[WORD ILLEGIBLE] Robert McNelis never found [WORD ILLEGIBLE] terribly exciting. But the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 44-year-old veteran of more than 20 years of coaching and officiating has hidden the fact well while making his name synonomous with the sport in Montgomery County.
"I really don't like to watch wrestling matches. Wrestling matches are boring," said McNelis, who presently is assistant principal at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring and the commissioner of the Washington Metropolitan Wrestling Officials Association. "I guess that's what you'd call an apparaent contradiction, a paradox. Wrestling in my opinion is too tough to compete in, too tough to coach, and in many cases too hard to officiate."
McNelis, however, is quick to point out the value of wrestling, the reason he's devoted his years to the growth of the sport in the area. "It's a chance for the smaller guy to achieve," he explained. "I really wasn't good at that. When you're a little guy with little talent, wrestling offers you the opportunity to achieve.
"I'm a big guy now, but I wasn't always," continued McNelis, who wrestled in the ninth grade as a 5-foot-4, 95-pounder, but now stands 5-11 and weighs 200 pounds. "Winning or losing as an individual, they (wrestlers) gain the experience of life because you win some and you lose some."
Perhaps his distaste for the dreary side of wrestling provided the key to McNeli's success as a coach. He prefers short, quick practices, emphasizing attention and team unity, rather than grueling hours of conditioning and scrimmage.
In fact, the only full scrimmage McNelis ever conducted led to a serious injuries to a wrestler and he never contemplated using the practice again. Despite McNelis' aversion, scrimmages remain a popular practice in county wrestling.
"The most important thing is to get the wrestler to develop a self-image - proving to him no matter how good his skills were, he was an equally important member of the squad," McNelis said. "I didn't want to make it some kind of drudgery. Maybe we were working on the same skills through different methods. In your wrestling room, you'd be doing duck-unders, switches and rolls and it would be hot and sweaty. In my room, we'd do the same things, only there would be music and laughter."
"He has a great talent for getting the most out of a wrestler - taking an average wrestler and making a champion out of him," said John Henderson, who wrestled for McNelis in high school in Pennsylvania, before starring as a grappler at University of Maryland and coaching at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring for the past 10 years. "His wrestlers are champs on the mat and off the mat - wrestlers any coach would like to have on his team."
McNelis grew up with three wrestling brothers in northeastern Pennsylvania and graduated from West Chester State College, where he captained the wrestling team, had a couple of undefeated seasons and earned a Middle Atlantic title in 1953.
He started his coaching career in 1954 at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, but moved the next year to Lewiston (Pa.) high school. At Lewistown, he put in five years that culminated in his being named Pennsylvania coach of the year in 1959.
During his years in Lewistown, he sent a number of grapplers back to College Park, where McNelis prodigies eventually earned 14 Atlantic Coast Conference championships for Maryland.
In the fall of 1959, McNelis moved to Northwood for eight years of continued success. His first two years his Indians won the league title. In 1962 and '63, Northwood placed first in Montgomery's first two county tournaments, adding the Metropolitan title in 1962.
Though Springbrook won the county tournament in 1965, Northwood rebounded by winning the regional. Then McNelis closed his career at Northwood by leading his club to a county and regional honors in 1967. There was no state tourney.
After a couple of years devoted to officiating, McNelis surfaced at the Silver Spring Boys Club to replace Jimmy Terrill, who had entered the service.His 1971 Beltway League champions included two eventual national prep school titlists and three grapplers who earned five total Maryland state crowns.
One of those wrestlers, Kelly Ward, who took a national title while at prep school at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., and presently is rated second nationally at 158 pounds as a sophomore at national power Iowa State, brought McNelis back for a brief two-year fling at Kennedy.
These years proved to be his most enjoyable as he added five competitors who had never wrestled to four good grapplers and reversed Kennedy's losing tradition. Cavalier squads had compiled a dismal 13-48-1 mark over the previous six years, but dropped only three dual meets in 1973-74. The 1974 Cavaliers finished third in the state to Parkdale, coached by none other than brother Dr. John McNelis.
Since leaving Kennedy, McNelis has managed the area referees' association. That job includes assigning more officials to approximately 1,000 matches per season. Occasionally, McNelis dons the black and white striped shirt, but he tries to limit his appearances to cancellations by other refs.
With all the honors he has achieved while coaching, McNelis' greatest achievement may have come while a spectator at a Blair match at Springbrook. An administrator at Blair at the time, McNelis rushed into action when a Blazer junior varsity wrestler suffered a seizure. The boy's heart actually stopped, but McNelis applied heart massage while coach Clarence Thomas gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the boy's life was saved.
McNelis was inducted into the Maryland Wrestling Hall of Fame last year.