Family, Farming and Wrestling – The Carlson Legacy in Willmar

By Brian Jerzak

Family and wrestling go together like ice cream and apple pie. All across the state of Minnesota, the wrestling landscape is littered with families steeped in wrestling history. The Short family, the Morgan family, the Thorn and the Ness families, just to name a few, have produced multiple high-level wrestlers. They are families that get the sport of wrestling in their blood, and it never gets out.

The connection between wrestling and family is similar to the connection between family and farming. Generations of families work family farms. Often the home and farm are passed down from one generation to the next. Once farming gets in a family’s blood, like wrestling, it is hard to get it out.

Few families in Minnesota encapsulate the strong bond between family, farming and wrestling more than the Carlson family from Willmar.

“Our dad (Curtney) wrestled for Willmar back in the 1950’s,” Chad Carlson said, “and graduated from Willmar High School in 1957. He got us started in it. It wasn’t like he was pushing us one way or the other, but I think he thought it would be a good thing to get us into.”

Chad – who started in 2nd grade – was successful right away.

“When I was in elementary school I would just muscle kids – I was so much stronger. I didn’t know much technique – just some stuff my dad showed me,” Chad said. “I didn’t like to lose and was determined.”

Younger brother Carl started at the same time as Chad.

“Willmar wasn’t offering kindergarten wrestling, but the coach said since Chad was coming, I could come too,” Carl said.

Like his brother, Carl had success early on.

(As a kid) “I maybe lost a few matches here and there,” said Carl, “but I rarely lost.”

Carl Carlson and Chad Carlson

Carl Carlson and Chad Carlson

As their skills evolved, Chad became a takedown – especially a low single – specialist and Carl became more of a top wrestler and pinner.

Chad placed three times at State, including titles as a junior and a senior. Carl made it to State all five years he wrestled varsity. Knee injuries late in the season derailed his chance at titles his sophomore and junior seasons but finally won a state title as a senior – despite another injury.

“There was a lot of frustration,” Carl said. “It actually worked out well. I wasn’t as hard of a worker as Chad was, but my injuries made me work harder than I wanted to. If I were the older brother, I don’t think I would have worked as hard. Seeing him work hard and have success motivated me to be better.”

Both brothers wrestled for the Minnesota Gophers. Chad qualified for Nationals three of his four years while Carl continued to have injury issues. A part-time starter as a freshman and sophomore, concussions and yet another knee injury forced Carl to end his wrestling career after his junior year.

They are second generation wrestlers, but Chad and Carl are the fourth generation of farmers in Willmar.

“Our great-grandfather homesteaded the farm in 1891, and we’ve been there ever since,” Chad said.

Neither brother ever had much of a desire to leave the family business.

“I’ve always enjoyed farming,” Chad said. “After being in college for a bit, I really missed home and working with the family and the cows. It became clear to me that farming is what I wanted to continue to do.”

“I didn’t realize I missed (working on the farm) until I was away from it,” Carl recalled. “My first semester of college I was going to go into physical therapy, but I missed the farm so much that I switched my major to animal science.”

Hard work on the farm was second nature to the Carlson boys.

“When we were younger we milked 60 cows,” Chad said. “We had chores to do every morning and every night. We didn’t think anything about it. It was just a common thing that we both did and didn’t think twice about it. It was something we enjoyed. We enjoyed working outside and working with the cows. It is easy to look back and realize all the lessons it taught us.”

The work on the farm helped prepare the boys for the rigors of a wrestling career.

“Farming helped us in wrestling both on the physical side and the mental side,” Chad continued. “There was a lot of physical work that we did, but a lot of the mental toughness came from there too. Feeding cows or calves when it is 30 below or stacking straw in the hay loft when it is 95 degrees. You don’t think of it when it is happening, but when you look back, you realize it did a lot more for us than what we thought at the time. You can’t quit. When you’ve got bale after bale coming up the conveyor into the hay loft, or you’ve got cows outside that need to be fed no matter what the temperature is – you have to do it. It goes into wrestling too. If you are doing wind sprints or you are in the third period, there is no quit. You’ve got to do it; you are going to do everything you can to try to succeed.”

“I don’t think Chad and I realized it until after we got to college how we were working out and we didn’t even realize we were working out. Things like feeding the cows carrying five-gallon pails of feed or five-gallon pails of milk.”

Their father tried to make the hard work as enjoyable for his sons as he could.

“We make it fun, there is nothing wrong with hard work, but you’ve got to have fun with it,” Chad said. “Our dad always tried to make a game out of stuff. We try to do that with our kids.”

Although farming has changed since Chad and Carl were young – like their father – they have passed on the values of hard work to their kids.

“Things are so technical now that our kids don’t have the same kind of things to do around the farm,” Carl said. “We try to come up with stuff and be more creative with the kids to make sure they still kind of get that same type of workout.”

While the family farm is mainly dairy cows, they do farm about 1000 acres for feed purposes. They don’t generate enough to feed the cows for the year, but it significantly cuts into the feed they have to buy each year.

The family currently has 1500 cows under their care. They can breed enough calves each year to replace any that they lose and have not had to buy a single cow since 2008.

The farm always has been and always will be about the family.

“Carl lives in the house we grew up in – the original house our dad was born in. We built a new house for our mom and dad about 100 yards away from the original home, and they bought another farm a half a mile south in 1990 when I graduated from high school, and that is the farm and house that my family lives in,” Chad shared.

“It is just nice having the whole family around in the summer,” Carl said. “I get to see my dad every day. Every day I get to work with my brother and my kids.”

Colten Carlson

Colten Carlson

Even the Willmar wrestling coaching staff has a family feel to it. Carl was an assistant coach under Tom Beyer. Then when the new staff was in place, Carl re-entered the picture again as an assistant coach and also works with the youth program. As Carl’s oldest – Colten – tagged along with his dad at practices and was hooked on the sport almost immediately. When Colten started wrestling the rest of the boys pretty much followed along.

“(Carl’s kids) Just absolutely love wrestling. My second son – Clay – had two fractures in his back and went through this whole past season in so much pain. He said he absolutely loves it. The doctor said if you can stand the pain you are not going to do any more damage to it. They all love it. Colten is going to try to wrestle in college, Clay is working to get better for next season, and my youngest son (Cavin) is excited for his youth tournaments. I feel fortunate that my boys enjoy it and don’t feel pressure to do it. They are having fun doing it.”

Clay Carlson

Clay Carlson

No one ever had to persuade any of the kids too much.

“There was some persuasion from Dad,” Chad admitted, “but I always told my boys you’ve got to do it because you like it, not because Dad wants you to do it. There might be a few sports where you can do that, but wrestling is not one of them.”

When the Carlson’s go to a wrestling tournament, they go together.

“It is kind of a family event. If one of us goes, we all go,” Chad – whose boys are Cael, Caden and Conlan said. “We are each other’s biggest fans. Both our parents go to all the matches; our uncles go to matches. I don’t know what other families do, but for us, it is wrestling and cows. Those are the two passions we have. If we are not farming together, we are wrestling together.”

Cael Carlson

Cael Carlson

Both dads have had to walk the line of staying hands off and pushing one or more of their kids too hard.

“It is all about communication,” Chad said. “They are all different, and you can’t live through your kids. You’ve got to respect when they think they have done what they need to do, but at the same time, you can try to convince them to do a little more. It is a fine line; both sides need to respect each other.”

None of the Carlson kids’ success would have happened without the support of two dedicated wrestling wives. Ironically, neither Carl or Chad’s wives were wrestling fans – or had even seen more than a handful of matches – before meeting their future husbands.

“They are a huge part of our success,” Chad said. “There is no way we could be doing what we are doing without them.”

With the Carlson name so entrenched in Willmar’s wrestling community and the community as a whole, it would be logical to think being a Carlson would carry some extra pressure. However, neither dad felt the community purposely put extra pressure on the boys because of their name. Recently some of the boys have become more aware of it, but at this point have all dealt with it constructively.

“We talk about that you need to be your own person and build your own legacy,” Chad said. “You don’t worry about what other people think.”

Being out on the mat and then having to watch from the stands are completely different experiences for both fathers.

“It is way harder being a dad,” Chad said. “I remember when I wrestled there were times I looked up into the stands, and my dad was as white as a sheet. I remember asking my dad why he got like that. All you have to do is sit up there, relax and enjoy what we are doing. I can remember like it was yesterday. He said ‘I hope someday you have a son that wrestles. If you do, you will understand it.’ We were driving to a tournament last year. I said ‘hey dad, you were right. It is ten times worse being a parent than it is being a wrestler.'”

“When Colten and Clay were younger, it was harder being a dad,” Carl – whose family also includes son Cavin and daughter Kylie – said. “The older we’ve gotten I’ve relaxed more and realized I just need to enjoy the time I have with them. This year was the most relaxed I have been. I wanted to enjoy Colten’s senior year, and I came to terms with it being out of my hands. It was going to be what it was going to be.”

“It was harder when they were all wrestling the same day,” Chad continued. “I feel like I wrestled all those matches with my kids. Some of those days I would wrestle fifteen matches. By the time the last match was done, I was just spent.”

Carl and Chad are going to have to keep up their stamina for a few more years.

Cael, a freshman, is outgoing, will talk to anybody and is a very driven athlete. Caden is in 7th grade and is driven to succeed. According to his dad, Caden is starting to turn the corner wrestling wise. You give him something to do he gets it done. Conlan is in 3rd grade and according to father Chad is stubborn and wants to succeed at whatever he is doing.

Carl’s family has already produced a state champion – Colten. Carl said Colten is a kind-hearted kid, but when he starts competing, he flips the switch and is a gamer and is very intense. Clay is the entertainer of the group. His dad said he could talk to anybody. On the mat, he is slicker and quicker than his brothers. Cavin – the youngest son – is a student of the game, loves to watch wrestling, and like Colten, is kind hearted, but when competing is as intense as anyone.

Soon Carl – and no doubt other members of the Carlson extended family – will also be attending a number of gymnastics meets to watch youngest daughter Kylie.

That extended family has made an impact on Minnesota wrestling that can only be rivaled by a few families in Minnesota. Regardless of if it is on the wrestling mat, gymnastics mat or working with the animals, the Carlson family will continue to shape high school athletics and the community in Willmar. The Carlson family and the community of Willmar… they go together like apple pie and ice cream.

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