Eddie Woodburn, the head wrestling coach at Bridge Creek High School in southern Oklahoma, doesn’t get much shut-eye after his team’s competitions, regardless of how well his grapplers performed.

“I go over every period of every match in my mind (at night), I do not get a lot of sleep during the (wrestling) season,” he said.

This reflects Woodburn’s passion for wrestling, a zeal ignited four decades ago when he was a high school All-American at La Grande High School under coach Verl Miller.

Woodburn first met Miller when his family moved to La Grande in December 1979. A love of wrestling burned within Woodburn at the time, and when he met Miller, those embers became an inferno.

“I had a passion for wrestling and Verl Miller poured gasoline on it,” Woodburn said.

The passion Woodburn speaks of propelled him to a storied career. Woodburn won state titles in the 98-pound division in 1981 and 1982 while compiling a 129-9 career record.

Imbler High School wrestling coach Doug Hislop, an assistant coach at LHS in the early 1980s, credits Woodburn with having a one-of-a-kind blend of grit and talent.

“He was tougher than tough,” Hislop said. “He was a great kid.”

Miller has similar thoughts about Woodburn.

“He was super focused. He never quit and didn’t run away from competition,” Miller said.

Woodburn went on to win All-American honors as a wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield in 1985 and Oklahoma State University in 1986. He placed fifth in the 1985 NCAA tournament at 118 pounds in 1985 and sixth at 118 pounds in 1986.

The star wrestler’s athletic career did not end after college, not by a long shot. He earned a spot on Team USA, a squad filled with Olympians. Woodburn came close to qualifying for the United States Olympic team in 1988, earning a berth as an alternate at 114-1/2 pounds.

Woodburn’s Team USA coaches included the legendary Dan Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medalist who had a 181-1 record in college and high school and coached the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA titles between 1976 and 1997.

Woodburn said Gable has a gift for inspiring people to achieve.

“He made you believe that anything and everything was possible,” the former La Grande star said.

Woodburn credits Gable’s motivational skills with leading him to a near-upset of highly rated Russian wrestler Vladmir Umaknov in 1989 at the World Wrestling championships in Martigny, Switzerland. Umaknov was a heavy favorite but was almost toppled by Woodburn, winning only 9-7 in the 114-pound category.

Gable not only inspired confidence — he also motivated his athletes to push themselves in practice, believing it was paramount to outwork your foes.

“When your opponent was sleeping, he wanted you to get up and train,” Woodburn said.

The former LHS star said when Gable asked a wrestler to do a certain number of exercises or repetitions of a drill, you knew he expected much more.

“If he told you to do 10 of something, he really meant do 100,” he said.

Despite his success on Team USA and in college and high school, Woodburn speaks humbly about his accomplishments, perhaps because the words of Miller still echo in his ears.

“He used to tell us, ‘Forty years from now, I don’t want you sitting back and talking about who you were. I want you to be focusing on what kind of men you have become,’” the former LHS wrestler said of Miller.

See complete story in Monday's Observer

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