Nick Kehagias was the only state champion wrestler Robert Shegog coached during his tenure at Phoenix North High School which ran from 1988 until his retirement in 2006.
They have maintained a friendship since that 2000 celebration on the mat, after he won the 112-pound class title. Over the years, Kehagias, now an anesthetist who lives in Chandler, has come to know his mentor like few have.
Now, 22 years later, after much prodding from Kehagias, they tell the story that Shegog was too scared to tell his wrestlers he’s gay. That he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. That he lost two partners to AIDS, as well as other close friends. That he survived his own brushes with death.
In Shegog’s autobiography, co-written by Kehagias, “Wrestling With The Truth,” which was self-published and released in April on Amazon, Shegog reveals the “lie” he lived with, fearing that his passion for teaching and coaching would be taken away from him if the school knew the truth.
Towards the end of the book, 70-year-old Shegog says, “I no longer worry about what other people think of my sexuality, and I talk about it openly. The prejudices still exist, and I don’t impose my point of view. I’ve noticed less bias over the decades so I’m hopeful Everyone has a past and being able to persevere and thrive through tough times is what matters .
Kehagias’ best memories come from wrestling in high school. At 103 pounds, he won a match at his sophomore state, placed second in his junior year, and won his senior year state.
“We were a team of varsity athletes, we won for Arizona two years in a row, and a big part of that was Coach Shegog,” Kehagias said. “The fight is important but if the notes are not in order, you can’t do anything.”
For 10 years, Kahagias said he tried to convince Shegog to write his autobiography. Once COVID hit in 2020, he pushed Shegog that now was the perfect time to do it while things were in lockdown. Shegog was a volunteer coach in the Prescott area and a substitute teacher before COVID.
He accepted. They sat down for 20 hours of taped interviews and Kehagian wrote the coach’s story. Kehagias said he interviewed about 100 other people who feature in the book.
“If people knew he was gay, chances were he wouldn’t have been able to teach,” Kehagias said. “If they knew he had HIV, it was definitely over. Wrestling coach, absolutely not possible.”
In the foreword to the book, Kehagias writes, “He knew wrestling coaching wouldn’t have been an option if people had learned the truth about him in the 1980s, 1990s and maybe the 2000s. He lived a lie and did it for the good of his students. For my good. I remember myself as a 14-year-old freshman in high school and wondering, ‘Would I have been ripe to join the wrestling team if I had known the truth about my trainer?’ It brings tears to my eyes because I know there’s a good chance I never would have wrestled if I had known. I would have missed all the life lessons, so much character building, and who knows what kind of life would have resulted.
From the practice of wrestling in the hospital
Kehagias, whose wife designed the book cover, spent the next four years after high school wrestling at the University of Chicago, where he became an All-American at 125 pounds. While in medical school, Kehagias’ passion for wrestling remained strong, volunteering to help wrestling programs around the state.
There is no cure for HIV, which attacks the immune system. But treatments have advanced since the 1980s.
Faculty were trained at the time on how HIV can be transmitted through blood, unprotected sex and contaminated needles.
Shegog said the worst of his symptoms, bouts of pneumonia, usually came in the summers when he wasn’t teaching and coaching. Her partner helped her to the bathroom and changed the sweat-soaked sheets.
But he would have to find excuses for why he would sometimes be absent from the wrestling team, why he had lost so much weight.
In February 2002, North’s greatest season, winning all doubleheaders with a chance of a good run at the state title, early in regionals, Shegog lost his second life partner to AIDS.
“Some of my wrestlers noticed I wasn’t in practice and I couldn’t tell them why,” Shegog explains in the book. “I was emotionally unavailable when they needed me the most.”
While his partners were sick, he was still going to school and training for wrestling. He would go from wrestling practice to the hospital, where he would spend the night with his partner, and then return to school.
The youngest of four children raised by a single mother, wrestling gave Shegog an outlet growing up in Albion, Michigan. He wrestled at Olivet College, where he was good enough to end up in its sports hall of fame. He was the only black teacher in 1974 at Hartland (Michigan) High, his first teaching job.
He went through roadblocks, made his way to Los Angeles, where he was homeless for a time, before moving to Phoenix.
He worked in the physical education department. In the coaching room, Shegog said sometimes coaches joke about gay people and make negative comments.
“When that happened, I would get up and leave the room,” Shegog said in a phone interview. “I didn’t want to sit there and listen to the gay jokes. I have nothing against those people. But sometimes that’s how the coaches talked when they weren’t with kids.”
He found a confidante in North in Diane Escalante, who was a teacher there while Shegog struggled with his life and needed someone to turn to.
“My English classroom was in a laptop right next to the PE building,” Escalate said. “Robert would drop by every once in a while and tell me something about what the wrestling team was doing.
“I also met his mother at some point. We just became friends.”
When the principal sent five teachers, including Escalante and Shegog, to a diversity workshop, they bonded.
During a break, Robert said to me: ‘You may have noticed that I was losing weight. I am HIV positive.’ Escalante said. “All I could do was hug him.” We talked. He mentioned some people on campus, if they knew he was gay they would go after his job.”
“I can get away with it”
North was an International Baccalaureate (IB) school that attracted a cross section of students to Phoenix Union High School District.
Escalante knew there were other teachers in the district who were gay and lived in fear of being exposed and attacked.
“We were fortunate to have the leadership that we had on our campus,” Escalante said. “I think everyone who knew Robert was determined to protect him and others like him.
“The fact that he was gay had nothing to do with friendship. He was such a dedicated coach and student-focused teacher. It was easy to be his friend.
Shegog said he hopes the book inspires people to accept who they are.
He feels that people have become more tolerant, but he realizes that prejudices and walls remain.
“I hope people will just learn to be nice,” Shegog said. “And also being aware of what you’re saying, because you never know who you are. I hope young people, or someone in the same situation, (learn) that, ‘Hey, I can get away go out. ‘ “
Shegog, who would find out-of-town tournaments in places such as Payson to take his team to wrestle in invites, remembers the times that made wrestling special for his students. He attacked one of his wrestlers because he was four pounds over the weight limit. He asked him why he had come out for the fight.
“He said, ‘I came out for wrestling because I wanted to get out of town,'” Shegog said.
Seeing the simplest things bring joy to his wrestlers has kept him motivated.
“Part of my motivation to stay alive was because I wanted North to be good at wrestling,” Shegog said. “Not knowing what my health would be every year, my motivation was to make every year a record year.
“Be better than you think. Do more than you think. And if you can be a good wrestler in that process, that’s icing on the cake.”
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