LeROY – The Bowman Wrestling Invitational will take place Saturday at LeRoy High School, but its namesake will not be present for the 47th annual tournament.
Randy Bowman, 72, died nine days ago, aware that the annual meet was being renamed in his honor this year. His son, Dan, will accept the award.
Randy Bowman coached and taught at Mahomet-Seymour and LeRoy high schools. His former students in both districts remember him fondly.
Steve Sayler was a next-door neighbor to Bowman when the family lived in Mahomet and a member of football teams Bowman helped coach. Bowman left Mahomet in 1971 and returned to LeRoy, where he had been instrumental in starting the wrestling program a decade earlier.
"My final (football) game my senior year (1972), I scored a touchdown against him," Sayler said. "He knew it was good, but he told the official I stepped out of bounds. He did a great job of getting it called out.
"After we had gotten home, the next day he called and told me it was just a game and I had not stepped out of bounds. We both laughed. M-S won (16-12), so I did not care at all."
Bowman, however, cared deeply about his student-athletes. The feeling was mutual.
"What sticks out the most to me is how he was a father figure to those who most needed it and how his tough-love style really helped several kids make it through school who otherwise would've had a much more difficult time doing so," said John Kennedy, a 1988 LeRoy graduate who wrestled for Bowman.
"If it was in your best interest, he would do anything for you. It didn't matter to Coach Bowman if you were a 30-match winner or a wrestler trying to get to .500, he cared for you and worked with you just the same. His teams were strong because of this attention to all individuals."
Bowman's wrestling teams won more than 80 percent of their matches. His career record of 407-89-5 places him among the top 15 winningest wrestling coaches in state history.
"His example of always trying your best, working harder than everyone else, honoring your commitments and finding the good in everyone are just some of the attributes that he passed on to numerous students and athletes throughout his career," Kennedy added.
As a senior, Kennedy had a 33-2 record and advanced to the sectional semifinals, but he sustained a hyper-extended elbow in the Friday night quarterfinals.
"For the bus ride home, Coach Bowman made a make-shift sling and packed my elbow in snow," Kennedy said. "When I arrived at the school the next morning for the bus ride back to Mahomet, it was obvious to Coach that my elbow would keep me from wrestling.
"He was as disappointed as I was, if not more so. Later on he would tell me that he didn't sleep a wink that Friday night thinking about me."
Bowman, a member of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame, retired in 1991 but stayed in contact with the Panthers' wrestling program. For more than a decade, he drove the team bus to out-of-town meets and intently watched the matches from the stands. For the annual tournament, which started as a four-team event in the 1960s, he routinely donated the soda that was sold at the concession stand.
A special presentation in recognition of Bowman will be made prior to the start of Saturday's championship session, estimated to be at 3 p.m.
When Kennedy told Bowman last September about plans to rename the Panther Invitational, he didn't know what reaction he would receive.
"Coach Bowman is one of the most humble persons you could meet and did not like a lot of fanfare," Kennedy said. "Therefore I half expected him to politely decline. However, I was pleasantly surprised that he was fine with the idea and felt very honored."
Saturday's 11-team tournament starts at 9 a.m., and an open house will be ongoing throughout the day.
Schools participating besides the 14th-ranked Class 1A Panthers include Aurora Central Catholic, Bismarck-Henning, El Paso-Gridley, Eureka, Monticello, No. 16 Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac, Salt Fork, Shelbyville, Tremont and Warrensburg-Latham.
It will be a great day for wrestling, but it will be an even greater day for remembering.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.