and coaches discussing the true great ones, don't forget to mention Elliot Gray Simons.
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