HELENA — In Rocky Bleier’s autobiography, “Fighting Back,” the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back recounts how he kept a promise he made to God during the Vietnam War.

Paraphrasing, Bleier wrote that during combat, he prayed that if he somehow survived the war, he would find a way to serve the Lord after he got back to the United States. Well, he did survive – despite being blown up by a grenade – and later fulfilled his promise to God by serving his community through the church.

Gary Templin, Helena High’s first wrestling state champion, has a somewhat similar story.

Templin started out as a basketball player for Helena High. In 1955-56, he was a 6-foot-3 varsity forward for legendary coach Lloyd Skor. Skor’s hoopsters won four state championships in 10 years, including three straight from 1953-55.

“But during that summer between my junior and senior year, I stacked hay bales for the Schumate ranch in the Helena Valley,” Templin said. “When basketball season started, coach Skor told me that I had become too musclebound, and suggested I go out for wrestling. So that’s what I did.”

Prep wrestling in the Treasure State was in its infantile stages seven decades ago. In 1954 and ’55, there were unofficial state mat tournaments at Montana State College (now called MSU), prior to the first MHSA sanctioned interscholastic tournament in 1956.

Helena’s initial wrestling teams were coached by “Bus” Williams, until former Montana State quarterback Jack Cohn took over as the Bengals coach in December of 1956.

Cohn - who had coached a Lewistown mat team for the first three meets – along with Bozeman’s Tom LeProwse and Jug Beck of Missoula County (now Sentinel), are generally regarded among the Founding Fathers of Montana High School wrestling.

In 1956, Larry Michaelson was the first Helena grappler to reach a state finals match, placing runnerup at 112 pounds.

Prior to the opening of the 1956-57 season, the Independent Record reported, “The question after the first workout was, who gave the coach a black eye?” To which Cohn answered, “A misplaced elbow.”

The paper reported that four returning lettermen were assisting in practice sessions, designed to provide “a vocabulary of holds.” Those veterans were Jim Richeson, Michaelson, Steve Barnes and Dick Wing.

The locals started the season by tying with Bozeman, 36-36. Winning Helena matmen were Larry Roy (106), Phil Harris (120), Carl Dahl (133), Bob Pare (137), George Knop (137), Barnes (154), Dick Wiklund (154) and Wing (165).

Templin’s “Baptism of Fire” resulted in the fastest pin of the match, at the hands of the Hawks’ Bill Townsend. But even in defeat, the paper described it as “the most exciting match of the evening.”

Others dropping matches for Helena were Michaelson, Bob Baker, Roy Bailey, Gordon “Bucky” Clark, Richeson and Bob “Monk” Cashmore.

In a loss to Great Falls Public, Templin was pinned by Dennis Castle, who would later win the 1958 title. In back-to-back defeats to Beck’s powerful Missoula Spartans, 47-3 and 56-0, the Helena's 177-pounder was pinned both times by Loren Harrison.

Templin’s next outing took place against the Bison’s Clem Johnson, and for the first time in his young career, he lasted the distance, losing by a decision.

Cutting his teeth against better, more experienced wrestlers, was improving his skills. Like “on-the-job training,” he was improving every week. His last regular season match was another loss to Bozeman’s Townsend.

Templin entered the state tournament in Billings winless, with a season record of 0-6. Odd to think about now, considering that these days they wrestle as many as 40-50 matches a year, and sometimes 6-7 bouts in a weekend.

Templin’s first match at state took place against Great Falls’ highly regarded Ed Merlo, whom he upset with a first period pin. In the semifinals, the lanky Bengals matman grassed Don Brengard of Havre to reach the chipper. And waiting there in the finals was none other than Missoula’s Harrison.

But Templin was not the same guy as the first two times. When he defeated the heavily favored Spartan, 5-3 in overtime, the Capital City had its first-ever mat champion.

“I guess you could say that I was either really lucky, or that I learned from my mistakes,” said Templin, who presently resides in Pleasanton, California.

Another Helena standout, sophomore Steve Barnes, finished third at 145, and would go on to become the school’s first three-time all-stater.

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Templin received a small scholarship to Wheaton University, where he was a four-year varsity letterman on the mats.

In 1961, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Templin underwent Special Forces training as a Green Beret, preparing for Vietnam. He spent seven months in the Mekong Delta, serving in combat with Detachment A-8, Fifth Special Forces.

And here is where the Rocky Bleier connection comes in.

“I went through some scary stuff that brought me to ask for divine help getting out of there alive,” Templin said during an interview this past fall while back home for his 60th Class Reunion.

He did in fact survive, returning stateside in 1963 with the army’s Combat Infantry Badge.

Templin then took a job as youth worker with Youth Development Incorporated, in East Harlem, New York City.

“We worked primarily with Puerto Rican street gangs that were fighting amongst themselves, and with black gangs from Harlem,” he said. “It was a similar situation as Vietnam – disagreements among various factions resulting in conflict that was settled with violence – except the gangs were using Zip Guns, that were just as apt to blow up in your hand. “So our job was to try and prevent that Urban Warfare; and the kids involved were just a few years younger than myself.”

Templin said he worked in the ghettos from 1963-65, “For two years, the same amount of time I was in the military, to pay back that debt for making it home.”

He then became the director of Outward Bound in Colorado for 20 years, before serving as president of the East Bay SPCA Humane Society, and then going into management consultant.

Templin’s latest venture in retirement, is as an artist, creating sculptures and teaching art with his wife Crystal.

“And it all started because of wrestling,” said Templin, whose 1957 title still remains one of the biggest upsets in state mat history. “Coach Jack Cohn was a tough, demanding guy, who taught me life lessons that I still use to this day.”

Curt Synness is on Twitter @curtsynness_IR and can be reached at curt.synness@lee.net or curt52synness@gmail.com

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