Jeff Wichern has coached wrestling in Minnesota for 20 years, and he's never really sought out the limelight. But it was a surprise from his wrestlers at his day job, as a bus driver, that left him in tears of joy, and put the spotlight on his dedication.
Wichern, 42, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, pulled into his stop at the Mall of America on Monday to see a group of 20 of his young wrestling students who used their day off of school for President’s Day to surprise their coach.
“I went around the bend and saw all these little kids standing at the bus stop and I was hoping they weren’t loading on my bus,” Wichern told ABC News, with a laugh. “As I got closer, I saw they had our JJ Trained t-shirts on.”
The students from Wichern’s JJ Trained Wrestling School were carrying handmade signs expressing their appreciation for “Coach Jeff.” The elementary school-age students spent about 30 minutes riding on Wichern’s bus route, dancing and celebrating.
“After they got off the bus and I finished my route, I was in tears for about 15 minutes after that," Wichern said. “You do this and sometimes you don’t know if you’re appreciated and then things like that, when you do feel appreciated, it sure feels really nice.”
He added, “I’m a shy person and I don’t like the limelight but once in a while it feels really good to have people make you feel good.”
Amanda Gau is president of the school’s board of directors and has two children who train under Wichern. She said she and other parents came up with the idea over the weekend during a parents’ night out, one of many activities the school holds to promote bonding off the wrestling mat.
Wichern’s wrestling school’s slogan reads, “We’re a family, not a factory.”
“Everybody loves him so much, they just want to do whatever they can to make sure he knows he’s loved,” Gau told ABC News of Wichern.
“Sometimes he’s up at 2 a.m. so he can get done in time so he can get over for practice and then he’s at the gym until 9 p.m.,” she added. “Even after that he takes calls from kids who may be struggling and watches video with them and talks strategy.”
Wichern’s dad was a wrestling coach and Wichern said it’s something he’s wanted to do since he was a child.
“Most kids grow up, they want to be a shortstop for the Yankees. I always wanted to be a coach,” he said. “It’s just something I’ve always done and something I’m pretty good at and I love working with the kids.”