Castro comes full circle from wrestling champion to champion coach

By Ted Allen, September 28, 2015
Before returning as an assistant coach in the 1980's and head coach in 2006, Jesse Castro won four individual NCCAA titles to help the Flames capture five team championships from 1977-81

Before returning as an assistant coach in the 1980’s and head coach in 2006, Jesse Castro won four individual NCCAA titles to help the Flames capture five team championships from 1977-81

In July 1976, Jesse Castro, one of the top-ranked high school wrestlers in the state of California, was about to fulfill his lifelong dream of joining the team at Arizona State University (ASU), an NCAA Division I power out west.

Just months before his planned move from Santa Clara, Calif., to Tempe, Ariz., Castro received a recruiting call from Bob Bonheim, who had founded the wrestling program at Liberty University (then called Liberty Baptist College) three years earlier.

“At first, I said, ‘No, there’s no way. I’m going to Arizona State,’” Castro said. “I wanted to be a Sun Devil.”

But the Lord had a higher calling on Castro’s life.

“I was a new Christian at the time, and God grabbed my heart,” Castro recalled of his decision to abandon his original plan to wrestle at ASU. “Literally, it was a step of faith, because I had never seen pictures of Liberty, and I had no clue what to expect.”

Later that summer, he was dropped off in the middle of Treasure Island, on the James River near downtown Lynchburg, the site of Liberty’s first football practice field and student housing.

“After traveling 3,000 miles across the country, in the back of a Datsun pickup truck, the first thing I heard was, ‘Here’s a hammer, build your bunk,’” Castro said.

The school was operating on a very limited budget at the time and didn’t even have a wrestling mat, so the team resorted to practicing on grass.

On Jan. 21, 1977, around the start of his first season on the team, Castro attended a pivotal prayer meeting held in the snow near the future site of Williams Stadium. Liberty’s founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., asked the Lord for a campus on Liberty Mountain.

While the school began the transformation into what would become the largest Christian university in the world, Castro helped put the Flames’ wrestling program on the map.

From 1977-81, he posted a record of 101-20-2 in his 142-pound weight class and captured four individual National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) titles. During that stretch, Liberty claimed five NCCAA team championships under Bonheim.

In 1981, Castro also placed fourth at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championships, leading the Flames (No. 18) to their first NAIA top-20 team ranking in any sport. That same year, Liberty was accepted into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in all major sports except wrestling.

“Jesse was one of our stars who elevated the program because of his wrestling ability and his testimony,” Bonheim said. “He was a very good wrestler, and he would stay overtime and work out and drill all the time. He was an example of what it takes to become a champion.”

He also boldly shared his faith, leading many to Christ at home and away matches.

“We tried to combine wrestling for the Lord with witnessing for the Lord, and Jesse was one of our outstanding wrestlers and witnesses,” Bonheim said.

After graduating with a physical education degree in 1981, Castro served in Southern California and traveled around the world with Athletes in Action, training to join the U.S. Olympic Team for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. He returned to his alma mater to serve as a graduate assistant under Bonheim for three seasons and as an assistant coach for two more under 1984 U.S. Olympic alternate and ASU graduate Don Shuler.

Castro went on to coach for nine seasons at Norwich University, an NCAA Division III school in Vermont, and then for eight years at Kingsway Regional High School in New Jersey before Jerry Falwell Sr. invited him to revive the Flames’ wrestling team as an NCAA Division I program in 2005. Since his return to Liberty, he has been named NCAA East Region Coach of the Year four times, guiding the Flames to five regional titles in a row — from 2006-10 — and sending 24 wrestlers to the NCAA national championships.

This past season, Castro led Liberty to its second National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) National Duals meet title in Dalton, Ga., and first NCWA Grand Nationals Tournament team championship in Allen, Texas, where sophomore 141-pounder Ryan Diehl was named Most Outstanding Wrestler for the second straight year, and Josh Llopez also earned an individual crown at 174 pounds.

Training Champions for Christ … that drives me, honestly; I love that,” Castro said. “To me, I still see Jerry Sr.’s face, challenging me to get this program where he wanted it to be. Training Champions for Christ… That’s what we’re about.”

Castro received his master’s degree in education in 1986 and is currently working on his dissertation for a Doctor of Education in educational leadership.

This year, he is implementing a mentorship model called “3-D Coaching” into Liberty’s 35 Club Sports programs, to help develop transformational coaches who will enrich the spiritual lives of their 565 student-athletes. The “3-D” model is structured like a pyramid, with fundamentals at the base, psychological health above it, and spiritual growth at the apex.

“We have an opportunity to train — not just teach — but train,” Castro said. “That’s more impactful. We’re not a Sunday School. We’re not a Bible class. We’re a wrestling team, so we spend most of our time training.  This year, I’m going to emphasize fundamentals, but we’ll also incorporate biblical integration every day through a devotional at the end of practice, a testimony, a word of prayer. I really want to work more on relationship building and accountability. I’m not looking necessarily for external change. You’ve got to reach their hearts if you want intrinsic change. That’s a whole work in process.”

And that’s Castro’s true calling — to be a mentor to Christian athletes and molder of men into spiritual leaders.

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