To many, sports and athletics seemed to come easy to John “Bimbo” Chatman.
He will tell you that is the furthest thing from the truth.
While Chatman shined on the football fields, on the wrestling mats and on baseball diamonds, he worked to be good. He worked harder to be great. He was and is special on and off the field. Chatman had reason to boast, if he chose to do so. He never did. With humility, inner spirit and a desire to achieve, Chatman forged a reputation at Trinity High School as a great athlete and a better person. He is one of the great performers and decorated athletes in the state. Rarely does he talk about himself or his successes.
“When I do look back, it is pretty satisfying,” Chatman said. “I never thought much about myself or my athletic career. It wasn’t easy for me. I learned you have to be prepared psychologically and physically. You have to be determined that you are going to be on top no matter what.”
His two PIAA wrestling championships (1968 and 1970), three WPIAL titles and accomplishments on the football field at Trinity, which included 1,469 rushing yards his senior season, are statistical verification of his prowess.
Numbers don’t tell the story.
“He was smooth,” said Kevin Love, a high school friend of Chatman’s from Carnegie High School and a college roommate. “He did a lot of good things as a wrestler, things that weren’t being done at the time, pancakes and other stuff. Things that other people couldn’t do, he did them.
“Bimbo was a leader. A lot of things he did on the wrestling mat, you didn’t see coming. He had his stuff together.”
Dave Cook, a senior at the time for Chartiers-Houston, had just won a WPIAL championship in 1967. He was invited to practice at Trinity with others, as is the norm, in prepping for the state tournament.
Cook was paired with Chatman, at the time a freshman and a junior high school wrestler.
It took just a few minutes for Cook to be impressed.
“He was a quiet kid,” Cook said. “He had speed that was. … not common. That workout, I found him to be so quick and with speed I had not seen before.
“I told coach (Gene) Bowman on the ride home, that the kid I worked out with would be hard to beat the following season. I found out that day how hard Bimbo was to wrestle. He wasn’t a normal ninth grader. I knew he had big-time talent.”
Chatman loved football but fell in love with wrestling after going to a match in 1963 with his uncle.
The following year, his wrestling career began.
“I had been playing (midget) football and tried basketball,” Chatman said. “I felt I wasn’t coordinated enough to play basketball. But once I saw that Trinity-Waynesburg wrestling match, I became very interested in the sport.
“The gym was incredibly hot and steamy. I just fell in love with it. Football was always my favorite, always my love. But wresting became part of my life after that.”
Chatman worked his way through junior high wrestling and Junior Olympics, losing only once to Lester Peterson – who became state champion at Canon-McMillan. He didn’t lose again until after winning the state title as a sophomore in 1968 and sweeping to the PIAA finals in 1969. It was there that Chatman suffered the only defeat of his career, a stunning loss by fall to Wade Schalles at Penn State’s Rec Hall.
Chatman was in control of the bout, leading 5-2 early in the third period. Schalles was able to get underneath Chatman’s arms, elevate him and flip him to his back. He pinned him a few seconds later.
Chatman recovered, turning in an amazing senior year, sparkling on the football field and earning a nomination to the Big 33 football game and earning his second PIAA wrestling title. He helped Trinity to WPIAL and PIAA team championships.
For many, it would have meant redemption. Not to Chatman.
“No, I didn’t see it that way,” he said. “I just felt whatever season it was and whatever sport, I did my best. The past was no big deal. I got ready to play football. My senior wrestling season was nothing special. I went out to participate, gave my best effort and worked hard.”
Cheryl Sadler, Chatman’s sister, admits she didn’t know a lot about sports when she was young.
She grew to love them and watching her brother compete in them. The family was a constant and fully-engaged support system for Chatman and his athletic endeavors.
The loss to Schalles stung.
“It hurt all of us more than it hurt him,” Sadler said. “We paced a lot and walked a lot of hallways in wrestling season. The better you become and further you advance, the more people who root against you. That’s hard to take. That loss was hard to take.”
Cook, who went on to be an outstanding coach and referee in the sport, said the thing he enjoyed most about Chatman’s entire athletic career was the family involvement and sincere interest.
“That impressed me and stuck with me how much Bimbo’s family was part of it all and was involved,” Cook said. “
“I never saw him wrestle or play ball and that his mom and dad, sisters and brothers weren’t there. It was a family thing with them. They were behind him and with him every step. That is special.”
Chatman and his wife, Toni, have a son, Cullen.
Patrick Sadler is Chatman’s nephew. He never got to see his uncle wrestle or play any sport. He knows the history and heard many of the stories.
Patrick Sadler was an accomplished athlete himself at Trinity. He was a standout baseball player there and went on to play in college and then professionally with the Washington Wild Things. He joined his uncle as an inductee to the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame last year.
“His pictures were in the hallways and the locker room at Trinity,” Patrick Sadler said. “I am proud to say he is my uncle. Not just because of sports, because he and my aunt Toni are great people who would do anything for anybody.
“I was motivated to live up to his greatness. I wanted to be as good as he was. I heard all the stories growing up. I also know he was a good baseball player and a better basketball player than he would like you to think.
“The best part of my uncle is his humbleness. He never talks about himself. He lets other people do that. He’s a fantastic uncle. He and my aunt are phenomenal people. You want the legacy to continue. I’m a Sadler but the Chatmans are my mom’s family and my family, too. I’m part of that. His reputation proceeded him. What he accomplished pushed me and motivated me. I want people to talk about me in the same light as they talk about him because I know how loved he is.”
Pitt is It
Chatman took his 74-1 scholastic wrestling record and football talents to the University of Pittsburgh.
As a freshman, he ranked as one of the top kick returners in the country, averaging 27.9 yards per return for the Panthers in 1970.
As a wrestler, he won the Franklin & Marshall tournament, placed three times in the Eastern Collegiate championships and twice was an NCAA qualifier.
Pitt wasn’t Chatman’s first choice. He intended to attend Ohio University. His father refused to sign the required papers, wanting his son to play and wrestle closer to home.
Bimbo Chatman and Pitt obliged.
“Pitt was trying to revive its football program and it offered me the opportunity to play football and to wrestle,” Chatman said. “Playing football in college was pretty much my goal.
“I felt I did OK playing in one of the toughest conferences – the Western Conference – against teams like Canon-McMillan, Uniontown and Mt. Lebanon.”
Love and Chatman remain friends today. They talk and recently attended a Pitt wrestling match. It’s a relationship that Love, a two-time WPIAL champion and state champion (1970) in his own right, cherishes.
“He was a good football player,” Love said. “He didn’t talk much. He did what he had to do and got out. He’s always been a great guy and a great friend.”
Chatman’s football career ended after a couple seasons, after being promised a start in a game against Florida State a late decision found him on the sidelines. Chatman admits that left him “soured” on football. He felt he wasn’t getting a “fair shake.”
Johnny Majors was brought in as Pitt’s football coach and his top assistant, Jackie Sherrill, sought out Chatman at the Pitt Field House.
“He asked me if I was coming out for football,” Chatman recalled. “I’d said, ‘probably not.’ I never saw him again and lo-and-behold a guy name Tony Dorsett came on the scene and the rest is history.”
What Chatman’s history will say is that he performed on the highest level.
“Bimbo was a good kid and a solid man,” Cook said. “He had a way about him that did make it look extremely easy. But he always was at 100 percent and going at 150 miles per hour.
“He was a level above. He was way out in front of the crowd. His technique was a little different. Bimbo was just unique. I always knew he would be great.”