The last highlight of Bill Merrell’s career as a wrestler happened because he finally listened.
He hadn’t taken Diablo Valley College coach Bob Ericson’s advice at first during that practice in Pleasant Hill in 1984.
“There’s a move where if a guy shoots a single leg on you, you can turn your back and yank your leg and get out,” Merrell recalled during a recent phone interview from his home in Alamo. “Coach Ericson said ‘That works here, against somebody’s who’s just OK. But if you’re wrestling a good wrestler, it won’t work,’ and I didn’t listen to him.
“I wrestled one of the better guys in the state and I turned my back and he took me down. He shot in again later in the match and I turned my back to pull my foot out and he took me down again. I lost by three points to this kid, and when I came off the mat, Coach Ericson broke his clipboard over my head, just snapped it over my head, and said ‘Are you going to start listening to me now?’
“From that moment on, I was the most coachable wrestler on that team. That’s the guy I ended up beating for the (158-pound) state championship, 6-0, and when he shot in I did not turn my leg and pull it out. I fought him off like Coach Ericson showed me.”
Because Merrell didn’t rebel, nor get discouraged by his demonstrative coach, having been toughened up by his coaches growing up in Napa, he had a long and successful wrestling career. His three wrestling seasons at Napa High were phenomenal. He not only won three Monticello Empire League titles, but also won two CiF Sac-Joaquin subsection titles and one section title, and placed fourth as a junior and fifth as a senior at the state meet.
According to one of his Napa High teammates, Edmund Carolan, Merrell was 108-8 in his three varsity seasons combined, and never lost a weekend tournament during the regular season. Carolan was so impressed that he nominated Merrell for induction into the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I was blown away when he told me,” Merrell said. “He was a couple of weight classes above me, but I’d only talked to him at reunions since. So I couldn’t believe the unselfish act of going through all that. I thought ‘Wow, they must have run out of people to let in.’
“But it’s definitely an honor. My parents (mother Karen and Charlie Agnew) still live in Napa and they would send me clippings of who got in each year, like my Napa High coach, Tim Mulligan, a few years ago. I was pretty proud of all the guys I knew who got in, but I never thought anyone would nominate me, let alone me get in.”
He seemed to have endless stories, at least one of which he planned to save for Saturday night’s induction ceremony and dinner at Embassy Suites Napa Valley. A social hour is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Don McConnell (Class of 1964), Brent Farris (1991) and Michael Yanover (2002) are also in this year’s induction class.
Merrell went into the section meet with a 33-0 record as a junior, and lost 6-4 in the semifinals to a previous state placer.
“Great match,” Merrell recalled. “I still remember the move. He got me on a re-switch. I tried to reverse him to tie it up and then he reversed me back real fast, and so I didn’t get the two points and time ran out. It was a good move.”
Started wrestling in eighth grade
Merrell started wrestling in eighth grade at Ridgeview, which had grades 6-9 but is now Harvest Middle School for grades 6-8.
“They didn’t have basketball for eighth-graders,” he said, “so I went out for wrestling – and I didn’t lose a match. Then in ninth grade, John Sly coached me. Back then, Ridgeview, Silverado and Redwood had the Tri-Valley Meet at the end of the year, and whatever ninth-grader won that got to compete in the MEL Championships. There were seven schools in the MEL back then, and that poor ninth-grader got stuck as the eighth seed.
“I didn’t want to do it, but Coach Sly made me do it. For two weeks he took me to Napa High and I worked out with those guys, and I ended up taking third in the MEL. And then I thought ‘OK good, that’s done’ – and then he made me wrestle in subsections. I came in fifth, and just missed going on to sections.
“So really, if you look back, I blame John Sly because I probably would have just stopped wrestling,” he laughed, “but he didn’t let me. He gave us that passion for the sport. He taught to work hard and the reward of working hard and we would win more matches in the third round because of our physical conditioning. He was tough.”
Merrell said when he came home from practice one day, his mom asked him why he had a rash on his back.
“I said ‘That’s John Sly’s whiskers’ from him crushing his chin in my back so hard,” Merrell said. “I was lucky because we were the same size so I could work out with him, so really the foundation of my skill came from him. He started the Napa Freestyle Club, and we had the ugliest yellow singlets you ever saw. We all ended up at Napa High and started winning.
“Coach Mulligan was a master at getting us physically fit and putting us in situational wrestling. We beat Vacaville my junior and senior years and I don’t think they’d lost in the 10 years before that. When you wrestle with a good team like that, you just make each other better all the time.
“There was a tournament in Eureka my senior year that had good schools from Oregon, Nevada and all over Northern California, and out of 13 weight classes, we had 11 in the finals. It looked like a dual meet between us and the rest of the schools. They didn’t ask us back.”
Merrell also played three seasons of Napa High football.
“I was an outside linebacker, because that was my mentality,” he said. “Before my senior year I hurt my knee playing football. It wasn’t bad enough to require surgery, but every step I took hurt, so I opted to let it rehab and skip football and just shoot for wrestling and see if we could get a scholarship. And it worked. I went to Cal Poly.”
Wrestled for four colleges
He wrestled only one year for the Mustangs.
“The (Cal Poly) coach told my brother Richie, who was a year behind me, not to sign with anyone else and he would give him a scholarship,” Merrell recalled, “and they used up all the scholarship money on a really good junior college kid. My brother was third at state as a Napa High senior, so I thought it was a low-integrity move. That’s why I left there and went to DVC. It turned out to be a good thing, because I spent a couple of years there and won the state meet, was MVP of the junior college all-stars, and the DVC Athlete of the Year.”
He said Ericson taught his DVC wrestlers how to eat right and use massage to stay limber during long bus rides.
“The guy was way ahead of his time,” Merrell said. “He was a Golden Glove boxer, an All-American Division I wrestler, and a black belt in two different martial arts. He literally kill you if he wanted to, so we called him Bob the Bullet.”
From DVC, Merrell tried to wrestle at the University of Nebraska.
“I won more than I lost there and had a good time,” he said. “But I have to be honest. If I wasn’t going to be an athlete, there was no way I was going to live in Nebraska. It was 90 degrees below with the wind-chill factor and our coach said ‘You still gotta get here,’ so I had to walk a mile and a half in it. At that point I thought ‘I’m leaving here as soon as I can.’”
He used his last year of athletic eligibility to wrestle at Chico State.
“My elbow was working good enough so I went for it and won the conference title. I qualified for nationals, but I didn’t go because the elbow couldn’t take it. So that was the end of the career.”
He’s coached ever since, starting with two seasons at Chico State.
“We were Division II and didn’t give scholarships and we still won the conference over schools that gave scholarships,” he said.
Moved on to running
“When I couldn’t wrestle anymore, I found marathons – the hardest thing you can do. I did a 50K once; nothing fun about it. But I ran 25 marathons, including Big Sur seven times. I still lift weights five days a week and do cardiovascular every day. I like being physically fit with a good diet program, which is what wrestling was. It’s something I was able to pass on to my kids. All three of them are training for a half-marathon right now. Two of them lift weights, one of them with me four days a week.”
He and Lorna, his wife of 25 years, have a daughter Samantha and son Dylan who graduated from Danville’s Monte Vista High and Washington State University, and son Ryan, a senior at Monte Vista.
Merrell had to give up running two years ago after getting injured during a wrestling practice at Monte Vista.
“I made a bad shot, let a senior get on top of me, and he sprawled back,” Merrell explained. “Hey, I was in my mid-40s when I quit wrestling freestyle tournaments and I wrestled all the way until I was 52. The thing about wrestling is you’re always hurt. Six months out of the year you’re just in pain. But I loved it.
“I think wrestling saved me. I never started a fight, but I never walked away from one either. I had that natural combat type of personality. Wrestling gave me a focus to exert that energy.”
Asked if any of his children wrestled, he laughed. “No, none of them were dumb. I did bribe Dylan by getting him a Slurpee every time he went to (youth) wrestling practice, and he went for a couple of years, but it didn’t stick. Ryan liked it and did it (as a freshman and sophomore), but academics were more important.”
Merrell believed that if you’re not practicing, somebody else is.
“During wrestling season you can’t goof around, so Richie and I used to sneak into the Napa High gym, pull the mat out in the corner and wrestle,” he recalled. “That was back when you could do that stuff, and the janitor would say ‘OK, go ahead’ because he was rooting for you.
“You have to be completely dedicated,” he said. “You’re getting up in the morning and running, you’re lifting weights, going to wrestling practice and lifting weights after, and sneaking into the gym on Friday nights and doing the same move over and over and over until you get it.”
Doing extra work was how he averaged 36 wins a year three times.
“The kids I coach spend two hours a day wrestling during the season. They’re not living and breathing it like we did,” Merrell said. “We would play football on a Friday night at Memorial Stadium, and then at 5 the next morning pile into a car to drive to San Francisco State to wrestling in a freestyle tournament.”
They wanted to make their coaches proud.
“Coach Sly was always the first one there, the last one to leave, and working hard the whole time,” Merrell said, adding that he passed that advice on to a manager he just hired. “I told him ‘Look, you’ve got to earn the respect of these guys and you gotta be here before they are and you gotta leave after they do.’ If you set that tone, everybody else will be there with you.’
“My coaches are the reason I help coach if anyone asks me to. You don’t get paid a lot, it’s a lot of hard work, you gotta deal with parents and you’re way from your family, but the reward is seeing a kid win a wrestling match when he shouldn’t even be out there.”
He said he what Mulligan taught him became life lessons.
“Coach Mulligan would always tell us ‘Win, lose or draw, you stand up, shake their hand, thank the other team’s coach and then come back to your side of the mat – even if you got your butt kicked or the guy was wrestling dirty.”
Merrell went 44-2 as a senior, with 33 pins, and avenged one of his losses in a section semifinal at Napa High.
“I had the brace on my knee and there were 30 seconds left,” he recalled. “My arch-nemesis shot in and was twisting on my knee as hard as he could to get me to go down. Smart wrestlers would shoot at the good leg and make the guy hop around on the bad leg. Well, we ended up going into overtime and when I came to the edge of the mat, I expected Coach Mulligan to give me some technical advice.
“He just grabbed my headgear and pulled me right up close to him and said ‘You take your bad leg off and you beat that kid with it.’ What he was telling me was ‘You need to focus on beating this guy and not on anything else,’ and I figured that out on that three-second walk back to the center of the mat. Sometimes people don’t play fair, you just got to fight back harder.”