Kenny Monday didn’t have to seek greatness.
He was surrounded by it.
Long before Monday stood between a Soviet and Bulgarian in South Korea, becoming the first African American to win a gold medal in the world’s oldest sport, he was just a kid in an all-Black Tulsa neighborhood with big dreams.
An after-school program at a north Tulsa YMCA forged Monday’s love with wrestling.
Every day, Kenny and his brothers, Michael and Jim, would spend hours swimming, shooting hoops and acting like kids until their parents Fred and Elizabeth Monday picked them up at 6 p.m. after work.
At the time, Kenny, Michael and Jim began to be surrounded by a whole volume of wrestling lore. Oklahoma was the wrestling hotbed.
Reflecting through Black History Month, Kenny Monday and Hardell Moore represent two of many Black wrestlers who excelled at OSU and beyond.
Kenny grew up with future NBA players Wayman Tisdale and John Starks but was drawn to the one-on-one aspect of wrestling. An hour east of his childhood home, Oklahoma State coach Myron Roderick was creating a dynasty filled with cultural diversity. Japanese wrestlers Masaaki Hatta, Yojiro Uetake and Tadaaki Hatta won a combined five individual national titles as Cowboys.
In 1965, when Uetake won his second national title at 130 pounds, heavyweight Joe James became OSU’s first Black national champion.
“It was easy to watch some amazing wrestling,” said Monday. “I fell in love with the sport because I was exposed to greatness.
“My first idea of the Olympics was in 1968 with Bobby Douglas. He wrestled at OSU, and I followed him. Those guys inspired me to make a name for myself.”
Twenty years later, Douglas coached Monday and Team USA in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
As Monday realized his talents, others did as well. And not always in a good way. In youth wrestling, the referees noticed his all-Black team.
“The referees kept screwing us and taking away some points,” Monday said.
Monday realized that to be the best, he would have to train like the best and force the referees to call matches fairly.
He did just that.
“My parents sat me down and told me I just needed to get better,” Monday said. “That took me to another level because I knew the matches couldn’t be close. I had to dominate. I started working my butt off.”
After that life-changing lesson from his parents, Monday didn’t lose a match between seventh and 12th grade. During his time as a Cowboy, Monday compiled a 121-12-2 record and captured an NCAA title as a senior.
OSU owns a long history of Black wrestlers succeeding on the mat. In the late '70s, Jimmy Jackson won three NCAA titles. Daniel Cormier transformed into a UFC champion after his time in Stillwater. And the examples don't end there.
Monday reached the peak of the sport and now coaches at the Tar Heel Wrestling Club in North Carolina. Two-time OSU All-American Moore, who followed Monday to OSU 12 years later, uses his lifelong knowledge of wrestling to coach Oklahoma youth on the mat and in life.
Moore’s passion project, Oklahoma Wrestling Academy, a nonprofit, has prepared young men and women in the Oklahoma City area for life on and off the mat.
“OWA is about helping young men and women with our mission statement to achieve their wrestling goals,” Moore said. “More importantly, helping them for life after wrestling.
“We’re teaching life lessons.”
During the day, Moore is a pharmaceutical sales rep, but after work and on weekends, he transforms into a teacher for hundreds of kids, including his young son and daughter.
The Oklahoma Wrestling Academy website lists hard work, integrity, positivity and humility as the core values preached to its wrestlers. The academy, in its eighth year of operation, has featured Cowboys such as Boo Lewallen, Kaden Gfeller and Dustin Plott.
"Hardell has definitely played a big role in me developing as a wrestler," Plott told Flo Wrestling. "He's a great guy."
According to Moore, about 110 to 120 kids wrestle at OWA.
Moore said “it makes me smile” when a former wrestler excels later in life.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to help kids get scholarships at OSU, OU, West Virginia, and Central Oklahoma,” he said. “You are a part of that young man’s journey.”
Monday and Moore achieved excellence as Cowboys, and their respective accomplishments as wrestlers are just a part of the story. And their experience as Black athletes at OSU was positive.
"I was welcomed with open arms, and that's one thing about the OSU wrestling family," Moore said. "Obviously, there was a lineage of African Americans that already laid the foundation.
"We are a part of a special family at OSU."
Monday and Moore are dads, husbands, coaches and leaders in the community. And Stillwater was a launch pad for their successes.
“I’ve been an OSU fan since I’ve been an itty-bitty boy,” Monday said.