Local wrestlers not afraid of competition far and wide
By Colin Anderson
Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter and Joey were a great group of friends. They performed together, pushed each other to become better singers and showmen, and lived life to the fullest during their time crooning around the lounges and theaters of 1960s Las Vegas. For a certain generation (and even a few young people too), “The Rat Pack” is synonymous with a tight-knit group of performers who reached the top through hard work, hard play and immense friendship. While their craft was song, another Rat Pack, located in Bonners Ferry, is achieving its goals of being the best—one match at a time.
This modern-day Rat Pack consists of one senior and four juniors. It’s a group that’s dedicated much of its time to the sport of wrestling and each other. “The Rat Pack is a funny and hard-working group of wrestlers who grew up traveling the country together,” explains senior Evan Barajas. Alongside Evan are Andrew Sandelin, Jacob Summerfield, Eli Richards and Kyle Smith. Each wrestler began at an early age, some just 4 or 5 years old when they first hit the mat. For most, one of the aforementioned wrestlers was a childhood friend who got them interested in joining. Before they were 10, the bond had grown and The Rat Pack was assembled.
“The group received the name from Conrad Garner when traveling to Western Regionals in the Suburban when they were around the age of 10,” explains longtime coach Corey Richards. “They all started picking/teasing in fun on standout Badger wrestler Blaine Invernon, a senior at the time, like a pack of rats.” In search of the best competition, The Rat Pack has traveled east and west visiting places like Florida, Indianapolis, Wisconsin, Georgia—and even the home of Sinatra’s Rat Pack. “Walking down Fremont Street at the age of 10 was pretty crazy,” recalls Eli.
Their travels took them to tournaments and youth national events, always together. “I will always remember road-tripping to Wisconsin Dells,” says Kyle. “You learn a lot about people driving 20 hours in a Toyota Camry filled five deep.”
The boys grew up wrestling under the tutelage of Coach Gardner up until his recent retirement. Replacing Gardner is new coach Kevin Campbell, who has also made a lifelong commitment to wrestling. Campbell started, like many of these boys, at the age of 5 and was influenced by his father, who also wrestled. He’s spent 20 years coaching, 10 as a head coach, and is thrilled to now be at the helm at Bonners Ferry High School.
Though Campbell has only worked with the group a short while, he can already see the special bond they’ve created. “These kids have enjoyed growing up in the wrestling culture, and the experience of traveling to tournaments and nationals alone has turned them into phenomenal wrestlers,” he says. “The success they are seeing right now in high school is due to the years of work they have put in.”
While it can be difficult for other kids to break into a tight-knit social circle, The Rat Pack is never afraid of adding additional members. More wrestlers are jumping on board and attending out-of-area tournaments, which in turn is having an effect on the entire program. “We had close to 10 kids compete for Team Idaho at the Cadet National Duals during 2018 and 2019, and this was a direct influence from this group,” Campbell says.
Wrestling demands intense physical training, but most will say being mentally tough is even more important. While each member has gained different life lessons from the sport, determination, hard work, overcoming challenges and obstacles, and accountability are common responses when asked about their experiences.
While the titles, medals and ribbons are what they compete for, the camaraderie seems to be of equal value to members of the group. For Jacob, the nights after weigh-ins and the plane rides with his friends are some of his most cherished memories. “My favorite memory is when we went to Indianapolis and all the boys went [for] a late-night walk through the city,” says Andrew. For Evan, the lone senior in the group, it’s kidding around with his best friends—and an inside joke probably best left inside the group. “My favorite memory was when we were in Atlanta and pranked Andrew when we made him eat a KFC sandwich with a ‘special’ ingredient inside,” he laughs.
For the original members, the days of competing together are making a slow crawl to the finish line. High school sports can seem to fly by in a blip, so this group of friends is enjoying what they’ve had since their early days of elementary school. Each will follow a different path in the future, but they’ve also each impacted the lives around them by committing so much to the sport and friendships they cherish. As they graduate and move on, Coach Campbell believes their impact on the school’s program will be felt for a long time.
“It’s been a pleasure working with these kids. Conrad started and developed them for years, and as the new head coach, I’m just the recipient of a great group of kids. It’s like being handed the keys to a Ferrari and being told, ‘Have fun, don’t wreck it!”