Monson: A champion's heart and soul

Published April 13, 2010 5:21 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Wilbur Braithwaite was a man for all seasons.

All seasons that involved any kind of ball.

Never forget a hard defeat, in life or on the courts of play ...

He was a renaissance man, a coach who inside of a couple of hours could work up a wicked matchup zone defense and then play a little Bach on his clarinet, a bit of Beethoven on his piano.

He was a poet, too.

For that's the key to victory, applied on yet another day ...

He wrote hundreds of poems -- about sports and fear and faith and winning and losing and fishing and living.

Braithwaite once penned a poem about the spin of a tennis ball.

Who does that?

Reborn in chambers of the mind, defying odds that seem unfair ...

He also wrote a letter that was read at the memorial service for legendary basketball coach Pete Newell in December 2008, the same memorial service at which Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight spoke. Braithwaite would have delivered his message in person at a chapel on the Loyola Marymount campus, alongside the other coaching titans, had his health enabled him to do so.

That's just one illustration of Braithwaite's reach, extending from the old gym at Manti High School all the way to the hearts and minds of coaching's icons. The school's new gym, built in 1999, is named after him. It's the same gym where Braithwaite's viewing will be held on Friday.

He died Monday night at the age of 84.

Desire to try and try once more, will overcome defeat's despair ...

He might have -- probably should have -- died 66 years ago, on the battlefields of Europe during World War II when he was caught in a minefield. Braithwaite, then just 18, was hit by a "Bouncing Betty," a bomb triggered either by trip wire or electronically that flew four feet off the ground and exploded.

Shrapnel tore into his abdomen, legs, arms, hands, nose and eyes. When he passed this week at home, surrounded by family, he still carried with him metal scraps from that explosion.

It was at some point during his war experience when he pledged to heaven and earth that he would, if he somehow made it through, spend the rest of his existence teaching kids important life lessons. And he did not forget that promise.

Awareness of mistakes once made illumes a path back to the goal ...

When he returned home, after 11 months of convalescence, and was discharged, Braithwaite enrolled at Utah State, where he lettered in tennis and basketball. He later got a master's degree at Michigan.

Thereafter, he returned to his boyhood home in Manti, where he coached basketball at the high school for 37 years, winning 534 games and a state title, and tennis for 51, taking 11 state championships. He could have gone elsewhere, working his way up the coaching ladder, making a name for himself and bigger money.

"I had chances to go other places," Braithwaite said a few years ago. "But I never wanted to leave this community. I just wanted to work with young people. As far as I was concerned, the basketball and tennis courts here were sacred ground.

"It gets back to the idea of human growth. If all you're teaching is sports, then you're falling short. I liked watching the changes in the kids' lives, seeing them grow. That is fulfilling. Michelangelo said he was happiest with a chisel in his hand. I'm happiest with a basketball or a tennis racquet in mine.

"I always thought this way: To play the game is great. To win the game is greater. To love the game is greatest. That's what I wanted. To love the game and the people you play with and against. For a real coach, human relationships are where it's at."

Newell, who won an NCAA championship and coached the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1960, among other achievements, met Braithwaite at a coaching clinic at Utah State back in the '50s. The two became close friends, Newell considering the coach from Manti a confidant, calling him one of the people he trusted most when it came to his knowledge of the game.

Over the decades, Braithwaite corresponded with coaches such as John Wooden. He was nearly universally respected, having been inducted into the National Federation of High Schools Hall of Fame, along with numerous other national and local halls.

But it was the actual teaching that flipped his switch.

"The thing is, I got into coaching and thought I would influence young people," he said. "Turns out, they influenced me. They made me humble. They could learn and do things so well. They kept me alert. It's rewarding when your students surpass you in intelligence. I taught a lot of kids who are smarter than I am. You start out as their authority figure, and, over time, if you're really a good coach, they become your friends."

Thousands of Braithwaite's friends celebrate his life now.

Where dying dreams take wings again, within the champion's heart and soul.


hosts the "Monson and Graham Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at



Funeral service

A funeral service for Wilbur Braithwaite will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Manti Tabernacle. Friends may call Saturday from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at the Tabernacle or Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Wilbur Braithwaite Gymnasium at Manti High.

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