It’s no matter that they are now at rival schools. They will be forever inked. In the middle of a recent interview, now Concordia graduate assistant coach Dmitri Smith proudly lifted up the left sleeve of his shirt to reveal an important part of his identity.
The bond became so strong between a particular group of four seniors on the 2016-17 Bulldog wrestling team that each one got a tattoo of the Concordia cross logo. It’s a symbol that means a lot to Smith and close friends Ken Burkhardt Jr., Kodie Cole and Ceron Francisco.
The placement on the body of the tattoo for each of them is a little different because as Burkhardt Jr. explains, “We’re all from different walks of life.”
They converged on Seward, Neb., in 2013 from the states of California, North Carolina and Nebraska, sharing a similar passion for the sport of wrestling. While Francisco continues a unique journey as a resident athlete at the University of Virginia, Burkhardt Jr. (Midland), Cole (Doane) and Smith (Concordia) are all now first-year graduate assistant wrestling coaches within the GPAC.
Says Bulldog head wrestling coach Levi Calhoun, “It’s awesome. Even though a couple of those guys are at rival schools, we’re still extremely proud to call them Concordia alums and to call them Bulldogs. They’re still part of the family. They always will be. It shows the kind of men Concordia puts out. People are reaching out and trying to get them involved in their programs. It’s a big point of pride for us to be able to say we’ve got these guys out there still involved in the wrestling community and making an impact in people’s lives.”
There will likely never be a class quite like it again for Concordia wrestling – and it’s not just about what they accomplished on the mat. Francisco was a transcendent figure on campus who made it cool for people to come to wrestling duals even without any knowledge of the sport. Ceron, Burkhardt Jr. and Cole combined for seven All-America awards and helped spring the program to GPAC championships in three-straight seasons.
They have a knowledge of what it takes to lift a program up from the ground up. That type of knowledge paired with their work ethic is invaluable. The architect behind Concordia’s wrestling rise is now Midland head coach Dana Vote, who recruited that vaunted 2016-17 senior class. Now he is reunited with Burkhardt Jr. in Fremont.
“What we had going at Concordia was special,” Vote said. “It was a special group of kids. I still have a close relationship with pretty much all of them. I talk to them quite a bit. I want nothing but the best for them. It is a cool thing to see them spread what we had throughout the conference. Hopefully it does good things for the conference.”
It was undeniably impressive in how the group boosted the Bulldogs up from the bottom of the conference to the top and from a national afterthought to one of the NAIA’s top 10 squads. Take the words from Smith as just one reason for the success.
“We just really had a lot of commitment to the program and the sport of wrestling,” Smith said. “For four years it was our lifestyle. We really cared a lot about what we put into it.”
And they cared about each other a lot. Still do. There may be some playful trash talk leading up to matches this winter, but it really is all in good fun. There’s a mutual respect between all of the aforementioned coaches and pupils. When they go head-to-head, of course they want to beat each other. But they will still be the same friends when they step away from the mat.
“When it comes to it, I care about every single one of them,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “I respect every single one of them. When it comes to competition, business is business. Nobody’s feelings should be hurt. At the end of the day, we’re just going to get back at it and work harder. It’s part of the process. It’s part of wrestling.”
Even if it wasn’t top of mind back then, Calhoun recognized traits that would support them well in their future endeavors as coaches. When Calhoun arrived as an assistant at Concordia prior to their junior seasons, he quickly came to realize who the leaders in the room were.
“Those were always the guys who were in the room getting extra workouts,” Calhoun said. “Even though they weren’t the seniors of the team at the time, they were the leaders of the team. That was pretty obvious. Immediately they were the guys everybody was turning to. They were the first guys to come and introduce themselves to me when I got here and make sure that I got to know them.”
Vote says it will be fun seeing each of them around at tournaments. Vote also brought current Concordia assistant Junior Lule into the Bulldog wrestling program. His stamp remains on a program looking to get back to the top in the same manner it did during a breakthrough 2014-15 campaign.
The trophies from those seasons remain in the case, but that’s not what those four bonded Bulldogs will remember most.
Says Burkhardt Jr., “It’s more than awards, honestly. It’s more about the lasting impression that we made and the culture we helped create. We have Concordia tattoos that symbolize the brotherhood we found there. We viewed ourselves as a foundation that the program could build upon.”
Added Vote, “I love seeing the guys around the conference, to continue to give back to the sport of wrestling with what they got out of it. It will be fun seeing them around the tournaments.”
In case anyone was wondering, Concordia will dual at Midland on Dec. 29 and then host Doane as part of the GPAC duals on Jan. 26. Both dates will serve as reunions of sort – and reminders of memories made in the not-so-distant past. Should any of the Bulldog four forget, all any of them has to do is look down at that ink.
It’ll be there forever. Said Smith after revealing his tattoo, “We have a lot of pride in this program.”