Legendary coach selected to National Wrestling Hall of Fame New Milford resident Mike Morris calls the honor 'overwhelming'
New Milford resident Mike Morris calls the honor 'overwhelming'
When it comes to high school and youth wrestling in the tradition-rich Danbury and New Milford area, nobody is more deserving of legendary status than longtime New Milford resident Michael Morris.
The former head coach at Danbury High, veteran official and founder of youth programs in both Danbury and New Milford added a significant honor April 10 to a long list of accomplishments.
Mr. Morris and five other state men were inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame by the Connecticut chapter of the Oklahoma-based Hall of Fame and museum. The banquet was held April 10 at Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard.
"It just doesn't get any better," the inductee's son added, "and I was so glad to see him selected. He is not one to bask in any of his accomplishments and certainly not one to want to talk about them but I know this award really hit home for him. Acknowledgement of 30 years worth of your life's work has to feel good."
For Greater New Milford-area wrestlings fans, Mr. Morris has been a prominent figure since 11 years ago helping to organize the New Milford Wrestling Association. The burgeoning youth program has since served as a consistent feeder for an NMHS mat team that now challenges Danbury for state supremacy.
He also was a familiar figure for years as a slow-pitch softball umpire known both for his hustle and affability.
Joining Mr. Morris as April 10 inductees were former Holy Cross coach and athletic director James Cunningham, former Berlin High coach Jim Day, former Maloney High coach and long-time official Ray Mainville and current Derby High coach Walter Jadach. Retired Lt. Col. Gralyn Harris, a former wrestler at Holy Cross in Waterbury, was inducted and honored as an Outstanding American.
"It's very humbling to know that people appreciate what you did," said Mr. Morris. "The whole thing is overwhelming. To be honored with so many greats is special."
The six inductees joined 23 other Connecticut men previously inducted. The Lifetime Achievement award is for coaches, officials, media members or contributors with at least 20 years' service. The Outstanding American award is for former wrestlers who have received state or national acclaim in his/her chosen profession.
Each award recipient will be permanently recognized in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (Stillwater, Okla.) with an embossed name plaque.
"He's the grandfather of Danbury wrestling," said current Danbury High head coach Ricky Shook, a 1983 Danbury graduate. "He's a hard-nosed guy who started the program from scratch. I took so much from him. He taught us a way to win and lose and how to treat people."
"It wasn't just about wrestling," noted coach Shook. "The way he taught me about treating kids is what I try to do. We are reaping the rewards now."
Danbury has arguably become the most dominant high school sports program in the state. The Hatters have finished first in the state coaches' poll 14 straight years. Danbury has won 14 consecutive state class 'LL' titles and 10 straight state open crowns.
If it weren't for a determined physical education teacher at Rogers Park Middle School and Danbury High sharing his passion for wrestling, there probably wouldn't be a case full of trophies outside of the Hatters' gym.
"He built the program the right way," said coach Shook. "I still talk to him all the time. He wants to know what's going on."
Mr. Morris served as the head coach at Danbury High from 1979 to 91 and posted a 219-36 record. He led the Hatters to five FCIAC titles, two state 'LL' crowns and the program's only New England championship in 1990.
That's not too bad for the Bronx, N.Y., native who wrestled only on a limited basis during his college days at the College of Sante Fe in New Mexico.
Of all the great moments, no achievement stands out more for Mr. Morris then the Hatters' first FCIAC title in 1987. One can still hear the excitement in his voice when he describes the feeling of watching Vinny Marinelli win his 171-pound match in the finals to lock up a half-point team victory over Trumbull at New Canaan High.
"The first FCIAC win was the highlight," said Mr. Morris. "We had never won anything until that time. We locked it up with Vinny's win and all the fans came running out on the mat. I was afraid we would get a point taken away and lose the title."
The Hatters have come a long way since that first FCIAC title, having enjoyed a run of 23 straight league titles, before the string was finally broken this past season by Fairfield Warde.
And despite having retired from coaching in 1991, guess who was on the mat during the FCIAC finals this season?
Yes, Mr. Morris became a wrestling official right after putting down his coaching whistle and continues to enjoy being close to the action.
"I wanted to stay close to the sport," said Mr. Morris.
Baseball and football were the ex-coach's first loves, but wrestling quickly grew into a lifelong passion when he took over the Roger Park Middle School club team. He had started in coaching by guiding the school's football team.
"When the middle school opened it opened up everything sports wise," said Mr. Morris. "The teacher who started the wrestling club (Scott Clay) moved away and the principal asked me to take over. He had no intention of finding someone else. I don't like losing and if I'm going to do something I'm going to do it right."
As the wins piled up for Mr. Morris, it was still the joy of working with the students that kept him coming back.
"I like working with people that want to work hard," he said. "I would walk out of the room and the kids would continue to drill. I think I can say that I never met a kid I didn't like that wrestled. It's a great sport."
And nobody made it better for area wrestling than Mike Morris.
Spectrum Editor Norm Cummings contributed to this story.