Eye injury, war don’t alter former coach’s love of sport
A few minutes after Lansing High's home wrestling duals began Jan. 12, Monte Sheets slipped through the gymnasium door.
It was the first time since July that he'd stepped foot inside the gym. That was when he and senior Logan Ryan met up to wrestle in preparation for the Sunflower State Games.
It also was about a month before he received the official orders that his National Guard unit would be bound for Iraq.
Sheets, an assistant coach at Lansing, knew exactly what those orders meant. There would be no wrestling season for him this year.
Just like in 2002 when he was the head coach at LHS and his unit was sent to Germany mid-season, he would be forced to miss another season.
In many ways, the news was heartbreaking for a man who has made wrestling such an essential part of his life.
"My initial reaction, of course, was how to tell my family, because we'd already been deployed once, and this is the second time that we're going into combat theater," Sheets said. "But other than missing my family, I miss the wrestling team the most."
It makes sense that Sheets would miss wrestling almost as much as his family. After all, the two go hand-in-hand. Sheets' father, Dean Sheets, has been coaching youth and high school wrestling for decades. Monte Sheets was one of his first wrestlers.
"He wrestled for me when we started kid wrestling down here in 1964," Dean Sheets said, referring to the Linwood children's wrestling program. Dean Sheets now runs the youth club based in De Soto.
Monte Sheets eventually wrestled for the old Linwood High School. He was one of the first wrestlers at the high school, and during the program's second year he placed third at state.
Monte Sheets wasn't the only Sheets child to follow in his father's footsteps. His brother, Jeff Sheets, is the head coach at Chapman High School. His sister coaches a kids club in Iola and has helped the program grow from 20 wrestlers to about 45. Another sister regularly covers wrestling as the sports editor at the Iola Register.
"It's kind of bred in them, I guess," Dean Sheets said with a chuckle.
Before departing for Iraq, Sheets had one last bit of wrestling business he needed to take care of. He met up with Logan Ryan at the LHS wrestling room in late July to help Ryan prepare for the Sunflower State Games.
Sheets had been Lansing's primary coach for the 215-pound and 275-pound weight classes. Ryan had been a mainstay at 215 throughout his career, and Sheets played an instrumental role in Ryan's sudden improvement as a junior.
"About two weeks before school started, I came up here and threw him for the first time," said Ryan, a 2005 state qualifier.
"He was pretty much just my coach from freshman year through last year, and he helped me everywhere. He's just a great coach and a great guy. I'm going to miss him for sure."
At the end of their late-summer match, Sheets walked out of the LHS gym for the last time before heading off to war.
While Sheets' departure to Iraq was tough on his family and the LHS wrestlers, it created a new challenge for one wrestler in particular. Lansing High sophomore Tabbitha Carroll, Sheets' stepdaughter, decided she wanted to wrestle this year after spending her freshman year as a team manager.
"When I started watching the boys, I thought maybe I want to wrestle, so Monte set it up for me to do it," Carroll said. "I was in an all-girls league, and then he got me into the Slammers."
Sheets spent the summer teaching Carroll the basics of wrestling and preparing her for the high school level.
"He taught me everything," Carroll said.
When Sheets was called up to go to Iraq, Carroll knew that meant her mentor wouldn't be around the wrestling room this winter. She said that made her sad, but she said she never considered quitting wrestling.
"I took it hard when I found out because I knew I wouldn't have my coach that would be sitting there by me step-for-step, telling me what I'm doing wrong and what I'm doing right," Carroll said. "But I wanted to make him proud, so I knew I was still going to wrestle."
EYEING A RETURN
Although his unit received its orders in September, it didn't arrive in Iraq until early November. His unit was in charge of security for four bases.
"We were right around the Baghdad area," he said. "You heard the explosions. Some of our towers got small-arms fire, but as far as anything big, nothing really happened."
Sheets said that although he didn't experience any major combat, he eventually began to notice his vision becoming blurred.
"I was there a month before I figured out I needed to do something about my vision," he said. "They got me out of Iraq in about 36 hours and deployed me to Walter Reed (Hospital in Washington, D.C.)."
It turned out Sheets had a detached retina in his left eye and a slight tear in the retina of his right eye. The cause of the injury was unknown.
"I could've been in the wrestling room back here or I could have slipped on ice or fell down the steps," Sheets said. "I found out my grandfather had two detached retinas, so it could be hereditary."
Sheets had surgery on his eyes on Dec. 27. For the next week he was confined to a bed in the guest house at Walter Reed. He had to lay face-down on the bed to allow his retinas to lay flat. During those seven days, Sheets' wife served as his nurse.
"She'd put the eye drops in, give me my medication and yell at me if I wasn't laying the right way," he said. "Fortunately, so far I haven't been in the hospital ward at Walter Reed. Just the guest house."
BACK IN THE GYM
One week after his surgery, Sheets was released from Walter Reed and allowed to return to Kansas to continue his recovery.
"The doctor said there's a 95-percent chance of successful reattachment," Sheets said. "If that happens, then probably by the end of March I'll be back in Iraq."
Until then, Sheets is enjoying his time back in Kansas. He is spending time with his family, which includes a newborn grandchild. He's also makes plenty of time to watch Tabbitha and the Lansing High wrestlers compete. He isn't a coach this year, but you couldn't tell by watching him. He hugs Tabbitha after her matches. He still barks out support to other wrestlers, and he wears his black knit coaches' shirt to meets as a sign of support.
"I get close to the mat and it's just habit, I guess," he said with a smile.
Matching the shirt is a black patch he still wears over his left eye. It's the only visible evidence that things are different for him.
Still, Sheets isn't a coach right now, but he's back to being a father, friend and fan, and the Lions are happy to have him around.
"We're always anxious to have Monte on our side," LHS coach Ron Averill said. "I know we'd all rather have him here than Iraq. It's good to have him back."