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COLUMN: Wrestling world loses great man in past UNO national champion, former Omaha Skutt assistant coach R.J. Nebe



Anybody who knew R.J. Nebe knew he had his share of opinions. Strong opinions.

Whether it was a recent issue with something happening at his beloved Tiburon Golf Course, where he was a member and owned a home just off one of the par-fives, or whether it was his beloved sport of wrestling, R.J. was never shy about voicing his views on what he believed in.

He was passionate about everything he did - the most competitive person I have ever known. He wanted to win on the golf course, and he usually did, and at anything else he was doing. When we worked together as color commentators on TV for the Omaha Skutt-Lewis Central dual last season, he was going to do the very best job he could. And he did, from his little note cards with interesting tidbits of information to displaying his immense knowledge of the sport.

But for those of us lucky enough to call him a friend, and there are a lot of us, there was much more to R.J. Nebe than that. He was very devoted to his family, fiercely loyal to his friends and he had a strong commitment to promoting the sport of wrestling. He had an outgoing personality with a sharp wit and great sense of humor. He was a great storyteller and he had an infectious laugh that you often heard.

In the six years I worked as a sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, he and I became friends while he worked as the top assistant coach for Nebraska powerhouse Omaha Skutt Catholic High School.

The community of Omaha and the wrestling world lost a great man on Monday morning when R.J. lost his battle with leukemia. He was just 41 years old.

R.J. had an outstanding career in wrestling. He never won a state title at Millard North High School, placing as high as third at the state meet, but came to UNO and pieced together one of the best careers in Maverick history.

When R.J. was done at UNO, he had become a five-time All-American, won a Division II national title, placed sixth in the NCAA Division I Tournament and become UNO's career wins leader. He placed sixth at the Division I Tournament in 1988 at 177 pounds when the Division II national champion was eligible to compete at Division I nationals. He is a member of the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame and the UNO Athletic Hall of Fame.

R.J. stayed heavily involved with the sport after his UNO days. He and Brad Hildebrandt, teammates and fellow All-Americans at UNO, started the Skutt program and built the biggest dynasty in the history of Nebraska prep wrestling. It wasn't easy. In one of their first tournaments, Skutt's 12 wrestlers went a combined 0-24 and were pinned in all 24 matches

By the fifth year, Skutt won its first state title and hasn't stopped since. R.J. stepped down a couple years ago after the SkyHawks won their eighth straight state title (they won No. 10 this year). Brad and R.J. were a great combination at Skutt. They were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, driven and intense. Their kids did the extra work to get better - competing in USA Wrestling events in the spring and summer, and spending time in the weight room. They followed a blueprint for the Skutt program patterned after the great Iowa Hawkeye teams under Dan Gable with their aggressive, attacking style built on superior conditioning.

At the same time, Brad and R.J. developed close relationships with their wrestlers. One of the first standouts they worked with at Skutt, four-time state champion and double Junior Nationals champion Todd Meneely, recently won a national title for UNO. They also coached UNO All-Americans Mitch Waite and Steve Conlin, and an All-American at Nebraska-Kearney in Matt Farrell.

The wrestling room at Skutt is named for Brad and R.J., and with good reason. The impact they made together there was nothing short of remarkable. Brad made numerous visits to the hospital and spent considerable time with R.J. in what turned out to be his final days.

It also meant a lot to R.J. that his college coach, UNO's Mike Denney, and one of his closest friends, former UNO teammate and Maverick assistant coach Ron Higdon, were there to support him and provide comfort through his final days.

R.J. stayed involved with the sport as the color commentator on television for the Nebraska state tournament, a role he did while still at Skutt, along with broadcasting duals at UNO and the University of Nebraska.

R.J. was very proud of what he had done in his wrestling career. Being the career wins leader at a wrestling power like UNO meant a lot to him. But if anybody was going to pass him on the list, the perfect candidate came along.

Les Sigman won four national titles for UNO from 2003-06 and passed R.J. for the top spot on the career wins list in the process. R.J. was a big reason why. R.J. became a mentor to Les immediately after he arrived in Omaha and they developed a close relationship.

R.J. and Les trained often together, and their early battles were hard-fought. I remember Les coming up to me during the Dana Tournament his freshman year with a smile on his face and the news he couldn't wait to tell me, "Did you hear? I finally beat R.J." Later that season, Les won his first national title. R.J. traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia, to watch the national tournament that year and was among those out celebrating with Les after he won.

Even in his early 40s, R.J. could still roll around and more than hold his own with some of the area's top college wrestlers.

It's only been a few hours since Brad called me early Monday morning to give me the news that we had lost R.J., but it still doesn't seem real. How could this happen?

R.J. was a big, strong man with the heart of a lion. He was going to fight this and beat this because of the great competitor he was and how much he knew he had to live for.

The last time I saw R.J. was at the Nebraska state tournament last month in Omaha. He had his clipboard with him and his yellow highlighter out, making notes and preparing over the first two days of the tournament before broadcasting the finals. It was not an easy task with NETV showing all four finals matches simultaneously for all 14 weight classes. That's 56 weight classes with 112 wrestlers. That meant he needed to know something about all 112 finalists - no easy chore by any means. But he's done it for years and done it well.

I sat in one of the Qwest Center suites with some friends watching the finals and listening to the broadcast on NETV. R.J., as usual, did an outstanding job. I remember telling somebody that if wrestling were as big as basketball, R.J. could be a full-time color commentator like Dick Vitale is for college basketball. He was that good.

I'm going to miss those early-morning calls to my cell phone. Even though I moved to Colorado Springs just over a year ago to become communications manager at USA Wrestling, R.J. would still call me several times a week. Usually it was about something he was ranting or venting about, but I always enjoyed our conversations. It was always interesting to hear what he wanted to say and funny to see him get all worked up about the most trivial of things.

I'm going to miss playing golf with him and hearing him rip me for using a five-wood on a 165-yard par-3. And I will miss him giving me a hard time about my hole-in-one on his home course that he said was "the biggest fluke in the history of golf."

It just doesn't seem fair that we won't hear his voice anymore. It doesn't seem fair that someone so vibrant, so full of life and with so much to offer is taken from us at such a young age.

It doesn't seem fair that R.J.'s wonderful wife, Mary, and his pride and joy, his seven-year-old son Mason, lost their husband and father. R.J. and Mason had as close a father-son relationship as you can imagine. I watched him work with Mason on his golf swing at Tiburon and R.J. also helped coach Mason's football team. Mason loved being around his dad, and vice versa.

It still seems surreal that a great friend, a friend I had just spoken to a couple weeks ago on the phone, is gone. It's hard to fathom and hard to comprehend. It won't be the same without him.

I know I am a better man, a much better man, for having known R.J. Nebe. And I know that I am not alone.

I will miss him greatly.
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