RYAN REEBENACKER, KNIGHTWIRE MANAGER, TRUMPET SPORTS WRITER
The national wrestling community has been in mourning following the loss of Kenny Anderson, a legendary Wartburg College wrestler. Anderson, 29, passed away on Oct. 20. The cause of death has not been released at this time.
“We’ve had some amazing, unbelievable people go through this program,” Eric Keller, Wartburg’s head wrestling coach, said. “He’s one of the top. When it came down to it, and the lights were the brightest, I wanted him out there.”
“My brother and I would throw down blankets on the floor and pretend we were in the NCAA finals. For any kid to accomplish his dream, it’s amazing.”—Kenny Anderson, 2014 interview with KatieJo Kuhens
The lightweight earned three NCAA individual titles, as well as three team titles, throughout a three-year stretch with the Knights from 2011–2014. Anderson remains one of only three three-time national champions in the history of Wartburg wrestling. No one has accomplished the feat since.
“When I was extremely, extremely young everybody [my siblings] would pretend to be in the NHL finals, the NBA finals,” Anderson said in a 2014 interview with KatieJo Kuhens. “My brother and I would throw down blankets on the floor and pretend we were in the NCAA finals. For any kid to accomplish his dream, it’s amazing.”
Jim Miller, Wartburg’s co-head wrestling coach for two of Anderson’s three seasons and the current director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, said hearing the news of Anderson’s death was like being “hit by a sledgehammer.”
Prior to coming to Wartburg, Anderson wrestled at Billerica High School outside Boston, Massachusetts, where he won three state titles, and won the New England title at 119 pounds in 2008. Anderson was inducted into the State Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2011. Anderson’s thick Boston accent endeared Anderson to many in the Midwest.
Beyond his accent and love of all things New England, those close to Anderson knew one playful trait that set him apart from so many other Wartburg greats: his love of candy.
“He was probably the biggest sugar junky I’ve ever met,” Keller said. “Like the kid always had candy. Heck, it was his motivation for everything. He got in a good workout? He wanted candy.”
In between Anderson’s time at Wartburg and Iowa Central, the champion hit what he considered to be a personal low. He got by as he washed buses in his hometown. Looking back, Keller believed those early hardships shaped Anderson.
“He lived for the big moments,” Keller said. “I think a lot of that was that they were the moments he had always dreamed of. I think for him, probably those days washing buses, those were the moments that got him through it. Those were the moments that he was envisioning being on that stage. That moment. And when it happened, when it was there, he embraced it.”
“When it comes to role models, for basketball people, it’s probably LeBron James. But by far the biggest role model [for me] was Kenny Anderson.”— CONNOR CLEVELAND, FOURTH-YEAR WRESTLER
Anderson’s wrestling career with the Knights could only be described as dominant, as he compiled a record of 76–3 at both the 125 and 133-pound classes. Anderson avenged all three of his career losses.
“When it comes to role models, for basketball people, it’s probably LeBron James,” Connor Cleveland, a fourth-year member of the wrestling program, said. “But by far the biggest role model [for me] was Kenny Anderson.”
Cleveland is one of the few wrestlers still at Wartburg who was on the roster during Anderson’s time as an assistant coach. The two stayed in touch when Anderson left Wartburg to assist at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
Anderson’s coaching career developed further when he accepted a co-head coaching position with Holy Cross High School in New Orleans. Anderson would have begun his first season with the program this Winter.
“He really understood what Wrestling did for him,” Keller said. “And he wanted to share that. He wanted to share that with anyone who wanted it.”
Miller’s final match as a Wartburg coach coincided with Anderson’s second national championship.
“After he won his second championship, Kenny came up to me and he said, ‘Coach, I know you remember your first national champion, I hope you remember your last,’” Miller said. “And I most definitely will not forget Kenny Anderson. Neither will so many others. We love Kenny Anderson.”