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Over the last 13 years or so, a call or text would come from Mike Wickham, asking for “some ink” for his wrestlers, first at North Johnston and then Fike or with a club team. Of course, I was happy to oblige and even happier to spend awhile shooting the breeze with Wickham about anything and everything in the world of sports, from his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes to pro football to whatever high school sport was in season.
Those calls or whenever we randomly crossed paths around town were always a good time and perhaps what I will miss the most. Mike lost his battle with cancer in the early hours of 2018 at Kitty Askins Hospice Center in Goldsboro, leaving a void not only in the wrestling scene in North Carolina but also in the hearts and minds of his wrestlers, past and present; family, colleagues and numerous friends.
Mike Wickham was a wrestling coach first and foremost, even though it was not his profession. A native of New York, he worked in the furniture business after moving to North Carolina in the early 1980s. He helped start the wrestling program at North Johnston in 2004 and after moving over to Fike in 2011, revived what had been a moribund Golden Demons program. He also helped out with the Backyard Wrestling Club of Wilson and Rocky Mount and served as an advocate for the sport. There were no team distinctions for Wickham when it came to being a wrestling coach.
“He was for wrestlers,” said Ben Williams, now the principal at North Johnston who started the program there when he was a football and track coach. “He loved all of them. We would go to wrestling tournaments and he’d know everyone. He would know about a guy from Tarboro. He’d know his record and spend 15 minutes talking to him between matches.”
That love for wrestling in general led Wickham to create two tournaments when he came to Fike: The County vs. County Challenge, pitting the three Wilson teams against three from another county, and the Demon Duals individual tournament at Fike.
“Mike was so passionate for wrestling as a sport and for his athletes, his kids,” said Brent Walston, who was the athletic director at North Johnston when Wickham took over the head coaching job from Williams in 2006. “Wrestling is a different sport. You have to advocate for it. It’s not a sport that’s going to raise a lot of money but Mike did a great job pushing for it and pushing for his kids.
“Everybody in the sport of high school wrestling knew how dedicated he was and how passionate he was about wrestling.”
Williams credited then North Johnston principal Ross Renfrow for pushing for the idea of adding wrestling and tennis to the school’s athletic program but assured that Wickham was the driving force behind the Panthers hitting the mat.
“I ended up being the coach. I didn’t have a background in wrestling,” Williams said. “I did the administrative part of it and Mike did the wrestling part. … I learned a lot from him. I might have been the head coach but it was him.”
The Panthers program grew quickly under Wickham and, in his last year in Kenly, nearly produced a state champion. Junior James Napier lost by a point in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A 140-pound championship match in 2011. Fourteen years after it began, North Johnston wrestling is still going strong.
Williams said that the photos of the Panthers wrestlers with more than 100 career wins are still on the wall of the wrestling room and many of the former grapplers still come around to help with the current team.
Wickham took over a Fike team that had had four coaches in four years. Within no time the Demons were contenders in the 3-A Big East Conference, winning it last year. He came close again to coaching a state champion last February when Fike senior Rae’Sae Settles made it to the finals of the NCHSAA 3-A 132-pound division.
With the Demons boasting several state-championship contenders this year, Wickham continued to coach from his bed at the hospice center as long as he could. He never gave up trying to escape the hold of cancer.
His funeral is Friday at 6:30 at Wilson Memorial Service. There will also be a tribute when Fike hosts North Johnston for a wrestling match on Thursday, Jan. 11.
Wickham came onto the area sports scene around 2003 when he started keeping stats for the North Johnston football team when Ken Avent Jr., with whom Wickham was acquainted with Avent was at North Duplin, was hired as the Panthers head coach. Wickham continued that role when Tom Nelson took over the Panthers football team and, when Nelson decided to return home to Wilson to be the head coach at Fike, Wickham came along both as wrestling coach and football statistician.
“I never had to worry about one thing as far as the stats. He took care of all of it,” Nelson said.
Wickham’s accuracy with and quickness in delivering stats was always greatly appreciated by members of the media, not to mention the delight in hanging out with him on the sideline during games.
He also helped Nelson keep track of timeouts and, never shy about offering his opinion, provided some insight for Nelson.
“If something wasn’t working, he wasn’t afraid to let me know that,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “He was always a big proponent of the tight end. He wanted me to throw the ball in the middle of the field to the tight end and we don’t have a tight end so that was always a comical conversation!”
Wickham was usually the first to let me know, always cheerfully, if there was an error in the Times sports section. He gleefully delivered the needle and whenever I had the chance to return the favor, he was always happy to take his medicine.
In several instances on social media in the wake of his death, I’ve seen people say that Wickham was a pleasure to be around or that they enjoyed his company, which are two of the greatest compliments a person can receive, in my estimation. He was always someone I loved to hear from and I will miss his wit, his ability to carry a conversation and his cheerful nature.
But to the hundreds of kids he coached or came in contact with, Wickham was a lot more. He didn’t have any children of his own and never married so he always considered his wrestlers to be “my kids.”
“He always had a car full of kids,” Nelson said. “He was always taking them to practice to get something to eat. … He really made difference in their lives. He cared about them. That was the main thing. He wanted them to do well, not just in sports but in life.”
Wrestling may have been his passion but his compassion will be Mike Wickham’s lasting legacy as a human being.