PEMBROKE — Buddy Batson impacted countless lives during his 20 years as a high school wrestling coach in eastern North Carolina.
But before launching his coaching career, it was his own life influenced by his experience as a student-athlete at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. While on the wrestling team for the Braves, he captured All-American honors and was a three-time NCAA heavyweight qualifier.
Accolades aside, it was because of the bond forged with his teammates and coaches that he decided–before he fell ill–to establish a wrestling scholarship at his alma mater. Batson passed away from spindle cell sarcoma on Aug. 24, 2018. Earlier this month, his wife Aimee honored his wishes, gifting $60,000 to UNCP to create the Buddy Batson Wrestling Endowment.
“Buddy struggled financially when he was in college. A lot of people have the potential, but can’t afford to go to college and be a student-athlete. Buddy didn’t want anyone else to struggle. With this scholarship, future students will be able to come to UNCP and live out their dreams.”
Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 280 pounds, Batson was a gifted grappler and a force to be reckoned with at UNCP in the mid-1990s. He was agile and extremely athletic for his size. The Jacksonville native stockpiled 100 wins from 1992 to 1997 and was recently recognized among the top-20 wrestlers in program history.
“He was all heart and always gave his best effort,” said former teammate and best friend Brian Newbold. “Being a heavyweight, he was definitely a pinner. You never wanted to count him out. He could pin you in any minute.”
Retired wrestling coach P.J. Smith remembers Batson as a great competitor and hard worker.
“Buddy was tough. He was focused and a joy to coach. He was just an all-around good guy. You enjoyed being around him.”
Wrestling was his life, though it wasn’t his first love. He was a standout on the football field at Dixon High School, before suffering a knee injury. He later joined the wrestling team and pinned his way to a state title as a senior.
“He was always persistent,” Aimee said. “After his injury, he was out to prove everyone wrong.”
Following his stellar career at UNCP, Batson joined the coaching ranks at Dixon High and later at Topsail High where he coached Kevin Cagle to a state title in 2015.
“That was the highlight of his coaching career,” she said. “I’ve never seen him so excited.”
In October 2017, Batson felt a lump on his left shoulder blade while rolling around on the mat during practice. He thought he pulled a muscle, but a biopsy revealed the fatty tumor was soft tissue sarcoma. The diagnosis came four days before Christmas. The tissue grew to the size of a grapefruit. He endured a grueling nine-hour surgery to remove the tumor followed by 30 rounds of chemotherapy and extensive stays at Duke University Medical Center. Eights months passed and initial CT scans appeared fine, but a checkup in August showed the cancer had spread to his lungs.
“Early on when he was told he was terminal, Buddy said he wanted to get this scholarship up and going,” his wife said. “He had always talked about starting a scholarship, but when he got sick he wanted to be sure it was going to happen. So, for me, this is a way he will forever be remembered.”
Batson was 44. He leaves behind his wife of 22 years and two daughters, Katelyn and Riley.
“This is a great way to keep his name alive,” said Newbold. “Wrestling is a great sport and this scholarship matches a great person. He was a big guy, but he was a gentle giant. He was a great father who loved fishing, loved wrestling and was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
Mark Locklear is the Public Communications Specialist for The University of North Carolina.