On Sunday, July 2, legendary former Cary High School wrestling coach Jerry Winterton will be inducted into the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Hall of Fame.
It's the highest honor an American high school coach in any sport can attain – rarefied air.
But Coach Winterton has more than earned the distinction with one of the most eye-popping career records in history.
He was 540-3 overall in regular-season dual meets at Cary. Including the playoffs, the Imps went 620-16 during his 29-year run as head coach from 1981.
Add to that:
Yeah, he's earned it.
"Nineteen of our 20 state championships have come under his watch," says Cary High School Athletic Director Mike Dunphy. "Coach Winterton built a wrestling program here at Cary High School that is unparalleled in the state of North Carolina."
The obvious question is, how'd he do it?
The answer starts on a small dairy farm in a small town in upstate New York, where there must have been something in the water – or maybe the milk.
Jerry Winterton is the third of Stewart and Margaret Winterton's five children.
As it turned out, all five went from fair Verona, New York into elite success in their chosen fields.
The oldest, Jim, is one of the most successful racquetball coaches of all time and is in that sport's Hall of Fame.
The second oldest, Joe, spent decades as pioneering software developer for IBM.
Coach Winterton's younger brother, Jack, recently retired as vice president of global sales and marketing for Goodyear after a 42-year career with that company.
And the baby of the family, Kathleen Peterson, is the CEO of her own nonprofit.
We start there because, well, that's where Jerry started when asked the secret to his success. "My dad served in Guadalcanal in the Marines, never finished high school," Coach Winterton says. "My mother only had a high school education. But they were strong parents, and I had strong siblings. We grew up on a farm and worked hard. I was always around people who pushed me to be better."
It was good preparation for the world of wrestling, where it's way more about effort than natural talent.
"Wrestling's a unique thing," Coach Winterton says. "If you have just a smidgen of athletic ability, you can be a good wrestler. Ninety percent of wrestling is having the discipline and the work ethic to persevere."
'Everything I know'
Coach Winterton himself knows a little something about that – and about fortunate twists of fate.
He started wrestling in middle school, then moved to the 95-pound weight division as a freshman. He moved up progressively – 112 as a sophomore, 120 as a junior, 127 as a senior.
Then he attended a junior college at SUNY-Canton, where the first-year head coach was none other than a 25-year-old Bob Guzzo, the future N.C. State coaching legend. "He took me under his wing and taught me everything I know about wrestling," Coach Winterton says.
After two years, Winterton moved to Brockport State University to complete his degree and his collegiate wrestling career, where he was "average to above average."
After graduating in 1973, he headed back to his old high school, VVS Central School, to teach PE and coach wrestling.
Two years later, Coach Guzzo, who landed the N.C. State job in 1974, came calling. Winterton was an assistant for two years at N.C. State while attaining his master's degree, helping the team to its first ACC Tournament title in 1976, the first of Guzzo's 13.
After graduating N.C. State, "My whole focus was to coach in college, but at the time they were dropping wrestling programs because of Title IX, so decided I would teach PE, and I was lucky enough to get a job with Wake County Schools."
He started at what was then Vaiden Whitley High School, now East Wake High School, in 1977. He taught PE and coached wrestling there for four years before moving to Cary High School in 1981.
Winterton is quick to point out that Cary was already something of a wrestling power when he took over the head coaching job.
Under Coach John Sanderson, the team had won a state title in 1977. "It wasn't like I built something out of nothing," Coach Winterton says.
But, he says, "Our numbers were low. To sustain [success], you have to have older kids to teach the younger kids. I tried to get as many kids in the program as we could."
Part of that involved convincing athletes who played other sports to either try or stick with wrestling.
But it also involved finding diamonds in the rough – the kids whose body types didn't exactly scream "athlete" – who would be willing to work hard.
It goes back to Coach Winterton's philosophy, that wrestling is 90% effort and discipline.
"We had kids who would come out of nowhere and be champion wrestlers," Coach Winterton says. "We had good, hard-working kids who were disciplined. Of course, we've helped a lot of kids along the way that weren't disciplined and did struggle. They have it inside of them, if you can only bring it out of them."
Coach Winterton didn't have anything left to prove (see records above) when he decided to step down as head coach in 2010.
He had a new granddaughter, and he'd also undergone heart surgery, though he is in fine health. "It was a lot of stress, and I just wanted to give somebody else a chance to have the fun I'd had."
That someone was Taylor Cummings, a four-year starter on the N.C. State wrestling team who was hired right out of college to teach social studies and take over for Winterton.
One of the questions in his interview was if he would mind if Coach Winterton stayed on as an assistant.
Cummings was all for it.
"He's a warm guy and gave me a tour that first day," Cummings says. "You could tell our personalities were going to line up well. It's been a real pleasure. We've never had a cross word."
Not only that, Cumming says, but he got to learn first-hand from a legend. "There's no doubt about it that I received a master's level course," Cummings says, adding that Winterton's continued presence ensured the program didn't miss a beat, winning a regional championship during his first year as head coach.
Coach Winterton's success boils down to two things: he loves the process, and he's an ingenious motivator, Cummings says.
"I think a lot of coaches like the matches or the games, like seeing the results of the work," Cumming says. "Coach Winterton is the opposite. He likes the work, he likes the practices, he likes the grind."
That's exactly why Coach Winterton stayed on as an assistant. He gets to do the part of the job he loves. He retired as a teacher in 2016, but has remained an assistant coach.
"He continues to play an integral role in our program's success," Dunphy says. "We look forward to having Coach Winterton coach our IMPs in the wrestling room for years to come."
Cummings says he's witnessed time and again Coach Winterton's seemingly innate gift to help each wrestler prepare mentally.
"He has the ability to tap into each and every single wrestler and find a way to motivate them," Cummings says. "He's part coach, part psychologist. Depending on the wrestler, he'll either say something to loosen them up or get them fired up. He has a way of just pulling all the strings in the appropriate way that is just natural to him."
'Dream come true'
Wrestling remains a huge part of Coach Winterton's life.
He was reached while helping lead a wrestling camp in Boone earlier this week.
He'll return Friday and then hop on a plane to Rhode Island to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
"The whole journey seems like just a bumbling stroke of luck," Coach Winterton says. "I put myself in a place, I guess, where things could happen. And I did have a strong foundation from my parents. But to have Bob Guzzo, this outstanding coach, take me under his wing. Then to run into the people like I did in Cary, great kids, really strong principals. Winning this award is just mind-blowing when you think of all the things that just kind of came together."
Cummings says Winterton has more than earned this distinction.
"It's huge honor, but he is the epitome of the person who should get this award," Cummings says. "He's not playing a role; this is his life. He lives it, he breathes it, he thinks about it all the time. He demands commitment from his wrestler, but it's nothing that he doesn't demand from himself. Just to know Coach Winterton, and then to get to work with him everyday, has been a dream come true."
'The best things'
There are two mantras that have guided Coach Winterton all these years.
The first: "Most people quit just as they're about to succeed."
"The best things happen in those times when you were ready to give up,” Coach explains, “but you hung in there and put yourself in a position, not even knowing what could happen but just willing to discipline yourself and go the extra mile to see what might happen. And out of nowhere an opportunity will be put before you that you didn't even think about."
The second: "Winners find a way."
On Sunday, this winner will find his way into the Hall of Fame.