Father's memory drives Newberry wrestling star to success

NEWERRY, SC (WIS) - Sometimes the littlest things can inspire an athlete to make it to the top of his sport and become a champion. For a Newberry College wrestler Bryant Blanton, inspiration came as a pair of shoes.

They are a symbol of the past, and a keepsake for the future. During some of the most important matches of his life, the shoes were there for Bryant Blanton. "My mom brought the very first pair of wrestling shoes I ever had and gave them to the coach who put them on the corner of the mat before every match I wrestled," said Blanton.

Bryant adopted a love for this sport while others were watching cartoons. His father Jimmy was a high school wrestling coach. "He's been wrestling since he could walk, basically," said Coach Jason Valek.

"My mom called me a bleacher baby because I pretty much grew up in a gym," said Blanton.

Years later, the early exposure to the sport is obvious when Bryant is on the mat. He won state titles while at Summerville High School, and he took home the Division II NCAA National Championship last year at Newberry College. "He has an innate ability," said Valek. "When the lights come on, he just wins."

"If you live for that, then you show up and that's where you shine," said Blanton.

It was no surprise to see Bryant holding up a trophy, standing on top of a podium, the NCAA champion with tiny shoes draped around his neck.

"Once I got the trophy and the plaque, the shoes were there too," said Blanton.

Two reminders of a father who wasn't there to see his son reach the top of his sport. Jimmy died when Bryant was 10 years old.

"Every time I'm on the mat, it's a step closer to him," said Blanton. "That was the biggest thing he gave me was introducing me to wrestling and giving me the love of the sport."

"It just all came forward when he won last year," said Valek. "It's a tribute to him and what his dad taught him."

Now a senior, Bryant is working to defend his title. He says he knows his dad would be proud of the man the bleacher baby has become.

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