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Holt community rallies around wrestling coach

Jacob Herbert

Holt, MI - In his 37 years of coaching Holt wrestling, Rocky Shaft created a tight, family-like atmosphere out of a demanding and intense sport. He has given more to the wrestling program than anyone would have expected in his 53 total years with the team as a wrestler, assistant coach and now coach.

So when the mid-Michigan community learned that his Type 2 diabetes was seriously jeopardizing  his health, they rallied together to raise money for a service dog that could save his life.

During his career, Shaft has filled the walls of the Holt high school wrestling room with 31 state top 10 finishes, 26 league championships, 35 district championships and 17 regional championships. His wrestlers have won three state championships and two runners-up. He has worked tirelessly to make Holt wrestling an enduring program, and the dozens of men and women he has impacted are returning the favor.

Shaft, 61, has battled diabetes for the last 23 years, and the disease has worsened in recent months. He was hospitalized three times last summer. Last mid-August, while painting his picnic table, Shaft became ill, passed out and hit his head on bricks surrounding a fire pit,

“I used to be able to feel when my blood sugar was kind of going low,” Shaft said. “Then this past summer was like, boom, it would just drop and then come out of nowhere.”

Eventually, his wife and three daughters decided they didn’t want to leave him alone should he pass out, so they looked into getting a service dog. The specially-trained dog will be able to detect when Shaft’s blood sugar is low through his saliva. It will be trained to jump on Shaft, alerting him to get something to eat.

If he’s home, the dog will open to the refrigerator, fetch a box of apple juice and bring it to him. Once the dog watches him open it and start drinking, it will get Shaft the phone in case he needs to call anyone.

The service dog will cost $20,000 to obtain and train, and so far, the community has raised about half through 50/50 raffles, silent auctions, private donations and a GoFundMe.

Shaft also has other plans, jokingly saying he wants to train the dog to bark at officials when they make bad calls during matches.

“I keep light-spirited about it. I have to,” he said.

Despite his ailment, Shaft continues to inspire his wrestler's every day. Something that, in their eyes, transcends wrestling. 

“Seeing him do this just makes me want to give everything my all,” said Aries McFadden, a senior wrestler who has been with the program his entire high school career. “No matter what it is: wrestling, school or working out. Just put everything I have into it like he’s doing with the program.”

Shaft’s caring reach goes further than his current wrestlers. In his career, he has coached generations of wrestlers, and his entire staff is made up of former wrestlers and students. Those who were involved in the Holt wrestling program have found joy in seeing the community come together in such a trying time.

“It makes me really happy to see, because I know how many people he’s impacted,” said Dharbi Hicok, a former four-year Holt wrestling student-manager. “Thirty seven years as a coach, he has kids on the team know whose dads he coached. To see people give back to him, it means a lot to him, but it also means a lot to the family.”

As for Shaft, saying thank you simply isn’t enough.

“I can’t get a big enough one out there, but it’s so greatly appreciated,” he said. “My family, my daughters, they’re just so happy and I’m happy they’re able to see a community coming together to help their dad. Hopefully it’ll work out and the dog will be an addition to our family.”

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