In the Corner with Coach Atwood:
Heavily Involved Parent Series-Sarah Lee Smith-Daniels (Hoke County High School)
In my experience, wrestling parents have the tendency to fall into one of three categories. I call it the Three Bears of wrestling parents. There’s the father bear, who is totally overbearing and wears his welcome out. There’s the mother bear, who is totally absent and hardly ever comes around or communicates unless there is something to complain about. Then there is the little bear, which is the parent who finds the perfect balance of both and becomes a true benefit to the team and program. This is the Little Bear’s Porridge of wrestling parenting.
Hoke County High School has been blessed to have the perfect parent the past four years. Sarah Lee Smith-Daniels got involved with the Hoke County wrestling community in 2020 after she and her family moved to North Carolina from Ohio. Her son, CJ, wrestled at Reynoldsburg Junior High prior to the family moving to Raeford and once the move was complete Sarah reached out to the coaches at Hoke.
At the time, the coach for Hoke County was Vernon Walworth. He was the long-time wrestling coach for Hoke who used to make me smile every time we’d run into each other. This happened for two reasons. The first was because I’d remind him of the time he was an innocent bystander standing like I was on the opposite side of the mat from each other watching a match take place as spectators (he and I coached neither wrestler as in they weren’t on our teams) and he was given a warning by the official for supposedly saying something to the referee. I was watching the situation develop and know for a fact the man said nothing, yet he was warned, so I’d always pick on him about that. He’d rebut by reminding me that he was North Carolina’s sole wrestling coach who was paid 11 months out of the year. In other words, he’d always win the friendly picking contest.
So, Sarah, CJ and the rest of the Smith-Daniels crew move to Raeford in September 2020, connect with Coach Wally and Coach Locklear, but can’t do anything at school due to COVID shutdowns that prevented students from attending school and participating in athletics at school. At this point Sarah’s parental vision takes over and she develops an alternate plan designed to keep CJ trekking on the mat. She arranged for CJ to practice with her brother, Cedrick Stewart, himself a high school coach at a few different schools as well as being the coach for Gladiator Elite Wrestling.
Most important, she took her son and others to various wrestling tournaments in North Carolina and South Carolina.
With that brief introduction let’s explore where this competitive parental mindedness originated. Sarah is from Freeport, IL, but was raised in Erie, PA. She attended Freeport High School before transferring to Central High School, which is where she graduated from.
While in high school Sarah participated in multiple sports. She played basketball, was a cheerleader, ran Cross Country, and she ran for the track and field team. While en route to setting records for her high school, some of which she still owns, she qualified for the state event as a member of the track teams for both high schools. Sarah was also a multiple time metro and district champion, and she was a top 10 state finisher after placing 9th in the 100-meter dash.
While excelling in high school as a student/athlete perhaps the most impressive feat Sarah accomplished was making the decision to join the US Army Reserves while she was just 17 years old and a Junior in high school. According to Sarah she decided to “serve my country over going to college first.” Later, she decided to go active duty and since then she has served in three different positions. Those positions are Patient Administration Specialist (10 years), Information Technology Specialist (10 years), and Army Recruiter (since 2019), which is what she continues to do. According to Sarah, being an Army Recruiter “is a much rewarding and fulfilling job. I am able to help change peoples lives for the better.”
Chances are, you, as in you the person reading this article, have seen Sarah and just don’t realize who she is. One night, I was sitting home watching TV and out of nowhere this US Army commercial comes on. Initially, I didn’t pay the commercial much attention, but then I saw someone who looked familiar and guess who it was? Yep, Sarah Lee Smith-Daniels. I knew it was her and am proud to know I knew who she was once she confirmed she was the person in the commercial.
I asked Sarah how she was selected for that commercial and here is her response, “I was selected to be in a National Commercial by my Station Commander at the time. He asked for people and I suggested another person. He needed a male and a female, so I was doing it too! But the most exciting part was getting a call saying I was going to DC for the roll out of the commercial. I was able to meet a VIP, the actor Jonathan Majors! He is a kind man, talented and down to earth guy. That was the best experience.”
Since being in the military Sarah has earned an Associate’s in General Studies through Barton Community College and Central Texas College. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Cyber Security with a minor in Digital Forensic Science.
Regarding her military career Sarah simply stated “I have made a wonderful career out of the Army. I have served in the military for 23 years now and I am looking forward to retiring in 2026.”
Sarah’s personal life is just as busy as her professional life. She has been married since 2010 to Terrence Daniels, who she met in the Army. Sarah calls him “a patient man.” They have a blended family of six children, Javon Daniels, A'kira Smith, Joseph Smith, Cedric Griffin Jr, Terrence Daniels and Sarah Lee Smith-Daniels Jr. All the children play a sport. The youngest is still figuring out what she will do. Otherwise, all have participated in track, basketball or wrestling at some point. Two excelled at the sports they chose. Joseph plays football for Coe College in Iowa and Cedric has competed on a National level for two sports, wrestling and track.
In addition to her professional and personal life, Sarah is an avid exerciser and overall fitness guru. She works out in various capacities including cross fit, powerlifting, riding the peloton, running on the treadmill, competing in 5k runs, or just playing games with her children. Sarah believes a healthy life is attributed to exercising and eating right and she can pursue that lifestyle right at home in her own gym that she built.
I met Sarah in September 2021 at Trinity High School. She was standing in the corner of one of the wrestling mats coaching and cheering one of the kids she brought that day. Can’t remember who, but he was one of the wrestlers she brought that day. Later that day, I saw her interacting and cheering for some of the guys on my team. While I take kids to pre-season and off-season tournaments every weekend I don’t hardly ever do any coaching, so after seeing this I told her to feel free to coach my guys all day long. She mentioned that she’d met a couple of my guys and had taken a liking to them and wanted to cheer them on. So, she did. After that I would see her almost regularly at different tournaments.
Eventually, she and I spoke enough to introduce ourselves, and I learned that her son, CJ, wrestled for Hoke. I was surprised to learn that because in all the years I’d been involved with wrestling in the pre-season and off-season, I couldn’t remember anyone from Hoke County attending off-season tournaments that my guys were attending. Sarah, CJ, and several other Hoke County wrestlers became regulars to the wrestling tournaments we attended.
For this article, I asked Sarah what her intent was in galvanizing the HCHS wrestlers together to go wrestle. She responded, “I have taken many wrestlers to weigh-ins and tournaments. If I have a seat in my truck I will transport them. I even trade vehicles with my husband to take more. I am blessed to have an incredible son that other coaches are willing to step in his corner when we travel from city to city and state to state. Our coaches do not travel every place we go to. Learning to coach wrestling to make sure my son has a coach has been rewarding. I try to relate to him as best as I can. There are a few sports that you are an individual when you step up to the line. And I learned that wrestling and track conditioning can be brutal to the body yet rewarding when you get your hand raised or you cross the line first.”
She wants to win! More importantly, she wants her son and his teammates to win!
I also asked Sarah how much she spends transporting the kids around as much as she does. She responded, “On average I would say I spend $5000 to $7000 a year on tournaments. It might be more than that. Entry fees, travel, food and gifts the kids want comes up to a lot. Memberships to different sites and insurance all add up.” And she continued “I am a mother who loves her children. I will learn and study what I need to help my children be successful. I believe in sharing knowledge with others. If I can help you from my experience, I will. I love hard, I will pour my heart into others. No guards until you give me a reason to have walls set up. I am dedicated to helping shape people’s lives. I have been blessed to be part of the many young lives growing into adult hood. And adults helping their families get off the street. I want to be able to continue helping others. Coaching is something that I love to do, and I hope to be able to continue helping others. I am eager to learn what I can about wrestling. I have put many hours into making sure I understand what is going on. From watching videos and taking courses. I have taken the bronze and teal coaching for wrestling as well as the referee and coaches education program.”
Her answer to my question of why she believes traveling for wrestling is so important, “Wrestling and Track both have been part of CJ’s upbringing since he was five years old. He learned how to wrestle in Virginia and started track there as well. The coaches there taught me the only way to improve is to compete against the best competition. If you are constantly beating the same people, or it’s the same people coming to the tournaments you are having in your city, then travel. I have driven from state to state for wrestling. Every year we test our training on the road. Competing Nationally in Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia, Iowa, and Maryland. CJ wrestles all three styles. He has gone to Junior Duals, Fargo, Super 32 and countless other National tournaments in various states.”
As previously mentioned, one coach Sarah gives a great deal of credit to for her son’s success is her brother Cedrick. Coach Stewart has been CJ’s coach and mentor for years. More affectionately known as “Uncle Stew” he helped pave the way for CJ and countless others in wrestling. Gladiator Elite Wrestling has produced and helped develop some of the best wrestlers in the area.
In Sarah’s personal life, when she has time to be Sarah away from her familial, professional, and coaching requirements she loves animals, especially dogs. Sarah believes everyone should own a pet, because she believes “our furry friends keep us young.” She loves to cook and is willing to cook for a whole Army even if she doesn’t like the person who is hungry. She loves the Dallas Cowboys (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!), the LA Lakers, and Penn State Wrestling. She remains an avid track and field fan and will attend and/or watch any track and field event whenever she can.
Sarah has one main pet peeve that bothers her immensely. She dislikes when parents send their child to competition with no food or water. She believes every child should have the basics when it comes to this. While she understands that some don't have the means to do so, she also believes that’s when others should step in to help. Sarah believes if parents have the means to provide for their child then they should because often the coaches and other parents come out of their pocket to provide for these kids who came without anything.
As previously mentioned, Sarah plans to retire from Active Duty in 2026. She didn’t provide any plans she has for her future, but one thing she did mention she may do shouldn’t surprise anyone. What plan is that? Sarah stated, “You never know you may see me on the mat as an official.”
When that happens maybe we can recruit her to do a commercial encouraging people to officiate high school wrestling to help eliminate the deficiency of wrestling officials across the state.
I asked Sarah to provide me with the names of some people who would provide a quote about her and here are their responses:
Brandon Locklear (Hoke County Head Wrestling Coach)
“Sarah or Mama D as we refer to her, is one of the biggest supporters of Hoke County wrestling I've ever met. Without her I don't think I would be able to run the program the way I need to. One of the most involved parents I've ever met. Hardworking woman who has helped change the lives of many for the better.”
Jacob Tutterow (Cary Head Wrestling Coach)
“Sarah Lee is a wrestling parent, one of the ones that sometimes you love having on your side, but sometimes hate that they are there too. She is always very supportive of each and every kid that wrestles and is very loud cheering for each and every kid on the team. One of the bad parts is how loud she voices her opinions. Which is okay. I have no problem with people that are honest about how they feel. She will definitely tell you how it is and not really care what you think. The nice thing about that is that she doesn't really care what other people's opinions are of her either. Her heart is in the right place and she really does everything that she can for the kids. They all love her and they all respect her as well. She will come support her babies whether she is in pain or in perfect health. She is a warrior in her own right. She is part of THE wrestling family where we may argue a lot, but we all protect one another.”
Ellison Roger, Sarah’s adopted father
"Sarah Lee is a great wrestling mom. She is always supportive and is actively involved in her children’s wrestling careers. Wrestling moms are often seen at tournaments, practices, and meets, cheering on their child's successes and providing support and encouragement. Wrestling moms can be instrumental in helping their child maintain a healthy lifestyle, from proper nutrition to proper hydration and rest. Wrestling moms have the difficult job of balancing being a supportive parent with being a coach and often serve as a role model for their child. Wrestling moms play an important role in the development of their child, both in terms of physical and mental development. They are often the first people their child goes to for advice and support when they are struggling and can be a major source of motivation and encouragement as they strive for success. Sarah has stepped up to help coach when the kids needed one. When Sarah travels she wears all hats, mom, dad, coach, babysitter, travel guide, nutrition/ dietitian, and if needed, therapist. I have seen Sarah Lee wear many hats when it comes to sports. Something about the sports of wrestling and Track moves her soul. She has become MaMa D to all, doesn't matter your age or gender, they all eventually call her MaMa D. I know my daughter is not too proud to ask questions and learn something new. I love her, and I am proud of the woman she has become.”
Reggie Hightower, Sarah’s high school track coach
“Sarah was a pleasure to work with. She's a natural born leader with a huge appetite to be successful and is willing to put in the work to get it done! She is athletic, fast and was a track star both in individual races and sprint relays.”
SFC Sean Cousino, Sarah’s Army brother
“Throughout the years that I have known Sarah Lee she has never wavered away from being one of the most OUTSTANDING people I have ever met. She has always been the leader that people naturally gravitate towards, the epitome of a transcendent leader and an inspiration to any person that has had the opportunity to interact with her, student athlete and parents alike. She is the only person that I’ve met that possesses the ability to navigate being a full-time Soldier, Mother, Coach, and mentor with such effortless grace. She has made an incredibly positive impact on the Hoke County Wrestling team and the community that she supports. It has been an absolute pleasure to watch her grow into the person she has become. I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire each and every person she encounters for many years to come.”
Rebecca Marshall, Sarah’s Army friend, Godmother to Sarah’s kids
“Sarah Lee Smith-Daniels is a tremendous person. She is my best friend and a personal hero of mine. She is a Soldier, a mother, a Wife and Den Mother of the Hoke County Wresting team. Excellence is her standard and she moves thru life with the demand that nothing else is acceptable. Her professional career is marked with multiple accomplishments and accolades. She truly represents the prestige due to anyone who has accomplished as much as she has. This Lady is exceptional.
The first year I was invited to help with the Hoke County Boys wrestling State event it was like a drink from the fire hydrant; I had never dealt with the hurdle of chaperoning a group of teenage boys at a sporting event. I go every year now. I marvel at the incredible efforts of the coaches; keeping everyone organized and basically herding cats (because its 12-15 teenage boys and that’s just a hellscape) for 3 days. Then I look at my dear friend and she is a pillar of focus and motivation. She keeps the boys on point.
I’ve learned so much about wrestling in the last few years just by watching Sarah. It is a sport that is not for the lackadaisical. It demands dedication, focus and effort. Sarah is a woman who pushes for all these things.”