FLORENCE — Florence wrestling coach Brian Volkmann has a conspicuous scar on his chest, one that poked out from underneath his grey V-neck T-shirt at his team's second practice of the season Friday.
It's what's immediately beneath the healed wound, though, that's most apparent about the coach, as he worked with his grapplers in the team's muggy wrestling room.
Volkmann's heart — even in the midst of heartache — is evident every time he teaches one of his athletes. So is his smile and demeanor, as well as the coach's dedication to the team. It's apparent even just a few minutes into the Falcons' practice.
"Honestly, he’s way more than a wrestling coach," said Avery Meinzen, a senior with state title aspirations after twice placing at the tournament for coach Volkmann. "We bond with him personally, we go to him with anything we need and he’s always somebody we can talk to. He loves us just like we’re his kids.
"He’s always showed it; he's always proven it to us."
That's no different this season — less than a year after a heart attack and subsequent health and personal setbacks have tried to slow down Volkmann.
Last winter, on February 9, Volkmann and the Falcons celebrated Spencer Jones' 31-0 season and a 205-pound Class B state wrestling title. It was just the second-ever individual crown for a Falcon wrestler since 1980.
Three years ago, then-sophomore Spencer Jones, his family and some members from the Florence wrestling community got to work building a small practice facility for the Falcon's high school grapplers.
Nine days later, Volkmann woke up with chest pain.
"Luckily it happened right after state wrestling. ...It was the best time of year for that to happen if I’m going to keep coaching," the 56-year old coach said of the heart attack. "I ended up being smart enough finally to go to the doctor and it was in progress. ...All kinds of stuff was going through my head."
Thankfully the heart damage was minimal, Volkmann said, but he needed a quadruple bypass. The surgery, responsible for the scar Volkmann now sports, was successful, but Volkmann had to return to the hospital just a few days after his initial discharge.
Volkmann had life-threatening internal bleeding.
"I had an intestinal bleed. I almost died with that because I bled out. ...I was real sick, and these guys were in there for me," Volkmann said, gesturing to his wrestlers who practiced take downs on the mat behind him. "I mean, Kyler Alm was there holding the bucket for me; having those guys, that helped my recover a lot."
Alm, who was recovering from his own serious injury last winter and couldn't wrestle, spent as much time as he could by his coach's side.
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"I gotta pay back what he’s done for me, too. He’s pretty much family to me," Alm said of Volkmann. "I only live a couple miles down the road from him, so when he needs anything I gotta be right there."
Alm's back on the mat this season with his coach, too, representing one of more than 20 wrestlers out for Florence this season. The high turnout, one of the largest in recent memory for the Falcon wrestlers, is as much a testament to Volkmann's coaching style as it is to his three decades of work in the youth wrestling ranks.
And this year's bunch is one that Volkmann has extremely high hopes for. He highlighted returning state qualifiers Meinzen, Alm (2018), Oliver Post, O'Maste Foster, Luke Maki, Jonny Chamberlain, Jared Pallo and others.
"I’ve got a bunch of talent, it’s pretty amazing," Volkmann said. "This is our first practice, and we’re not learning technique, we’re not doing anything but getting better at what we do best. We’re ready to wrestle right now, and this is our second day of practice and we’re ready to go."
The wrestling is easy to talk about, though. It's worry off the mat that can be difficult to cope with. That's where Volkmann's team really shines.
While the Florence coach recovered this past year, his wife, Bridgett, fought her own battle with cancer. The Volkmann's are a wrestling family — the know how to fight — but the prognosis isn't good.
"Right now, my wife is at home. There’s no more treatment for her cancer, and we’re struggling with that," said Volkmann, who is otherwise by his wife's side when he's not at practice. "The boys are helping me through that."
That means guys like Alm and Meinzen are spending their time off from school and practice helping Volkmann carry firewood or doing other chores. Wrestling is bigger to the boys this year than a few minutes on the mat against an opponent.
Former Missoula Sentinel wrestlers Reece Eckley and Dylan Goforth, who wrestled under Volkmann when they were in elementary school with the Little Guy Wrestling program, have jumped on as assistants for their former coach to help support how they know best.
"Brian taught me most of the stuff I know. I love giving back and he offered to give us a paid position, but we didn’t want to do it for the pay," Eckley said. "We just want to help Brian out with all the stuff he’s done for us over the years."
Wrestling, for Volkmann, really has become family. Your family becomes your home. And home, after all, is where the heart is.
With a wrestling family this strong then, it's no surprise why Volkmann's able to keep pouring out his heart for his team.
"It’s hard to be here, but (Bridgett) wants me to be with these guys, to give me relief," Volkmann said. "This is where I’m home. This is as much home as my actual home. While I’m here, I can forget about the other stuff. It’s therapy really. And these guys, these guys are with me."