Fairdale (Ky.) High senior Willie Burton is still searching for his first career prep wrestling victory, but he just may be the most accomplished grappler in Kentucky history.
Cerebral palsy has taken Burton's ability to walk and limited movement in his right arm, but that hasn't stopped him from wrestling in the 106-pound weight division for the Bulldogs the past four seasons, as detailed in a wonderful Louisville Courier-Journal feature by Adam Himmelsbach.
“A lot of people told me there was no way I could wrestle because I can’t even walk, and that made me want to do it even more,” he told the C-J. “I’m not going to let a wheelchair or a disability hold me back.”
Burton's teammates assist him into his gear, off his wheelchair and onto the mat, where he crawls to the circle in preparation of his matches, according to the feature, and no opponent has taken it easy on him -- if only because Burton and his coach assure their rivals that he will not be letting them off easily.
Thanks to a new strategy employed by Fairdale wrestling coach Chris Boyd, designed to help Burton avoid being turned over, he's nearly pinned a few opponents in his final season of prep wrestling.
“When he’s been close, it’s been insane,” Boyd told the Courier-Journal. “I can’t even tell you the electricity in the room when he puts a kid on his back. The whole crowd, not just our fans, everybody erupts. They see the kid in the wheelchair is getting ready to pin someone.”
Burton has been in a wheelchair for as long as he can remember. Born prematurely to a 17-year-old mother who doctors reportedly feared was abusing drugs during pregnancy, he was adopted by Larry and Brenda Burton at birth and has since undergone procedures to repair his spinal cord, correct his hips and brace his legs. He learned to crawl at age 5 and took up wrestling as a freshman.
Naturally, just about everyone in the Kentucky wrestling community has drawn inspiration from Burton -- teammates, opponents, coaches and spectators -- and other students with similar disabilities have contacted him to share their gratitude for inspiring them to try out for a team at their school.
“I tell our kids all the time they should look at Willie in awe, for the inspiration he provides,” Bullitt East assistant coach Mike O’Neill told Himmelsbach. “He inspires us. He inspires me. I’m a military retiree, and I look at him and he’s my hero.”
For more on Burton's inspiring story, we highly recommend reading the entire feature here.