When Rich Nitsch was growing up, he had a hard time focusing on school work.
His family moved from town to town in central Kansas so frequently that by the time he arrived in high school, he’d attended classes in something like a dozen buildings. The lack of consistency left him listless, uninterested in hitting the books.
And then he found wrestling.
The sport gave him structure. And a motivation to do his classwork — at least enough to stay eligible to compete in meets. His natural talent combined with hard work earned him a scholarship to wrestle at Emporia State University. After college, he went on to a start a career as a high school teacher before transitioning to work as an FBI investigator, where he attained the rank of Certified Intelligence Officer before retiring after 24 years.
Without wrestling, he would say, none of it would have been possible. He wouldn’t have had the means — or the motivation — to go to college.
So in his retired life living in Prairie Village and watching his youngest child Natalie going through school, Rich felt a drive to introduce youngsters who were facing the same academic and stability challenges he did as a kid to the sport he credits with putting him on a path for success.
Through the Kansas City Wrestling Club and the Shawnee Mission School District’s middle school sports programs, he mentored kids in grappling and in life.
After a few years working with students wrestling at Indian Hills, he noted that a number of competitors would be deemed ineligible for a meet based on their academic standings. So earlier this year he started talking with his daughter Natalie and Dane Erickson, a varsity wrestler who learned the sport under Nitsch’s tutelage, about the idea of forming a tutoring program for the young student athletes struggling with academics. The idea was that Natalie and Erickson, both enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at SM East, would meet with Indian Hills wrestlers to help them with school work and ensure they were meeting the eligibility requirements.
The group had only had a few preliminary discussions about the idea when Rich died in March.
With an outsized personality drawn to service, Nitsch’s death left an immediate dent in the northeast Johnson County community. And it left his daughter shocked with grief.
“In those first weeks, I really just couldn’t do anything,” Natalie recalls.
But in the days after Rich’s death, Erickson felt a compulsion to move the mentoring program forward. He started working with Indian Hills administrators on setting up dates and times for struggling students to meet with mentors. He enlisted fellow SM East junior Becker Truster, who had served as a student assistant on the Indian Hills wrestling team, to help. Natalie began attending tutoring sessions and working with students as well.
“Dane’s kind of done most of it, and we’ve just been along for the ride,” Natalie said.
For the last two months of school, the three held mentoring sessions at Indian Hills with seven or eight students showing up to a typical session. Most of the time, Natalie said, they just needed someone to give them a little nudge to stay on top of their work.
“Honestly, it’s less content tutoring than encouraging them to turn the work in,” Natalie said. “Just saying, ‘C’mon! Let’s get this done!'”
Erickson said the mentoring program is made in Rich’s image. He remembers how Rich would proactively seek out the students “failing the most classes” and encourage them to start wrestling.
“He would tell them, this is it, this is the thing that is going to get you out of this and get you interested in school,” Erickson said.
Truster noted that Rich saw wrestling as one of the best ways for young people to build confidence.
“He would always say, ‘When you get turned over on your back in a wrestling match and someone’s pinning you down, there’s nothing hard in life than to get flipped back over. And once you’ve learned how to do that, you can pretty much do anything else,'” Truster said. “That’s kind of what the mentoring program is about, too. Trying to get these students back on their stomachs so they’re in a position where they can build up.”
The group held their final tutoring session of the year last week — but they’re planning on starting it up again early in the fall.