October 17. 2008 11:37PM
More bonds than blood
By K.J. Pilcher
(Gazette file photo)
Matt Shaver gives his stepson Joey Slaton pointers before Slaton wrestles at the 1998 Iowa Amateur Athletic Union Kids' Folkstyle Wrestling Tournament. Slaton is a junior at the University of Iowa.
The emotional and physical demands of wrestling can be trying on competitors and their closest supporters.
Occasionally, the sport's daily grind can strain a bond between the two, especially if that relationship isn't bolstered by shared DNA or mat experience. University of Iowa national runner-up Joey Slaton and his stepfather, Matt Shaver, have grappled with that very dilemma.
For almost 17 years, they've encountered wrestling's vast range of experiences, surviving bouts of frustration and conflict and enjoying the many good times.
"We get into our fights, you know," Slaton said during a summer interview. "Just like every other parent. It's not anything really that serious."
Slaton's mother, Robin Shaver, and Matt introduced Slaton to wrestling when he was 4 for practices at the YMCA,
"We got him started, because at the time Joe had a lot of energy," Matt Shaver said. "He was always on the go, always moving."
Joey and Matt spent a lot of time together at youth tournaments, wrestling and bonding.
"They'd have a lot of stories they'd come home with and they just seem to click on that subject," Robin said. "You could never tell, that even though his last name and our last name are different, they still wouldn't put together that Matt wasn't his dad.
"They always thought he was Dad. They'd even say, 'they look alike.'"
Shaver played an active role in Slaton's wrestling career, patrolling matside as Slaton became a four-time state finalist and two-time state champion for Cedar Rapids Kennedy. He's regularly attended college meets at Iowa and Virginia Tech. He's also had a big influence off the mat.
"He gives me guidance," Slaton said. "It's just like any other parent, father, father-figure or whatever. He teaches me the rights and wrongs of your life.
"I just remember going to practice and him yelling at me and stuff. Telling me to get going. I pretty much picked it up every time after he said that."
As tough as things may have gotten or as much as Shaver may have pushed, Slaton never played the "You're not my dad" card.
"I never said it, but I'm sure I thought it to myself or something," said Slaton, who has had regular contact with his biological father, Brian. "Then you realize that you're lucky."
"I'll hand him that," Shaver said. "He's never ever used that."
Some of Shaver's motivation may stem from his own childhood. Shaver, 39, was raised by a single mother. He saw his dad for the first time as a teenager. His male influences were his uncles, Nick Streff and Harry Hyde. He even experienced a bad relationship with a stepdad for a few years.
"I think that played a major part," Robin Shaver said, "because he knew the situation of a single parent, and he didn't know if that same thing would happen to Joe. He didn't want him to feel like he didn't have a father or didn't fit into a family."
Slaton wasn't aware of Shaver's history.
"I'm thankful for what he's done," said Slaton, who also acknowledged the sacrifices of his sister, Raelynn, and 9-year-old brother, Cameron. "My mom and him spent all the money and time to take me to tournaments."
The relationship reached a crossroads when Slaton got to college. Shaver said he had a hard time stepping back, constantly questioning Slaton about weight control, what he was working on in practice, his workout partners and his schoolwork.
"He wanted to be more involved than he should have been," Slaton said. "It was stressful. I'm thinking about school and wrestling and then I have to think about my dad. I told (Iowa Coach Tom) Brands he had to call him."
Brands intervened and assured Shaver he could handle the coaching duties.
"(Brands) said you don't need to worry about the wrestling part of it. You just be his dad. You just be there for him as his dad. I got this," Shaver said.
Brands declined to comment on specifics, but said "it was always positive."
"Matt Shaver, all he wants is what's best for his son," Brands said. "All Joe Slaton wants is to do the best he can do and win championships. They have the same end in sight."
Shaver listened to wrestler and coach.
"It was a little hard to let go," Shaver said. "It took a little bit of time, but I think it's been the best for Joe and my relationship."
The new partnership helped Slaton flourish as a red-shirt sophomore. He was 31-5 mark and a national runner-up at 133 pounds. He placed third at the Big Ten tournament.
"So much stress was taken off. I could just think about my matches," Slaton said. "It helped me out a bit this year."
Second doesn't bode well with Slaton. He won't be satisfied until he has his own title to match the one the team earned last March.
"You have to be ready for every match and you have to work hard," said Slaton, who trained this summer with Iowa assistant coaches Doug Schwab and Mike Zadick as they prepared for the Olympics. "You have to sacrifice some things to get what you want. I'm just going to have to work harder."
"Robin and I are very proud parents," Matt Shaver said. "We're proud to say Joey's our son."
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Stepfather plays an active role in sport for Hawkeye junior Slaton