Dan Howell became Dayton’s first Ohio state high school wrestling champion in 1973. He died tragically soon after, but his legend refuses to fade.
Wrestling for Oakwood High School, Howell’s 4–0 shutout victory in the 132-pound state finals was the grand finale of a flawless senior season.
At 37–0, he remains the only wrestler in Oakwood history to go undefeated. For a brief moment in time, Dan Howell was invincible.
“To this day, he’s the best wrestler I’ve ever seen on his feet,” says his former teammate and team captain Rich Gowdy. “Danny was so good. So natural. He was like a cat with a mouse. Unbelievable.”
Wrestling in Oakwood
Oakwood was a wrestling powerhouse in the early 1970s. Gowdy himself was a 1971 112-pound state runner-up his junior year. He was favored to take the title his senior season before breaking his collarbone days before the state tournament.
“We were loaded. Very tight knit,” says Gowdy, who went on to wrestle for Miami University. “If we were healthy, and people wouldn’t have choked, we could have won it as a team in 1972.”
During those days, Dayton was not considered a hotbed of high school wrestling. Cleveland teams like Maple Heights, West High School and Richmond Heights had historically captured the spotlight since the state wrestling championships were founded in 1938.
The 1973 state championships
But on March 10, 1973, it was time for Dayton to make its mark.
A two-time first teamer on the Dayton Daily News Coaches All-Miami Valley Wrestling team, Howell was an unlikely sports icon — long and lanky with a mop of brown curly hair, he posed for his senior photo with wrestling knee pads draped around his ankles.
“Dan was so laid back,” says Chip Seidl who coached Oakwood’s wrestling team from 1969–1998. Howell’s unassuming look almost appeared a ruse — he qualified for state his sophomore season and placed 4th his junior year. “His senior year, he became superstitious before all his matches. He had jammed his thumb, but even after it was fine, I had to tape it a certain way before every match.”
Luck was on Howell’s side at the 1973 state wrestling championships at Ohio State’s St. John Arena in Columbus. After squeaking by Vermillion wrestler Dave Mitcheson 9–8 in the quarterfinals, he came back from behind to top Brooklyn High School’s Bill Renton in the semifinals.
“Dan was down 4–0,” says Seidl. “Then he reversed him and cradled him. He had a great cradle. He was lanky. Dan would reach out and just suck you right in. He used to cradle his opponents, throw them on their back, look up at me and smile.”
Howell beat Renton 5–4 in the semis to face Dave Kosky of Bellaire St. John in the championship finals. No one ever scored on Dan Howell again. In his finals match, he took down Kosky then rode him out for a 4–0 victory. (Unlike today, in 1973, points were earned for riding time in high school matches).
“When he knew he had him, he started looking over at me, pointing his finger, and shaking his head ‘yes,’ ” says Seidl. “When it was over, it was just a handshake and a hug. He acted like it was just another match.”
There were two other Dayton area champs that day: Dave Brown, a Centerville 167-pounder and Jerry Hurd, a Wayne heavyweight. But Howell was the first — an honor that secured his place in the annals of Ohio state wrestling history.
“Wrestling championships have finally come to Dayton,” wrote Dayton Daily News sports writer Dave Long in the Sunday, March 11, 1973, edition. “Howell was the first champion. He decisioned Dave Kosky of Bellaire St. John 4–0 in the Class A-AA 132-pound division.”
A tragic ending
Dan Howell never wrestled again. He attended Ohio University then transferred to Wright State before working at the Colony Club on South Dixie Drive in Kettering, a popular nightclub and restaurant famous for hosting big-band musicians.
On Saturday Oct. 9, 1977, he was supplementing his income by painting houses near the University of Dayton when he ran across Coach Seidl. “We talked about how he should go back to school. How we should try to get together more often.”
But Seidl and Howell never got together again. Neither did those closest to Howell. He went out with a friend that Sunday and never came home.
“Dan Howell, Dayton’s first state high school wrestling champion, was killed in an automobile crash Sunday night on Wilmington Pike.” The chilling words ran in the Oct. 11, 1977, edition of the Dayton Daily News under the headline: “Former prep star dies in auto crash.”
“Dan was the passenger in a Corvette. His buddy turned left, some car hit him, and broke his neck,” says Seidl.
Howell died instantaneously, but his memory is still alive. Yes, he was Dayton’s first state wrestling champ, but he was also Oakwood’s last. Paul Seim came close to matching his feat, entering the 1992 state championship finals, but falling in a controversial overtime match — his only loss of the season. No one has neared the top of the podium since.
Chasing a legend
Today a trio of junior high wrestlers — Carson Baumgardner, Aaron Cunningham, and Jude Schauer — have become rising stars in a growing Oakwood Wrestling program.
They know well the near-mythological tale of Dan Howell — the undefeated legend who burned bright and died young. When asked if they’ll be Oakwood’s next state champ, their answer is a resounding “yes!” Time will tell, but for 45 years now, no one has caught up to Dan Howell.
At Oakwood High School, in a display case near the center of the long historic senior hall, hangs a photo of the undefeated 132-pounder in his blue and gold singlet. Long and lanky with a mop of curly hair, his knee pads draped around his ankles. Here he stands frozen at age 17. In this space, and in the minds of wrestlers past and present, Dan Howell has in some small way remained invincible.
This article was contributed by Leo DeLuca with Dayton History, who also is an assistant wrestling coach at Oakwood High School. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.