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Eagles' founder gets his Hall of Fame due

By DAVID MURPHY
Published February 21, 2007


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The first wrestling mat came from Saint Leo, transported to Springstead High in the back of a pick-up truck, a gift from an old friend who was the college's athletic director.

The first athletes came from the hallways, a motley crew of kids not good enough, or disciplined enough, for any other sport.

And the first coach? He came from Chicago, a tough, no-nonsense guy who moved to Florida because he heard it boasted the best high school football.

This was 1980.

Nearly three decades and 17 district titles later, former Springstead wrestling coach Bob Levija will receive one of the greatest honors of his careers when he is honored by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in August for his lifetime of service to the sport.

The coach, who retired in 2002 and is now the school's athletic director, learned the Florida Chapter of the Hall of Fame had nominated him a couple of weeks ago. He was honored at the state tournament last weekend, and he'll be officially inducted at a ceremony in Lakeland in August.

"I'm kind of humbled," Levija said Tuesday.

In the beginning, everything was humble. His son, Kevin, was 8 when Levija decided to start a program at Springstead. He borrowed a mat from Saint Leo, enlisted "the 10 prettiest girls in school" to help recruit wrestlers.

There were two legitimate wrestlers in the entire school, a 103-pounder and 140-pounder, both transfers. Levija walked through school inviting any other students who thought they were tough to show up at the gym to challenge the wrestlers.

"He invited all these kids out, mostly kids with discipline problems and said, 'We're going to start a wrestling team, and if you think you are bad, then try to take down these guys,' " said Kevin, who wrestled for his father at Springstead in the late 1980s. "And the wrestlers just destroyed them all. Then, he said, 'If you want what they've got, come out for wrestling.' "

Levija went 8-5 his first year. Over the next 22, he compiled a 318-30-1 record and won 14 conference, 17 district and six region titles while producing seven individual state champions.

"He lived the program," said Sal Basil, who wrestled for Levija in 1992 and 1993 and now is an assistant coach at Springstead. "His whole life was the program."

Eric Swensen realized it when he accepted the head coaching job in 2005.

"The program is just filled with tradition," he said. "I'm really happy. This is exactly where I wanted to be, where I wanted to land."

The tradition took another step forward last weekend when junior Schuyler Swanton won a state title at 103 pounds. The roots, Swensen said, trace back to the man who started the program.

"It's Bob Levija's baby," he said.

Now, every sport is Bob Levija's baby. Under his watch, the boys basketball team has won two straight district titles. The football team is a perennial power in the county. The girls soccer team just won a district title.

"I'm satisfied as an AD," Levija said. "I miss wrestling to the point where I hate losing. With wrestling I had control over whether we won or lost."

Turns out, he did a pretty good job with that control.

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.

Fast Facts:

Lifetime Service to Wrestling award

Presented by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the State Chapter of Florida

Process: Current Springstead wrestling coach Eric Swensen nominated Levija, with help from Levija's son, Kevin. A person must have a minimum of 20 years of service to be considered, then must go through a lengthy application process. Levija's name will appear in a wing of the hall in Stillwater, Okla.

[Last modified February 21, 2007, 06:43:58]


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