A tough goodbye: Rick Mellmer steps down after 28 years with Dickinson Wrestling Club
Rick Mellmer held back tears and cleared his throat before he delivered a message he had contemplated giving for the past three years.
He was resigning as the head coach from the Dickinson Wrestling Club.
Mellmer gave his message in front of more than 150 people during the club’s banquet Sunday at the Eagles Club.
“It was a very tough decision and I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of years,” said Mellmer, who has volunteered his time with the club for 28 years and acted as its head coach for 15. “I was afraid that if I stepped down it would be perceived as quitting. That’s against everything I’ve ever taught the boys in the club. I thought it was just time. I thought we needed to infuse some new blood into the program. I love this program. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it. I love these boys and I love these coaches.”
Throughout the past 28 years, Mellmer said he couldn’t do enough to give back to wrestling. The sport has helped his family enjoy 11 North Dakota Class A state championships and four wrestling scholarships, including two Division I rides to the University of Minnesota.
“I can never give back to this sport what I’ve gotten out of it,” Mellmer said. “I’ve gotten a lot out of it. My sons have been wildly successful. They’ve gotten scholarships. They’ve wrestled in a Division I program. The people that my wife and I have met over the years through the club wouldn’t be possible without the club.”
The 150 people in attendance were coaches, wrestlers and parents. Six people who traveled from around western North Dakota to see Rick give his resignation speech were his wife, Gloria, and their five children — Erik, Lynn, Marc, Jake and Luke. Erik, who lives in the Williston, is the oldest son, while Lynn, Marc, Jake and Luke all live in or around western North Dakota.
Lynn, Rick and Gloria’s only daughter, said it was a bittersweet moment, because it’s tough to see her father resign. But it also means more family time.
“I’m excited, because he can follow the grandkids now,” Lynn said. “He’s been in it for a really long time. Now he can go and watch the grandkids and spend time with us. He comes to Bismarck and goes to a tournament, and then he’s tired at night. Now we can put all of his energy into the other kids. For me, it’s exciting and good, but I know it’s hard for him.”
Gloria said becoming so involved with the wrestling club just kind of happened. There wasn’t really a plan set in stone when Rick started.
“I don’t really know how this came about,” she said. “He never talked about being with this. He always loved all kinds of sports, but he wasn’t ever in wrestling until he had his boys.”
The wrestling club only started with about 30 members. There are now more than 150. The club’s first banquet was held at A&B Pizza.
Before Rick’s oldest son Erik joined the club, the two traveled to tournaments throughout the Midwest. Rick and Erik found the club, which was started by Mike Armstrong. Erik also remembers the first wrestling club banquet.
“I remember very vividly. We had one line of tables for the whole club — parents, brothers, sisters and everybody there,” Erik said. “To go from 30 kids to the 150 they have now is really amazing. If it wasn’t a good club and good things weren’t happening, it wouldn’t be like this today.”
Little did Erik know, he would be the first in a chain of three more brothers who would win a combined 11 high school state titles. Erik, who won two titles, said there was a bit of sibling competitiveness, but the brothers were the biggest supporters of each other.
“Our dad always taught us to be confident, hard-nosed, but also humble,” Erik said. “We always called it Team Mellmer. When my brothers were coming up the ranks, there were some pin records that my brothers would break that I formally held. I would hear stuff from people like, ‘How do you think about your brother breaking your record?’ I said, I’m extremely proud of them. I would like for nobody else to do that. Not all families are like that. Everybody always tried to help the younger ones be better and better.”
The brothers supported each other so much that they all watched every state championship match — except for one brother.
Gloria recalled one of Erik’s state title matches where Jake was too nervous to watch his older brother, so he ran in a bathroom at the Bismarck Civic Center until the match was over.
Erik ended up winning the state title.
“(Jake) ran up the Civic Center stairs, hid in a bathroom and then, when it was over, he heard the crowd,” Gloria said with a smile. “He didn’t see his brother win a state championship because he was so nervous.”
Though Rick watched his sons win 11 state championships, he never stood atop of the podium until 2012 when he was inducted into the North Dakota High School Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame.
Normally, only active coaches can nominate potential hall of fame inductees. However, former Dickinson High wrestling coach Dave Michaelson called Bismarck High co-head coach Scott Knowlen, who is also the president of the North Dakota Class A Coaches, to ask if he could nominate Rick into the Hall of Fame. He was voted in unanimously.
He was joined with his family and friends on center stage before the start of the individual state championship matches on Feb. 18, 2012.
“I told Scott, ‘I’d really like to see Rick in the Hall of Fame,’ and he said ‘By all means,’” Michaelson said. “I told Scott, ‘I’m not an active coach, so how do I go about nominating him?’ Scott told me not to worry about it was going to be taken care of. Essentially, they let me nominate Rick as a non-active coach. It just speaks volumes, because everyone in state knows the Mellmers in wrestling. For me to be able to present the award to him, it meant a lot.”
When Erik, Marc, Jake and Luke went through the Dickinson Wrestling Club’s program, each referred to Rick as dad, not coach.
Rick believed he was always a father first and a coach second.
“They called me dad in practice,” Rick said. “We had a little bit different relationship than some dads and athletes. I wanted to be referred to as dad and they wanted to refer to me as dad. I always tried to be dad first and coach second, because the dad part is more important.”
With the four Mellmer brothers watching their father coach throughout the years, it didn’t take long for them to start coaching careers of their own.
Last year, Jake and Luke were assistant coaches for Bismarck St. Mary’s and Mandan, respectively. Each team had at least one wrestler win a state title. Jake won four state titles during his high school career, while Luke won two.
“I learned a lot from my dad growing up,” Jake said. “He was our dad, but he was also our coach and he did a good job separating that.”
Marc, who lives in Dickinson and helps coach the Dickinson Wrestling Club, is a three-time state champion. He said it has been a privilege to coach alongside his father for past couple of years, but he knows it’s tough for him to leave.
“He’s impacted my life so much, my brother’s lives so much and my friends,” Marc said. “I know it’s hard on him. It’s really hard on him. He’s been doing it for so long and all of his time has been donated. I don’t think people understand it, because he just does it to help kids.”
Making a lasting impact
Though there were more than 150 people at the banquet, that number pales to the amount of people Rick has influenced over the years.
Rick said it was great to see all the wrestlers, coaches and parents during the banquet.
“It was humbling and I know people say that all the time, but I really mean it,” he said. “I don’t like the spotlight. I look at myself not as the head coach, but as the coordinator.”
Luke, who attended the University of Minnesota, said watching his father motivates him.
“He’s just one those guys that you want to emulate,” Luke said. “He hasn’t taken a dime from the wrestling club. It’s really inspiring. It inspires that if he can do all that and be an owner of an electric company in Dickinson, it’s pretty amazing.”
Not completely finished
Though Rick is stepping down as the head coach, it doesn’t mean his time with the club is over.
Rick will help out if and when he can.
“I have nine grandchildren and I want to sit back and be grandpa a little bit,” Rick said. “I want to coach on my terms now, so if I have time to go into practice, I’ll go in and help. But my family needs to come first. I’m going to remain on the board of directors for as long as I feel that I need to be. If the new head coach or co-head coaches will allow me to be in the room, I will be, but I’m definitely taking a backseat. I’ll be the soldier and do what I need to.”
Gloria said because the Dickinson Wrestling Club has been part of their lives for the past 28 years, the likelihood of Rick being done completely is slim.
“He will miss it, but I don’t think he’s done,” she said with a smile.