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Coach, Youth Leader Edmonson Dies



Joe Edmonson surpassed his life expectancy by more than 25 years, yet to many, he died much too soon. The nationally respected youth wrestling coach, who lived most of his life as a quadriplegic, died in his sleep Monday morning at age 54. Robert Joseph Edmonson was known as an inspirational figure and a north Omaha community leader as well as a coach. And, though he primarily helped inner-city youths, people from all over the area knew him, loved him and learned from him. "He was an icon for all of Omaha," said Larry Foster, acting city parks and recreation director. "Lots of people knew Joe. He certainly will be missed." Funeral services were pending Monday. Edmonson broke his neck in a trampoline accident in 1964 and doctors gave him 10 years to live. Instead of giving up, he founded the Exploradories wrestling program in 1968, eventually earned a masters degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and touched hundreds of lives for nearly 40 more years. He was named a "Point of Light" in 1991 and honored by then-President George H.W. Bush. He also received UNO's Citation for Alumnus Achievement in 1995. He ran the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center of the YMCA and coached until his death. Edmonson's mother, Sarah Nelson, is proud of her son's life. "He's done a lot of good," she said. "The kids will miss him, because his work is never done." Foster said Edmonson wasn't afraid to go to bat for the kids. "He had a way of talking us into things," Foster said, laughing fondly. "He'd keep on your case until the easiest thing was just to do what he wanted." Roger Parker, Exploradories assistant coach for eight years, said Edmonson was special. "He was a father-figure to me, a mentor," Parker said. "A lot of kids grew up to be men through his program." Edmonson was named to the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1994. His awards put him in contact with numerous celebrities. At the Edmonson home are framed pictures of him with national leaders former President Bush and Colin Powell, as well as with basketball greats Michael Jordan and Julius Erving. Yet, rubbing shoulders with the "big boys" never changed him. "It was all about the kids," said Foster, who worked with Edmonson for more than 10 years. "He had no ego." Joe's physical condition made it difficult for people to make excuses. "He wouldn't tolerate anyone who would complain," said his wife, Jean Edmonson. Besides his wife and mother, Edmonson is survived by daughter Champagne Jones; three granddaughters, Brianna, Gabriell and Essence Jones, all of Omaha; two brothers, Stevie Bell of Omaha and Roosevelt Bell of North Platte; and sister-in-law LaDonna Jones-Dunlap of Omaha. Edmonson battled diabetes and pneumonia. Still, he had planned to coach at a wrestling camp on the day he died. That's the kind of determination his mother hopes people, including Edmonson's successor at the youth center, will remember. "I hope whoever takes over can keep it going," she said, "but I don't think anybody's going to take Joe's place."
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