Kevin Emily felt like he was pinned to the mat.
His older brother had just committed suicide and not only was Emily suffering through his own grief, he was trying to help his devastated parents with theirs. Living in Iowa at the time, he had enrolled at Meremac Community College in St. Louis to stay close to his parents, but they moved to Georgia, where his brother was living when he died. To stay close to his parents, Emily transferred to UTC.
But UTC gave him a lot more than just a place to live, he says.
“I gained a new family, and I needed that at that time,” he says. “UTC was a safe haven. It was an experience of a lifetime for me. It helped me become a man, taught me so many life lessons.”
While earning a Bachelor of Arts in Communication in 1995, he joined UTC’s wrestling team, having been part of the sport in his Iowa high school. Since graduating—he came back to UTC to earn a master’s degree in education in 2008—he has been head wrestling coach at five different schools, including Red Bank High School. His main career, though, has been as a special education teacher.
But the years he spent in wrestling took a turn toward the past. As an African-American, Emily was fascinated with the history of black wrestlers but, when he sought out anything written about them, he came up empty-handed.
“The only thing I found was a 10- to 15-page pamphlet from the Wrestling Hall of Fame. I thought, ‘These guys deserve more than that.’ ”
His fascination and dedication turned into two books, Pathfinder in 2017 and its follow-up, Pathfinder, Vol. 2, this year. He was planning to write only one book but, as he got deeper into Pathfinder, he realized there was too much to write about, so Pathfinder, Vol. 2 was born.
“I kept discovering more people, so I told myself to just stop with what you’ve got and you’ve got enough for a good book. If you try to cram all that information into one book, you’ll do some of the wrestlers a disservice.”
It makes sense that he’d have a ton of history in his hands because he dug deeply, going all the way back to Egypt during the age of the pharaohs.
“Everyone thinks the Greco-Roman era is when wrestling started, but it actually was in Africa,” Emily says. “There are paintings on the Egyptian pyramid walls showing Nubians who came to Egypt to wrestle.”
From those ancient days, he kept moving forward until he reached the 21st century. “I found out all this cool information that I’d never even known before,” he says. “There were so many things that people didn’t know about the wrestlers. They didn’t get their due credit.”
In the two books, he covers dozens of wrestlers and coaches, from Harold T. Henson, who in 1949 became the first black man allowed to participate in an NCAA wrestling tournament, to John Meeks, who held a lifetime high school record of 172-0 and, in 2012, became the first and only undefeated black student to win the Iowa state championship four times.
He tells the inspiring tale of J’den Cox, who had a terrible childhood and suffered from PTSD, depression and thought about committing suicide as a college student. Cox pushed through those burdens and eventually won three NCAA titles and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics.
Getting in touch with the wrestlers wasn’t as difficult as you might think, Emily says. Facebook helped a lot as well as through such connections as “the friend of a friend of a friend.”
“The wrestling community is so tight-knit; they knew someone who knew someone,” he says.
In some ways, though, he finds it humorous that he wrote the books because, at UTC, “I could not stand writing papers.”
“I almost didn’t graduate because I refused to write my senior thesis,” he says, “and now all of a sudden I’ve cranked out two books.”