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Auto accident leads Wilkes to new challenge

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

The scene is played out at Lecanto wrestling practice during three-man groups. Coach Dana Wilkes takes on the likes of 135-pound senior Brandon Glantz.

"He doesn't even try hard," Glantz said. "He kind of toys with us."

The 32-year-old doesn't get on the mat as much as he used to. When he was their age, it was hard to get him off it.

"It's not the same as being in competition, but it does help feed that desire a little bit," said Wilkes, who still is around his high school weight of 160. Most of the Panthers are aware of Wilkes' accomplishments at Crystal River, which are etched in the state record book.

His freshman year in 1985, Wilkes was the state runner-up at 138 pounds, then won a title as a sophomore. He bumped up to 145 the next season and earned another championship. As a senior, he took second at 160.

That makes it easy for the Panthers to listen.

"If you don't practice hard, you can't wrestle hard; you can't do one thing in practice and expect to turn it on in a match," Wilkes tells them. "I couldn't do it, and there's nobody that can."

Most of the Panthers don't know the rest of Wilkes' story, although he will reveal a little if asked.

Coming out of high school, Wilkes had a wrestling scholarship to Oklahoma State, currently the top-ranked team in the country. He would be joining a program that had won 27 national championships.

But life would change one night that May.

Wilkes and some friends were heading back from Tampa in a red Toyota pickup, driving north on U.S. 19 through New Port Richey. A truck ran a red light at the Ridge Road intersection and hit them.

Wilkes, who was in the middle seat, spent a month in the hospital. It would be six more months before he could leave the house.

"At first, I didn't think I was going to be able to wrestle," Wilkes said. "The doctor who did my first surgery said I had like a 10,000-1 chance of saving my right arm."

The arm had been crushed from the elbow down. Wilkes had reconstructive surgery, but lost two fingers. He had been in the hospital about a week when he heard from Oklahoma State.

Assistant coach Bruce Burnett had coached a 15-year-old Wilkes at the Cadet Pan Am Games in Cali, Colombia, so the two had a good rapport. After the accident, the Oklahoma State staff said Wilkes could come out to Stillwater and try to wrestle. Or the school could help get him on a junior college team that was less competitive than Division I.

Wilkes took a year off to recuperate and ended up at North Idaho College, one of the top JC's in the nation with four straight national crowns.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State captured NCAA titles in 1989 and 1990.

As a redshirt, Wilkes watched the wrestler in his weight class and the team win national championships. His second year, the squad finished second but Wilkes' injury made things difficult on the mat.

"I hadn't had enough time to make the transition before and after the accident," he said.

After two seasons at North Idaho, Wilkes came home in 1991 and started a business.

It was seven years before he returned to the sport. Wilkes hadn't thought much about coaching until he got a call from former Lecanto coach Cory Collins.

Assisting the Panthers seemed to be a good fit. In his last two seasons at Crystal River, Wilkes had been coached by then-Lecanto principal Steve Richardson.

In his four years as an assistant, Wilkes helped the Panthers to district championships and worked with two state finalists. Last season, his first as head coach, he helped three Panthers earn state berths.

"My dreams took a different turn, but now I have the coaching and I really enjoy it," said Wilkes, who can remember capturing national crowns in the 13-16 age group. "I hope that I teach the kids a lot, but I learn a lot from them also."

Wilkes wants his wrestlers to have pride in themselves and what they're doing. Glantz said as long as the Panthers give 100 percent, Wilkes is happy.

"He says wrestling is 80 percent mental and 20 percent strength, skill and technique," Glantz said.

If Wilkes is any indication, the same can be said for the game of life.

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