Almost 30 years after he had stopped competing in wrestling and nearly 20 years after he had stopped coaching, Roger Brigham hobbled into the realm of Wrestlers WithOut Borders in 2003 — two years after both of his hips were surgically replaced with prosthetic titanium implants. He was named to the Hall of Merit not for what he achieved as an athlete on the mat, but rather for his work for wrestling off the mat as a coach, advocate, lobbyist and community leader.

Roger Brigham and Lentz in the Far Western
Brigham's debut at the 2004 Far Western, getting his butt kicked twice by Cliff Lenz as official Jerry Spillman stands guard, was the first time someone competed in a USAW meet on artificial hips.

Along with GGWC teammate John Ascher, Brigham became a WWB delegate to the Federation of Gay Games late in 2003 just in time for the withdrawal of Montreal as host for the 2006 Gay Games. In short order, he became a member of the negotiating committee that reached agreement with Chicago to become the new Gay Games host, launched a participant-oriented newsletter for the Gay Games to help recruit athletes for the Games, and initiated a rewriting of the organizational structure of the FGG to make it less of a drain on its member sports clubs. That restructuring of the FGG was formally adopted in 2006, just after WWB expanded its mission by adopting new bylaws drafted by Brigham.

In addition, while working with Gene Dermody to head up the FGG's sports inclusion and drug-testing committees, he wrote the official philosophy statement that called for diversity of athletic opportunity rather than mere popularity to be the basis for inclusion of Gay Games sports (the first such statement to address the unique egalitarian contributions of wrestling) while lobbying for drug-testing policies that would accommodate the needs of older recreational athletes and athletes impacted by HIV.

In 2007, working with Johnny Almony and Ross Capdeville, Brigham founded Golden Gate Alliance Wrestling — a program that enabled GGWC to support local high schools with pro bono coaching and training facilities and documented GGWC's community value to justify city support through its recreation centers at a time the city was facing a sever budget crisis. GGWC "adopted" Mission High School, whose then-coach Don Jung had founded GGWC in 1981.

Brigham at Hillside with Carl Weisbecker of Metro
Brigham at Hillside with Carl Weisbecker of Metro

Brigham has coached with GGWC since joining it in 2003 and has made coaching appearances with WWB wrestlers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego and Hillside. He is believed to have been the first person to compete in freestyle wrestling on artificial hips, earning a silver medal at the 2004 USA Wresting Far Western, a gold at the 2006 Gay Games, and a silver at the inaugural WWB Cup in 2008.

Brigham began wrestling at Worthington High School in Ohio, winning more than 30 matches while losing only once. He was a two-time letterman at Ohio Wesleyan University, then coached as a volunteer at seven high schools in Alaska over a nine-year period. He came out in 1982 while he was sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News and coaching at six high schools in that city.

"None of the wrestlers ever asked me about my orientation, but a few of the coaches did," Brigham said. "It was easier coming out as gay in the sports community for me than it was coming out as a jock in the gay community. I think more coaches knew, but if it was a problem for them they didn't say anything: I was more valuable as a resource than an enemy.

"A few months after I came out, I heard about an event being held in San Francisco called the Gay Olympics or some such thing, and that it would offer wrestling. I flew to California with my singlet and shoes and went to Kezar to try to get in the tournament. The wrestlers there, including an odd feisty little duck in my weight class named Gene Dermody, were very encouraging and wanted me to be able to get on the at, but the Gay Games officials on Castro Street said it was too late to register and they wouldn't let me in. Hell, I would have written very positive front page stories that would have been picked up by other newspapers, but they wouldn't bend the rules. That was my rocky intro to the Gay Games. I was so ticked off I didn't even return to Kezar — I couldn't stand the thought of watching and not being able to wrestle. So I watched Glenn Burke play for San Francisco in the basketball and softball games, flirted with the players from Boston, and I went to the bodybuilding competition where I heard Tom Waddell give an inspiring speech. That's when it sank in that I'd missed a chance to be part of something historic. That stuck with me years later when Gene and I met for real for the first time and I got a chance to get involved.

"Of course, by that time, two decades later, I was still at 136 pounds and Gene...

"Having my hips surgically removed in 2001 shortly after 9/11 was crippling not just physically but emotionally. It was necessary because I was losing the ability to walk, but once my hips healed I found I no longer was able to run. That meant softball, football, rugby, soccer — all of the recreational sports that had given me so much joy through the years — were no longer within my reach. It was a very emasculating time.

"It took almost two years for my hips to heal as much as they ever would, and as the time passed I became more and more anxious to find some way to be able to compete in sports again. It finally dawned on me that I never had to run anywhere in wrestling. I knew bending into some of the positions would be painful ... but it might just be doable.

Headbutted at Gay Games VII
A little furniture lacquer and a little tape was all it took to stay on the mat in Chicago. Gay Games photo

"The first year and a half was the worst. I had to accept the fact that after having always been the strongest, the quickest and the best conditioned athlete every time I stepped on the mat, I was always going to be the weakest, the slowest and the worst conditioned. And I was going to have to figure out how to modify all of my footwork. My legs had gone from being my strongest asset to being my weakest link.

"It would not have been possible to come back if it weren't for the incredible patience and ingenuity of Johnny (Almony), Erika (Hom) helped me in the early going as I painfully tried to convert from my scholastic double leg attacks to a more elevated freestyle attack, and Coach Alex managed to smack me around just enough to get me to rediscover my old very simple, very organic approach to wrestling that had been so successful before. It didn't bring so much success this time around, but it made everything possible, and that was more of a victory than I ever could have counted on."

Brigham was elected Chair of WWB in 2006 and has designed, written and created numerous marketing materials for WWB, co-writing with Dermody the history of Gay Games wrestling provided on this web site. Read his "Last Match" and "The Inner Wrestler."