‘I’m a believer in giving back’

by Joshua Zuckerman

With three older brothers in the neighborhood wrestling program, it was a natural move for Billy Pierce to join them on the mat at the age of five.
“He didn’t have a clue” in the beginning, said his father, Harley. In his first match he was pinned within seconds. “He got up with a big grin on his face,” Harley said. “You’d thought he had won.”
In his first year as a wrestler, Billy was excited just to be around his older brothers. After a while, though, the competitive spirit took hold.
Billy, now 23, has been wrestling for 18 years and is shooting for a spot on the 2004 Olympic team. He attributes much of his success to community wrestling programs and is now returning the favor. He volunteers three days a week as an assistant coach for the Minneapolis Wrestling Club, which meets at Roosevelt High in south Minneapolis.
Billy’s parents, Kathy and Harley, invested many hours driving Billy to practices and tournaments during his years as a young wrestler. They took advantage of the competitive spirit of wrestling to teach Billy the importance of values over winning.
Kathy remembers other young wrestlers throwing temper tantrums after loosing a tournament match. For Billy’s parents, winning and losing with grace was part of his training.
“I said to him one time, ‘if you ever act like that, we’re never coming to another match,'” Kathy said. “I’ve always said to him, win, lose or draw, the same kid comes home, and I love him just the same.”
As Billy’s wrestling wins mounted, so did his self-confidence and dedication to the sport. He won nine national titles before college and was voted an All-American three times while wrestling for the Golden Gophers.
But winning has not gone to Billy’s head. Coming from a working-class neighborhood in south Minneapolis, he has grown up surrounded by the realities of inner-city life. Seeing guns pulled at parties and the parents of neighborhood kids prostituting themselves for drugs kept him humble and gave him the desire to make a difference in his community.
Coaching wrestling is a way Billy believes he can help inner-city kids find support and direction. “I’m a big believer in giving back from what you’ve taken,” he said.
The support of his parents and the structure of the community wrestling program is what Billy feels kept him off the streets.
With an air of determination and anger, Billy talks about the abandoned kids in his community and how society treats them. Most people don’t understand inner-city kids, Billy says. “You don’t know half of it. They didn’t ask to come into this world and be treated like shit,” he said. “The difference is, I have good parents, and a lot of these kids don’t have good parents.”
Kids growing up in abusive homes without guidance is an inner-city reality that Billy thinks of often.
“I want to stop these kids before they end up on the streets,” he says. “Maybe I could be their father figure in a way or their support and let them know that ‘hey, you can do as well as I did.'”
Billy now coaches at the club where he started freestyle wrestling when he was 10.
Other coaches at the club, as well as wrestlers and their parents, are happy to have Billy around. “He’s a real hero for the kids,” says fellow assistant coach Larry Allen. “An inner-city kid who got an education.”
Fifteen-year-old wrestler Justin Waggoner, who goes to University wrestling matches, enjoys learning college-level moves from Billy. “He doesn’t seem like he’d be all that great of a wrestler. He seems gentle, but he’s good as hell,” Justin says.
Next fall Billy will start work on his teaching degree at Augsburg College. While training for the Olympics, he will also have to divide his time between school and assistant coaching.
After getting his teaching certificate, Billy hopes to coach wrestling at an inner-city Minneapolis high school where, he says, he hopes to give back the support and guidance he’s received from the wrestling community.