TELL US YOUR STORY
These stories embody what the sport of wrestling can do.
It was 1971, the 8th grade gym class wrestling unit had just ended and the after school tournament was announced. Three headlocks later and I was a wrestling champion. The captain of the varsity team approached me to tell me I was going to camp with them in the summer. Not knowing anything else to say, I said “sure”, and the rest is history. It’s now 48 years later and I am still involved with HS Wrestling. Those reading this know how rewarding our sport can be in so many ways. In giving thought of how to write this story, I realized that I have gone through many phases over my career. Not sure if all of you have done the same, but here’s what I have learned.
Phase 1- Beginnings & Competition Years:
So I went to that camp and when wrestling season came around, I was the varsity starter at 119 lbs. I only won one match that year. Long story short, I never did anything special in high school. By my senior year, I had reached my goal and I was the team’s MVP. However, we only had 6 kids on the team. My high school coach was knowledgeable, but never motivated me as good as I could be.
I was the HS wrestler who read every result. I knew that X had beaten Y 4-2 and I had lost to Y 2-1, so obviously, I would lose 4-3 when I got to wrestle X. And guess what happened? My junior and senior years, I had a great takedown. I was always up 2-0 after the first period. (Wish we knew about the “let him up take him down” that didn’t exist back then… We thought you could only get one takedown per match!) But then knowing X was going to beat me 4-3 (because that’s what the results in the paper had predicted), I would lose 4-3. My coach would say to me as I walked off the mat “Great job, that kid was tough and you almost beat him”. What he should have said, but didn’t was “You should have won that match, you are better than him”. In tournaments, I became the “King of Wrestlebacks”. I would lose in the semis (because I never thought I was good enough to be in the finals), but then 3rd belonged to me. Nobody’s credentials mattered then, no matter how good you were, I was beating you for 3rd (because I had already sacrificed not going to the finals, so sacrificing 3rd for 4th was not an option).
I always knew I wanted to coach. My dad had taught me by example how to do that. He was an outstanding Little League coach. My friends who played on his team’s way back then still rave about him. He did not raise his voice and remained very calm. He taught me you don’t have to yell and scream to get the results you are looking for, but before I could become a coach, I needed to learn a lot more technique and I needed to learn how to win.
Phase 2- College:
College choices were down to two schools. On the last possible day to commit, my dad said let’s go look at Lehigh. It was one of the two schools I was looking at, but had never visited it. After a really lame tour, we went around on our own. The wrestling room with the “We Want NCAA Champions” banner was on the third floor of Taylor Gym. Once I saw it through the window, my decision had been made. After doing the pre-season workouts with the team, I knew I would never be on the team. Everyone had been recruited; there were state champs and nationally ranked wrestlers everywhere. Coach Thad Turner made an announcement that first week at practice: “When you get back to the dorms tonight, ask around and see if anyone would be interested in being our Manager”.
It didn’t take much thought… first thing the next morning, I was in his office. Coach Turner said: “Jeff, as Manager, you are just as much a member of this team as anyone else, you will just wear a different uniform”. So for the next 4 years, I wore a suit and tie. It was the greatest experience of my wrestling life. My double major was officially Accounting and Finance, but I was actually majoring in “Coaching Wrestling”. I was spending 40+ hours a week with Coach Turner. After taking dinner orders for the Varsity team and running them up to the University Center’s special dining room, I’d get back to practice. I would watch the techniques and I could jump in and “go live” if a group was short. I handled team comp tickets for matches, distributed plane tickets, set up training tables when we were on the road, and showed up to open the gym for visiting teams to work out. And yes, the day before the Iowa dual, Dan Gable came to town. I opened the room for him and stayed until they were done. The stories are true. He drilled with every kid on the team, and then when they went to shower, he stayed in the room, and ran and climbed ropes. His team would end up waiting for him to finish his workout before they could head back to their motel. As manager, I got to be on TV (even though it was UHF, my parents could watch the matches back home through the black and white static). I would get to go on the mat for injury time, towel off the wrestlers, and give them water, while listening to Coach Turner’s advice to them. I got to sit matside next to the coaches at tournaments (as I was the scorekeeper), and this included the NCAA finals! At dual meets I sat next to Coach Turner and took notes for him, as he dictated what he wanted each wrestler to work on. He would never leave his chair. He would grab my knee and twist and turn in his seat, but never left it (sometimes I needed ice for my knee after the dual was over). Like my dad, he did not need to yell and scream. If he ever did go to the head table to question a ref’s call, the ref knew he had blown it, because Coach Turner never went to the table. I would go on to adopt the “wear a tie”, “stay in your chair”, and “don’t yell at your kids” philosophy in my coaching career. It was an amazing four years. The wrestlers on the team respected me, as I was a former wrestler, knew what they were going through, and did everything I could to get them what they needed before they even had to ask. My senior year, Lehigh was 3rd in the nation. We had 2 NCAA champs and 3 finalists. Coach Turner was the NCAA Coach of the Year and the team gave me a standing ovation at the end of the year banquet. The best part about it, Coach Turner taught me how to teach wresters how to win!
Phase 3- First Years as a Coach- It’s All About Winning:
All through college, I had been dropping by my old high school (Ardsley- Section1 -NY) at every vacation break and going to wrestling practice to show the kids the new technique I had learned.
Now that I had graduated, I was working in NYC as an auditor. During the season, I would go in early, skip lunch, and leave early, so I was able to get to practice to help coach the team. I switched jobs to be closer to the school, but then I had to travel. One November night in Fort Worth Texas, I made a decision I would never regret… I would leave the business world and become a teacher. On January 2, 1982, I would be in a class room at a private business school teaching business classes and going to practice on time every day. Coach Turner’s methods worked. I got to watch my brother go undefeated and win the Section 1 title his senior year. He would get injured two days before states, so we would never know how far he could have gone. In the 8 years I was at my alma mater, we racked up 89 wins, and I helped them win 5 League Championships, 4 Division Championships, and coached 4 Section Champs and 2 NYS Place winners. The program took off and the numbers were up from the 6 kids on a team when I went there. I would get married, while at Ardsley. My wife, Carolyn, knew what she was in for (I think), as we were married on November 10 and since the season starts that week, the honeymoon would be delayed until April. The famous sign, “We interrupt this marriage for the Wrestling Season”, still hangs in my office to this day. A new opportunity presented itself in 1989. I would turn the Ardsley team over to my brother Gregg, as I had moved to Newburgh, NY and became a business teacher at Newburgh Free Academy: Section 9, NY. I had some great kids on my teams at Ardsley, but looking back, as a rookie coach, all that mattered at that time was winning.
Phase 4- Helping Kids BeThe Best They Can Be:
Where Ardsley HS had about 175 kids per grade at the time, my new school: Newburgh Free Academy (Section 9- NYS) had 1,000 kids per grade. My initial expectations were to have 100+ kids on the team each year; this was going to be amazing. The reality was that the school’s population had every race and every economic background you could think of, and that the majority of kids were not into sports. Once I got established there, we would average 40-45 kids each year. The winning that I was used to had to wait a year. We had a losing record my first year, but then the same kids came back for another year and we shocked Valley Central (the perennial power at that time and won the league). Then suddenly in year 3, several kids did not come out for the team and we started to go backwards. It was around this time that I realized I didn’t have as much control over the team winning, as I thought. My priority shifted to getting and keeping as many kids on the team as possible and getting them to finish the season. I developed a contract that they and their parents had to sign. It basically said they would finish what they started and if they quit, they could not go out for the sport again (unless there was a meeting with parents, coaches and Athletic Director) prior to them being allowed to rejoin the team. This was incredibly successful for me. The kids at Ardsley didn’t “need” me. They were all from great families with lots of support. This was not always the case in Newburgh. I greatly respect all the coaches who coach there as the majority of them know that their roles are much more important to the kids than they would be at a lot of other schools. Over my tenure at Newburgh, it became very apparent that I was going to be “the father” or at least “the father figure” for a lot of my wrestlers. I had kids on the team who: had seen their best friend murdered on the streets, whose real dad had put a gun to their head, whose mom and dog had moved out and left town, while their son was at practice, so the wrestler would come home to find an empty apartment and a note. Carolyn and I had wrestlers live with us, attend Christmas with us, etc. Not every coach is going to experience this, but sometime in your career, you may need to step up as your wrestlers may need you more than you will ever know.
I loved the kids I had on my Newburgh teams. There were ups and downs. In 1996, we were arguably the best team in NYS. I felt my job there was to get the most out of every kid. I think we all have the ability to evaluate our wrestlers and determine in the back of our minds how good they can be. I tried to get my kids to set “realistic” goals. It wouldn’t be honest to tell a first year freshman that they should win the State title their first year. But I had many upperclassmen over the years that would have that goal. I felt I was able to relate to well to my wrestlers, as I was the nervous, “head case” in high school myself and knew all about having negative thoughts and having them affect my performance. I vowed to never do what my high school coach did to me. I would never tell a kid they did a good job, if I felt they should have won the match. I would be brutally honest with my wrestlers, so they knew what I expected from them, and if they were not performing at that level, they would know about it. Keep this in perspective though: this does not mean that any time a kid losses that I am telling them they should have won. For example: My assessment of a first year overweight wrestler with absolutely no athletic ability might be that by their senior year they might get in the lineup and win one big match to help the team. I found this approach to be amazingly successful and can’t count the number of my wrestlers, who would exceed not only my expectations, but also theirs, over their career. As a coach at Newburgh, I got to spend lots of time with my daughter, Britny, (who earned 6 Varsity letters as our scorekeeper from 7th through 12th grade). Another outstanding experience that I hope all of you get to go through is actually getting to coach your son. My son, Bryan, was with us on the JV team as a 7th grader and was a 5 time Varsity letter winner from 8th through 12th grade.
Phase 5- Doing What Is Best For The Sport Of Wrestling:
In 1998-99, a major change occurred for me. Bob Zifchock, who I admired very much as the head coach at powerhouse Valley Central, was stepping down as our Section 9 Chairman. Bob had recommended me to take over for him and I had been approved by our Athletic Council. This would mean that in addition to running my program at Newburgh, I would now also be responsible for all the coaches in our region, preparing the coaches handbook, supervising and setting up weight certifications, setting up and running our Sectional Dual Meet and State Qualifying tournaments, and serving on the NYS Wrestling Committee. For the rest of my career, things were no longer about what’s best for my team, as now it was about what is best for Section 9 and NYS. It also meant I would have to leave my team from time to time to run events for the Section. I had two outstanding Assistant Coaches at Newburgh in Chris Leggett and Matt Dunne, so that made this transition so much easier. This is a very demanding, volunteer job that takes up tremendous amounts of time every year, but the reason I originally accepted it and the reason I still do it today is that I feel totally appreciated by the coaches I represent. My goal would be to become the best wrestling administrator in the state. Every state is in need of wrestling administrators, as well as coaches. My advice to you would be that if this situation is ever presented to you, it is probably because many people respect you as a coach and feel you will be able to objectively represent them and their needs. If you can, find a way to accept their offer, it can be a very rewarding phase to your career. I know I have never regretted taking the job.
Looking back on my tenure on the NYS Wrestling Committee, I have been blessed to work with a great group of administrators and Sectional Chairmen and I feel we have made tremendous strides to “do what is best for the sport of wrestling”. Without hesitation, I feel my biggest accomplishment was developing the NYS “At-Large (Wildcard) System” that is still used in our State Tournament. Though the years, I’ve seen a tremendous wrestler lose to another great wrestler in their state qualifier final. It used to be that if you lost, you could not attend the NYS tournament. NYS has a 16 man bracket: 12 sections each sending one qualifier, so there were 4 BYEs... Our idea was to fill the four BYEs with the next best wrestlers. I developed a point system, where we evaluate all the 2nd and 3rd place finishers from all sections and select the best four to fill the BYEs in the State Bracket. It is now possible to take 2nd in your State Qualifier and still become the State Champ. If you are the second best wrestler in the state, but the best wrestler in the state attends the school right next to you, it is now possible for you to lose to them in Section final, but still attend states, reach the state final, lose to them again but take 2nd in NYS, (instead of not even being able to attend the State Tournament).
In 2003, two very good friends of mine, Al Bevilacqua and the late Michael DeCapua got together to form the Friends of Section 9 Wrestling: Non-Profit 501c3. They had a concept of running a premier tournament. My Newburgh team did not enter it the first year, we gave it a try in the second year, and then I was approached as Section 9 Chairmen to see if I would like to take over as the tournament director. I am happy that I also accepted this opportunity to do what is in the best interest of NYS wrestling. This tournament is called the “Eastern States Classic”. It is about to be held for the 18th year. It is held the second weekend in January and it is now the premier tournament in NYS. It has 575 invited wrestlers from up to 180 schools and 6 states. For the past several seasons, all 9 of our mats are now broadcasted Live on Flo Wrestling, as we are a Flo Major Event. Dan Wernikoff, Gary Rissler, and Phil Rosas have been my right hand men in running it from its inception. There are so many others I could mention, that would double the size of this story, but our entire section, the teams, parents, wrestlers, and officials come together every year to pull this off and it has become a truly first class event that coaches rave about every year.
Phase 6- A Dramatic Turn of Events- Changing Schools:
I believe that if you asked anyone who knows me, they would have told you that I would have been the Head Coach at Newburgh until I retired. I had just been elected into the NYS Wrestling Hall of Fame, and yet after 24 years, 257 wins, 35 Section Champs, 37 NYS Qualifiers and 19 NYS Place winners, I would resign my position at the end of the 2012 season. This was something I never would have thought would happen, but what I found out about myself was that when you feel disrespected and unappreciated, it changes things. It was all about the Newburgh Administration at the time (not the kids or the parents). My son had just graduated and I had total confidence that Chris and Matt would keep things going, so it felt like there was no need to stay on at a school that made me feel this way. I was heading to Valley Central to be the Assistant Coach, when the email came. Mike Rydell, my first Sectional Champ at Newburgh was now the Principal at Wallkill HS (the school district right next to Newburgh). He had seen the back page cover story in the paper that I was leaving Newburgh, and wanted to make me an offer I could not refuse. He said his head coach, Tom Palazzo, would be willing to step down and become my assistant, if I would come and be their head coach. I can’t tell you how much Tom’s decision meant to me. For me, there was nothing to consider, it was a “no-brainer”. Wallkill had been struggling and Valley Central didn’t need me as much. Again, this move would be better for Section 9 Wrestling. Minisink Valley and Monroe Woodbury take turns over the last decade as the top two teams in Section 9 (and usually in the top 10 in NYS). Newburgh, Middletown, and Cornwall are also usually in the top 5. I wanted to get Wallkill into that mix as soon as possible. The timing was perfect. I had a core of kids who wanted to learn and get better. I knew that I wasn’t going to coach forever. Retirement was just around the corner, and I had promised my wife that coaching would eventually end and that we would leave NY permanently and move to our home on Cape Cod. I had two stud 8th graders my first year at Wallkill, and I told them we would go out together. In five years, we would all be seniors and I would graduate with them. This approach made my retiring much easier to accept, as I had a countdown and would go through my final Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years. I consider what I did at Wallkill to be my greatest coaching accomplishment. By my third year, we had 7 kids in the Sectional finals. It was a situation where I could take everything I had learned over my career (from mat techniques to motivational techniques), and present a 5 year “Greatest Hits” program each day. Our team was ranked 3rd in the section my final 3 years (as well as earning some state rankings in the Top 25). After such a sad ending to my Newburgh career, I could smile and be happy again. Every one of my Wallkill kids made me happy and they gave me the most rewarding 5 year experience of my coaching career.
Phase 7- Retiring and Saying Goodbye:
It was a storybook ending. I knew I was retiring, so every time I went to a dual or a tournament, I knew it was the last time I would be there. To bring closure to my time at Newburgh: Newburgh’s administration was also in better hands then when I left. Roberto Padilla, one of those kids I talked about earlier, who had seen his friends shot on the streets, had gone out for the team when I was coaching there. He made it all the way to the NYS finals his senior year, then went on to be an Academic All-American at SUNY Brockport, and is now the Superintendent at his alma mater. Rob is by far the former wrestler I am most proud of. Wallkill would attend the Newburgh Duals (a tournament that I had created the first year I coached there). Chris and Matt honored me by re-naming the tournament in my name this year. For my final match in the Newburgh gym, Chris set it up, so my Wallkill team competed on the same mat and the same side that I had coached at all those years prior. That was the saddest night for me. After everyone had left, I just stood in the parking lot, knowing I would never coach at the Newburgh school again. Though it was a sad night, lots of very happy memories went through my mind that night.
Section finals would be my last night coaching in Section 9. The coaches gave me a great send off with a beautiful ceremony before the finals (complete with parting gifts)! I would have three of my favorite Wallkill wrestlers in the finals (two of them were the original 8th graders from the year I started). The first two would lose, putting the pressure on our last guy, but he came through with the win. I would get to go to coach at the State tournament one last time. When his match finished, I laid my clipboard (instead of a pair of wrestling shoes) at center mat and walked away. Section 9: the wrestlers, coaches, parents, and officials had meant so much to me.
Another great surprise happened for me during the week that followed. My two wrestlers who had lost in the finals earned At-Large Wildcard berths to States. All three of us would be together for one last tournament. (the guy who came up with that At-Large system was a genius, I can’t thank him enough!) Fast forward to states, my original 8th grader would win in the semi’s. This meant the final match of my coaching career would be the NYS final. To add to the drama, over my career, I had two other wrestlers make the State final, but both had lost, so I had never coached a NYS Champ. Problem was that where I think my guy could have won it all at one weight class up, he decided to stay at his weight because the #1 ranked wrestler in the country was there, and he wanted to take him on. In a Hollywood movie, he would have pulled off the upset and I would end with a State Champ, but in the real world, he would wrestle a very respectable match and take second. So how does one walk away from a 37 year coaching career? My wrestler said: “Coach, I’m sorry I didn’t get you your state championship, but I wanted to wrestle the best and see where I stood, and I think I did pretty damn good!” That quote says it all. This was not a time I needed to tell my wrestler “they should have won”. This was time for a hug. He had done his best against “the best” and that is the concept I had tried to teach my kids since day one.
Unfortunately, my Dad (who was ALWAYS one of my biggest supporters) would pass away the night of the Section 9 Duals in December 2014, so he would not get to see me receive the biggest honor of my career, when I was inducted into the NYS Upstate Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2015. I would finish with 432 career coaching wins, 39 Section Champs, 44 NYS Tournament Qualifiers, and 21 NYS tournament place winners.
Phase 8- Cape Cod:
It hasn’t ended yet. Carolyn and I are living full time on Cape Cod. Newburgh had me back to dedicate their new mat to me. They put my name and Hall of Fame logo in the corner. And they did it on a night, where they hosted Warwick Valley HS because one of my former wrestlers: Phil Szumlaski was the head coach there. Though retired from teaching, I am not coaching, but I am still the Section 9 Chairmen, a member of the NYS Wrestling Committee, still the Director of the Eastern States Classic, and still the Finance Chairman for Friends of Section 9 Wrestling. At the NYS tournament seeding meeting this year, as I was representing Section 9, Jamie Block (one of my original Ardsley Wrestlers) was sitting on one side of me as the Section 1 Chairman, and my brother Gregg (who also just got inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Horace Mann HS) sat on the other side representing the AIS schools in NYS. So it feels as if everything has come full circle. I did get my Real Estate license, so hopefully I can accommodate my NYS Wresting coaches when they are ready to retire here along with me! If you are still reading this, I hope your career can parallel with mine and you too can follow these phases. May you all get to see: your former wrestlers become coaches, watch them succeed on and off the mat, attend their weddings, have the chance to coach your own kids (as wrestlers or scorekeepers), and maybe even train your grandkids someday. May you also have the desire to have a lifelong commitment to the greatest sport in the world.
Wrestling is the greatest gift I have been given.
Like most young kids, my experience came from professional wrestling I saw Monday nights on “Monday Night Raw.” I knew nothing about the actual sport. In the fall of 1996, I spoke with my football coach, Dick Wolslayer, about how I could improve on the field. He made it very simple: “Do you want to be better at football? It will happen on the wrestling mat. See you in two weeks.” He was right, but what he did not know was that quick conversation would set the path for where I am today.
My experience with wrestling has always been one of love and hate. I loved and still love, the competition, the camaraderie, the ability to see growth through hard work and dedication, the lessons I learned about myself through winning and more so through failing. I love that I have been able to take my story, the ups and downs and teach these lessons to the Middies at Middletown High School.
I hated the losing, the struggle, the self-doubt that came from wrestling. I hated the constant battling of an old injury, or a new injury, the non-stop battling for your spot, then how to keep that spot, the never-ending internal battle that no matter what I was doing I was convinced someone was doing more than me. No sport more than wrestling pushed me to challenge myself and find out who I was. My entire career was a grueling process packed full of hurdle after hurdle. Now that I am a coach and I have had time to reflect on my competitive career, I’ve realized the things I hated about wrestling are the same pieces that shaped who I am as a coach, husband, and most importantly, as a father.
I was extremely fortunate to wrestle for two great head coaches. At Middletown High School, my career started for future NYS Hall of Fame coach Paul Cummings. He knew exactly what to say to get that little extra out of us. As much as we hated some of his ways, many of us have spoken as adults and realized that his methods molded us to accept nothing less than our best as men. Wrestling is an individual sport, but he forced us to put the team first, and individual success would be the byproduct of the team winning. He created a culture of success. I wrestled for a much different coach at SUNY Cortland in Brad Bruhn. He came in as a young man taking over a veteran team. He knew that dropping the hammer on us would not have been the best way to go about winning over his new team. So he told us on the very first day we met, “If you want to keep accomplishing what you did yesterday, keep doing what you’ve been doing, but if you want to reach new heights, let's do this together, our way.” We were skeptical, but his ways pushed us to reach new levels for a Cortland team.
I have done my best over the past 11 years to mold their two coaching styles and forge my own. Being too much of a hammer would run kids right out the door, but being too nice and they’d also run out the door. Kids want someone to be firm with them, but also take them by the shoulder and explain to them the hows and whys. It is quite the balancing act and at times incredibly challenging. There have been ups-and-downs along the process, but each step has been an opportunity for me to learn a new and more effective way to reach my athletes.
In the years since I have taken over the program, my staff and I have done everything in our power to build our program. We train year-round in order to provide these young men and women opportunities to find their place on the mat. When I look for a new coach to bring on staff, I always ask them the same question: “What can you offer our kids to make them better?” Many mention their own wrestling accolades. The best ones talk of how they can share their stories to influence kids to make the right decisions in life. Wrestling is the best tool I have found to teach students the trials and tribulations that come with life.
History, Family, Tradition, Relationships, Lessons
On September 3rd, 1984, I stood on our main street in Port Jervis, NY with 10,000 other folks at a parade celebrating the twin Olympic gold medalists in the 1984 games in Los Angeles. That is an impressive number considering our little city had about 8,000 residents at the time. Ed and Lou Banach are New York State, NCAA, and Olympic champions. They and their brother, Steve, were inseparable and wrestled together at Iowa under Coach Dan Gable. Their life stories and accomplishments are some of the most inspirational in our sport, but that is for another time. I was six years old and got to be at that parade as a Cub Scout in our local Boy Scout troop. I remember seeing them parade by in a red convertible, with what felt like the whole world cheering them on, with the USA and Olympic flags flying and the fire hydrants painted gold. What a great day and a great tribute to their achievements. I told my Dad that day that I wanted to wrestle. I started wrestling that winter and have been competing and coaching for 35 years since!
As a competitor, I outperformed my ability through hard work, but never quite achieved my goals of becoming a champion. What I feel are my lasting contributions to our sport came as a coach. I found success as a high school coach when I had the honor of coaching alongside my mentor and coach, the late David Simmons. He was a giant of a man in both his size and his impact on those that he coached, loved, and led. I wrestled for him throughout high school and coached alongside him before taking over for him at his retirement. I have not made a major decision in 30 years without consulting him and I miss him terribly. Like many athletes, the impact of a coach who cared is immeasurable to our future successes. I was intentional about wanting to have the same impact on my kids that he had on me. Coach Simmons taught me one of the most rewarding gifts of our sport… the relationships. The impact on my life from our wrestling family is immeasurable. The friendships built as a competitor and the lifelong bonds created with former athletes and their families have had a great impact on my life. I do not think there is another sport in the world that allows for the camaraderie developed between coaches from opposing schools. I believe the amount of time spent together in gymnasiums at duals, over entire weekends at tournaments, and off-season training allow for that to happen. Our local region, Section 9, has some great coaches and leaders that I have tremendous respect for and learned a great deal from.
Family and Relationships
Coaching also gave me a great gift. In my early years as a young man, I found myself often preaching to my kids all of the right messages about how to train, the process, doing the right thing, how they lived life. I knew that any good coach would not ask their kids to do something they were not willing to do. Therefore, I committed to living that same life in all that I do. I have such gratitude for that gift and the life that my wife, Laurie, and I plus our four children are able to build together with that mindset!
Family is at the foundation of everything we do. I have such gratitude for the sport of wrestling for helping me build that foundation throughout my life. Some of my best memories with my own family were through wrestling. Car rides to far away tournaments, conversations and games played in gyms waiting for matches (thankfully, kids today will never know the anxiety of fearing that you will miss your match because you didn’t hear your name called or it was mispronounced on a muffled PA in a gym with thousands of people!). Some of the best lessons I learned were from my Dad in post-match talks after tough losses or exhilarating wins. I remember my Mom always telling me I did great, win or lose, and reminding me to wear my head gear. Then as a coach, I met Laurie while still a young coach. Her support helped me to really become who I wanted to be as a coach and man. She helped me setup gyms for tournaments, run camps, turned out for home and away meets, and always made sure to have our own kids at our events to make sure our family was together. Those efforts paid off as my two oldest, Jack and Adele, both wrestle. I am so proud having them in the same room I trained in being coached by Jon Foley, who was an athlete of mine and I got to hire as a teacher in my school. Also, it is a thrill watching the growth of women’s wrestling and knowing that my own daughters and their peers will have so many great opportunities available to them, if they choose, because of the work being put in now by our women pioneers!
When I left coaching, I missed it terribly, and knew that it would be short-term. I soon had the opportunity to fill that void. The athletic director at SUNY Sullivan, a local community college reached out when they were starting a wrestling program and I jumped at the chance to take that position. That was a very rewarding experience that was again defined by the relationships built with our athletes and coaches. I was able to hire two former Port Jervis athletes as assistant coaches. Jason Jones was our last state champ and an NCAA qualifier at Appalachian State and JD Zitone was a state runner-up for me and an NCAA finalist at DIII Centenary College. It was a great deal of fun and learning working with both of them. I was hired with just two weeks until the fall semester started and had a short window to put it all together. I am proud of the product that we put together and to be able to create a local opportunity for the athletes in our region. After stepping away, a former local standout competitor, Anthony Ng, has taken over recently and is doing an outstanding job building the program. While coaching there, my oldest son, Jack, came to all of my practices and began wrestling in our youth club. What a fun time, as I watched things come full circle. Our high school program is led by Eric Hartmann and Jon Foley. I grew up competing with Eric’s brother, Paul, and coached alongside him for several years before he took over when I stepped away. Jon was a senior on the first team I coached and my first state medalist and is a fantastic teacher in the building I lead. They are both doing a great job working with our kids. When my son was getting ready to join our youth club, our club numbers had fallen down into the single digits. Jon took over and I was able to help him coach our youth club, as I transitioned away from college coaching as my family grew to four kids of my own! Our club now routinely gets upwards of 100 kids out each year.
One night several years ago, fellow Port Jervis alum and New York State, NCAA, and Olympic Champion, Lou Banach, was in town. My college kids were preparing for our NJCAA National Tournament in Iowa and our high school kids were training for states. Lou stopped in to speak with the guys. What a great night with multiple generations of “Port kids” in the same space. I got to take a great picture with my oldest son, Jack, the guys, and coaches from both squads. That picture is significant in a lot of ways. Most important to me, is that it held five eras of our Port Jervis wrestling family that represented the past, present, and future. What was also significant for me that night was the words that Lou shared. I asked him if he could speak to the kids for a bit and he was happy to oblige. He held the room after the workout for about a half hour. He spoke of family, his brothers, both his biological and adoptive parents, his love of our town and the great mentors he had throughout his career here and in Iowa, and on the national stage. Lou wrestled with his brothers under Coach Gable at Iowa. Mike McCarthy, Phil Chase, Mark Fowler, Ray Holyk: all local legends of coaching, and of course Gable, the national treasure. He spoke of working hard and the characteristics of being a leader. He had a great quote where he talked about never losing. Sometimes the clock ran out and he didn’t have enough points, time just ran out. The mindset that I would always win if given enough time. What a great perspective on loss and self-belief. Many of the kids, and admittedly, me too, thought we would hear about his state title, winning NCAA’s as an individual and a team, with his brother, Ed, and winning Olympic gold. He made no mention of any of that. His message was simple… Family, relationships, the process, doing the right thing, mindset. He spoke for over 30 minutes about life, and being intentional about living the right way in all that we do and never once mentioned an accolade or medal. What a night it was for me and our kids. I had to share this story to give a little perspective on my philosophies as a coach. Those guys that came before me had helped shape who I wanted to be and what I wanted to represent as a coach. I felt the duty to carry on in a manner and to create a product that they would be proud of. Tradition, legacy, relationships. Every day of the year I had an awareness of the great responsibility of carrying on that legacy and putting my best effort forward for our kids. Nothing less would be acceptable. I had met Lou before, but this was the first opportunity we had to speak in depth. Little did he know, that he had influenced who I was an athlete, person and coach, long before we had actually met, and more so after we did.
One of my favorite weekends of the year is attending the NCAA tournament. A group of buddies try to attend every year, some years harder than others with family, weddings, and our own kids. However, some of my greatest wrestling memories are attending NCAA’s. There is no other sporting event quite like it. I describe it to my non-wrestling friends that it is like being at the Super Bowl, all day and night for four days straight! Another great aspect of our sport is the accessibility. I have been able to connect our kids with great coaches and athletes from across the country through camps, clinics, and events. There is no other sport that the torchbearers at the highest levels are so giving of their time to help create a great experience and opportunities for our athletes, coaches, and fans.
If you are reading this, you are a fan, coach, competitor, parent, former athlete, or wrestling enthusiast. From that lens, I would like to share some of the key concepts that our great sport has taught me, through a lifetime of being a participant, coach, and fan. I know that from whatever your role is, you will be able to relate to at least one of these.
It has been said to focus on the process, not the outcome, and that if you embrace it, hard work will become habitual and drive your results. I put that effort into our kids and program and it also trickled into my professional life, my personal life, and eventually, who I am and want to be. Focus not on results, but on the process: helping others, doing the right thing, outworking your opponents.
As a school principal, I understand the saying: “Everything you need to know in life, you learned in kindergarten.” However, I believe as a coach and wrestler, that everything you need in life, you learn from wrestling!
Thank you Wrestling!
This may be an odd wrestling story insofar as I am not a wrestler nor am I a wrestling coach. My wrestling career began and ended in middle school when Coach Lee Wolf, a wrestling institution in northeast South Dakota, said to me, as he was shoving a roll of toilet paper up my nose…again… “Mike, all I really want is for you to just touch the mat without getting a nose bleed.”
We laugh about it to this day.
To be honest, I am just a fan of the sport. There is something about wrestlers and the mind-set they have, their love of the sport, and their focus that is deeply inspiring. Just this morning, I was at a family-run diner where I go with a friend to eat breakfast occasionally, and I was talking to their son Adam who waits our table. We were chatting and I asked him, in his athletic career, if he could only participate in one sport…that was as far as I got. He interrupted me to say, “Wrestling…by a mile.”
I was not surprised.
Inspired by that encounter, a few weeks ago I gave a sermon about how the gift of our faith should surround us, fill us, motivate us, and become more than just a part of our lives, but the way we see ourselves. The best example I could give was to think of wrestlers. Those who play football are football players, same with baseball, or soccer, but someone who wrestles becomes a “wrestler.” It is a self-identification and a way of life, and a way of living; and whether their careers end with a gold medal, or a world championship, or after college, or after high school, they will always think of themselves as a “wrestler.”
It is that commitment and self-identification I was calling the congregation to embrace in living their faith.
So, yes, I am a fan, but I also think it is important to support wrestlers, which I try to do on a local level as much as I am able. The reason is simple, it’s about noticing, and affirming the greatness that can often go unnoticed. I was a chaplain in the US Army and the South Dakota Army National Guard and large part of my job was to simply be with Soldiers and to support them. To be honest, to do just that was the reason I enlisted.
One of the things that touched me the most was the nobility and the honor of these men and women, sometimes they had to do difficult and dangerous jobs, sometimes simple jobs, and almost always without a great deal of notice or acknowledgment. It was my privilege to notice, and to acknowledge, the greatness being lived before me; the greatness of the individual Soldier, doing what they do, being who they are, the hidden changing of the world.
A wrestling fan cannot help but think about how wrestlers so often strive and work and train and sweat and bleed in a certain level of obscurity; yet, the pride they feel speaks for itself. The lessons being learned, discipline, sacrifice, belief in self, trust in team and coaches, leadership, courage, these matter in the training room, on the mat, and ultimately in the world.
Greatness, even if it is not noticed, is still greatness, and it is needed.
Because of this sport’s capacity to change the world, even as it forges the hearts of men and women, I am proud to be a supporter of wrestling, and proud to say I am a fan.
Everyone's heard it, both of my parents and teachers would always remind me that life only gets harder. But for any high school and college guys out there that might happen to read this, I'm happy to report that it simply isn't true.
My story isn't a specific memory. I could probably write about the profound life lessons I learned from placing top 8 at national tournaments like the Ohio Tournament of Champions and not ever making it out of the WPIAL championship, or how wrestling has opened doors for me like getting cast to be one of the Olympic wrestlers in Foxcatcher and spending months filming with Hollywood celebrities and a lot of the Olympic guys. But it would be an inadequate assessment of what wrestling has done for me.
Life hasn't gotten harder for me, in fact it's gotten significantly easier.
High school was challenging, I went to an all-boys school in Pittsburgh, PA. Our school had one of the top football teams in the nation every year. As a result of the intense focus and attention on football, most of the students didn't even know we had a wrestling team. It was confusing to them, when I would skip lunch and study hall to go run on a treadmill. No one could figure out why I carried around a cup of ice chips to snack on during the day. When they would ask me why I was doing all of this for wrestling, I would explain that I hated losing more than I hated the struggle.
College came around, I had performed well enough academically that I thought my athletic career was over. I wasn't considering any offers from DII schools because I had been accepted into a very challenging accelerated master’s degree program at a school with a DI wrestling program. A wrestling program that I didn't think was interested in me because I didn't make it out of WPIALs, and despite having an 88-14 record, I didn't break the hundred win club because I opted to wrestle on a 9th grade team in lieu of varsity. However, just a few days after graduating from high school, I received a wrestling scholarship offer via phone call from Duquesne.
I moved in to school a few weeks early and the "fun" began: 4:30am work outs, team breakfast, open mat, running, dinner, and stretch. It didn't change much during the school year either. Early work outs, team breakfast, class, run, practice, and at some point in the day you were required to go to study hall for 2 hours. It was challenging. It wasn't as fun as high school, but I hated losing. Eventually, the team was cut due to Title 9.
My story is the same as thousands of other wrestlers, and people who didn't wrestle might think that I'm saying my life got easier because I don't have to eat ice chips and run 10 miles a day anymore. Well they're incorrect. My life is getting easier because wrestling has taught me that if you are willing to run the 10 miles on Monday, the 7 minute match isn't as hard on Wednesday. I've been doing the hard things first since I started wrestling in elementary school, and now it's paying dividends. I worked my butt off in college to learn as much as I could and the finals ended up being way easier. I put thousands of miles on my truck doing sales calls and building relationships years ago and now my customers call me.
Christian Currier, 1999 NCAA Champion
OK so here is my story, I started wrestling in a very small town in Montana! My father who was an undefeated wrestler himself (of two matches) thought it would be a great energy outlet for his three young boys (and daughter even though she didn’t technically wrestle). My father got engaged in youth wrestling and when I say engage I mean ENGAGED! We jumped in and jumped in with both feet. We went from the first season of hitting small local tournaments too full blow national travelers. My father was a very hard working Union Carpenter by day and wrestling FANATIC by night. Looking back I have no clue how in the world we afforded to drive to all of the tournaments but we did rain, snow, or shine we made it to tournaments all across the country. I cant even imagine all the hours we spent wrestling as a kid. One of the highlights of my life is winning the 1984 youth team state title (Large Team) even though my town (COLSTRIP MT) was populated with 4k people or less. This really put Colstrip on the map in Montana for wrestling. This also exposed Colstrip youth wrestlers to what was out there from a competition perspective. During the Montana youth state tournament Canada had a few kids show up and compete in our state tournament and this I think it what introduced a lot of coaches to National caliber wrestling. My father saw something special in his boys and well that and the fact that we rarely lost in the state of Montana, so he decided to go where we would lose and or at the very least get more competition. Somehow my father found out about regional and national competitions and when he did we found out that Montana was certainly not the Mecca of wrestling we had originally thought. Traveling I also found guys to look up to like Bill Zadick, Reece and Darren Andy, Burke Tyree, Bobby Young, and Justin Abdue from Canada! These guys were unreal and were absolute world beaters as HS kids when I was a youth wrestler. In my humble opinion they seriously opened the flood gates for us younger guys they competed at such a high level and this gave us younger guys the inspiration and belief that we could wrestle with anyone.
So regional and national tournaments exposed us young Colstrip Colts to the wide world of wrestling. I was fortunate to have such a determined & supportive father as well as a very competitive father. My father Jon Currier Sr. believed his boys could compete and beat the best in the country. This placed me in front of guys like Eric Guerrero (current ast. Coach for OKSU). I had the incredible honor of hitting Eric in the finals of Western Regionals in Gillete Wyoming I think I was 11, he was from Guadalupe California and they had a van full of kids or atleast it seemed like there were a lot of them because they were all hammers. I beat Eric and that’s when I honestly believed that I could compete with national level talent. I got the opportunity to wrestle in and win the AAU grand nationals the next year with guys like Isaac Woods in my bracket. After being beat a few times by his brother Oscar. I even told my father for father’s day that I would beat Oscar and I would have if we would have hit J because it was my gift for my father on father’s day, well that and I was promised a snowboard if I won the tournament lol Oscar was a a handful for sure. I did get the chance in Vegas that year and was up on him like 9-0 and he came back and beat me 20-9 son of a…… LOL I always had a ton of respect for the Woods boys tough family and very respectful family. OK enough about youth wrestling it gave me a chance to see what was out there and hit some of the Nations best youth wrestlers. I learned a ton about the sport and where it could bring me!
When I started HS my dream was to be a 4X state champion 6 people had done it and Bill Zadick was next in line my freshman year. He was an absolute terror and as technical as they come. I knew if I kept my mouth shut, ears open, and worked my butt off, I could do the same thing. I worked my tail off my freshman year and cut some weight to get to the 112 lb weight class. See I wanted to be above the 98lb weight class because I had once heard someone say "if you win as a freshman at the 98lb class then it really isn’t being a 4x state champion because your only wrestling freshman anyway" which is in no way shape or form true. So I had my hands FULL at 112 with a guy names Cody Gorder (national champion for Mary NAIA) who was ranked number 1 in my weight. We hit in the finals of the state tournament and I won (even after he absolutely destroyed me in the District Finals two weeks prior). I am not sure what happened but I had nothing to lose and he had everything to lose being a senior he went out cold and I went out hot. I beat him and beat him good with a large lead I pinned him in the finals. That was the start of something special! I went on to win 4 state titles and was the 8th person ever to do it. I was elated with my HS career, I was selected to compete at the Dapper Dan Classic for team USA where I was beaten by Whitey Chlebove UHHHGGGG I was not happy with my performance nor was I prepared for mr. chlebove. He was a hell of a lot tougher than I expected J I got into some trouble and division I offers were slim pickings but I knew I wasn’t done wrestling not by a long shot.
With my options limited, Brandon Eggum and I traveled to Colorado Springs Colorado for the Junior World trials. I got hurt during the tournament but met a man that would literally save my life. Doug Moses (current head coach of New Mexico Highlands University) He was the head coach at USC (southern Colorado NCAA DII) and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I signed my letter of intent while still in Colorado and now had the opportunity to chase yet another title. A NCAA title.
I enrolled in school and a few months later showed up in Pueblo Colorado! Doug Moses was a man who had been there and done that. He was Dan Gable’s best man and he had won the Tiblisi open in Russia one of VERY FEW men from America to do so! I admired him with every ounce of my being. He also beat my like a drum when I showed up for school. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I think a part of me was done after I had accomplished my HS dream of being a 4X state champion, but I had so much left in the tank I continued. My freshman year I cut a ton of weight and had a rather disappointing season. I didn’t even qualify for the national tournament. I got third in the regional and they didn’t take freshman on wild cards even though I had beat the number one ranked guy that year. My freshman year was full of ups and downs. Mostly downs and I attribute that to the huge cut to 134. I came to college weighing around 155 and wasn’t a fat guy by any stretch I was built like gumby. I met the love of my life and got married at the ripe old age of 18. She was a huge part of me growing up and refining my goals. Anyway after a tough freshman season I decided to redshirt and get bigger which I did. I got up to 184 lbs and still wasn’t fat. I cut down during my redshirt season to 150 and had a decent redshirt season. The next year I got back to business and found something I was missing I found the fire to be number 1 again. I didn’t do what I wanted my sophomore season placing 7th at the NCAAs but I did realize I was having fun again and with my wife by my side I was starting to get focused again. I also realized I was a bit of a showboat and having a one person fan club was absolutely amazing J My wife and I put a plan together and I started working harder and harder. I made the finals of the NCAA national tournament as a junior and I was absolutely destroying my guy in the finals until he shot in and I went to chin whip which I had done a million times and “POP” I felt a huge burning sensation in my side and I couldn’t breathe, I gave up the takedown which made the score 13-3. I winced in pain as the ref stopped the match the trainer came a running. I was on the big stage in front of my home crowd I had buddies from HS and parents and in laws in the stands no way was I stopping. The trainer said you have to stop you have broken your ribs. I had a rib sticking out of my side and I told the ref I am down all I have to do is stay off my back, he said ok and said “get set” I shuttered as I got in referees position and Troy Sizdel (sp?) tight wasted as soon as the whistle blew and I let out a war hoop heard by all! The ref stopped the match and I lost a dream! I sobbed all the way to the hospital. It was the day that changed my life! I will never forget it. I got the hospital and they x-rayed only to find two broken ribs they could do nothing about. I made my way back to the tournament to receive my award. They presented awards and the entire time I was on the stand all I could think was it should be me on the top of this damn thing. Troy being a true wrestler and champion raised my hand on the NCAA Championship podium. I was honored in front of my home crowd and with tears in my eyes but I knew I had fallen short. To make a really long story a bit shorter I healed up in about 6 weeks enough to get back to work. This was IT my senior season I spent the entire summer working out with a chip on my shoulder. Nothing was going to take my title away this year! I spent countless hours working in the wrestling room and on the road and where ever and whenever I could get a work out in. I was absolutely determined for the first time since I had gotten to college. My wife bless her soul supported me and was my absolute ROCK! She made everything possible for me, see she had already graduated and this was my 5th year in college and I was purely focused on wrestling and my wrestling dream and so was she! During that summer I had heard some rumblings of a guy transferring to Carson Newman in TN. His name was Lazaro Reinoso he was from Cuba and had beaten John Smith (one of my heros) in the Olympics. I had to assume he would be my weight but it didn’t matter like a true wrestler I felt sorry for him because it was my title he was not getting it! Once again I had the incredible opportunity to wrestle one of the best in the world, the first time we met was at the national duals. I had never in my life wrestled a guy so explosive and technical. I was a technical wrestler and he had an answer for everything I threw at him. I thought I would ride the piss out of him and turn him because he was a freestyler and I was now a NCAA wrestler. Well I was wrong he got away and we went into double OT. He came away with the win and I went back to the drawing boards. Now for the first time in the season I was worried. I felt like God had threw me a insurmountable problem and I was yet again going to have to settle for second place. I refused to let this stop me, I worked harder and focused more on my feet. It was my destiny to win a NCAA title. I made it through the rest of the season healthy and having fun. I had beaten most people handily until I made it to the semi finals of the NCAA tournament. I faced an opponent I respected immensely he was from Pitt Johnstown, his name was Isaac Greeley, he wrestled just like me. I had watched him the year prior and thought thank goodness he at 134 because he would give me fits. I knew it would be a tough match but I had no idea how tough. We went into overtime and he did everything right and should have won the match he should have had his hand raised but I didn’t stop wrestling he was in deep on a takedown and I did enough moving to confuse the ref and no two was given. I made it out of the takedown and somehow scored on Isaac to win the match. I still to this day feel in my heart that Isaac won that match and should have gotten the opportunity to wrestle Lazaro in the finals. I had to overcome the fact I should have lost in my semi final match (so sorry Isaac) and wrestle in the finals. The feeling is something I will never forget, before the finals match the nerves and overwhelming excitement got to me. I had tears in my eyes as they called my name to the raised mat. I knew this was my final match. I knew that this was IT! I had trained and prepared since I was 4 years old for this moment. This was my last opportunity to impress a man I idolized, this was a chance to make my father happy, my mother my wife and my mother and father inlaw were in the stands. This was in Omaha Nebraska and was my last dance. I had never in all my years felt the way I felt for this match. It was an absolute rush, it was like I was wrestling for every person who had ever helped me during my 18 years in the sport. Across from me was a bronze medalist in the Olympics a man born to do the sport, who had been trained by some of the worlds best coaches, a man who had represented his country and laid his life on the line for the sport of wrestling. But the title was mine I didn’t question it. I knew God was in my heart and I knew I had nothing to lose. I had done everything in my power to get me here and I knew win, lose or draw the people who loved me would still love me in the end.
The match started, we were both conservative and the first period was boring (not to us but to the fans). Lazaro was beating me through the second period scoring two or three takedowns. I was behind by 5 points I believe in the third period and I didn’t panic, I had a feeling I would come out on top, so I stayed patient. I looked over at the clock with 27 seconds left and thought crap I am going to have to do something big. Lazaro was tired and I could feel a difference in his wrestling. He had a relatively big lead but had been hit for stalling we both had. So in order to avoid being hit again he took a lazy shot to hold on and run the clock down. When he shot he kept his elbows high and his hips were placed over his feet he had no support behind him, I threaded my arms under his when he had shot his double. I blew up, with every ounce of strength I had in my body I took off running my feet he started fading backward and I turned the corner and as I turned the corner I moved one arm from under his arm to around his head and neck. As I moved my arm to his neck the other arm was lifted high to take him over using his high arm. I drove as hard as I could until he exposed his back. I squeezed with every ounce of strength and held him on his back, the clock meanwhile was at 8 seconds when he hit his back, I knew I was down on points so in my mind I had to pin for the win. I heard the ref move around my head to get a better angle on the pin and I heard the whistle blow. I had won, I had done the impossible, I had beaten the unbeatable, I had realized my dream, I got to stand on the podium on the very top of the podium. Even though this match was probably one of my worst technical matches in my college career I had won and in my heart the only reason I won that day is because I never stopped believing I would win. Even after getting my ass kicked for three periods I felt I could win. Even though he was the better wrestler that day I had the bigger heart. I was a national champion. From Colstrip Montana, from the Currier Clan I was a national champion.
Now one would think this is the end of the story right, well I am here to tell you this is only the beginning. After my focus was redirected from wrestling to life I earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and have focused on my family whom I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the sport of wrestling. With a wife I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the sport of wrestling, with a degree I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the sport of wrestling. This sport has not only given me everything I have today it has defined me as a man. Through the years I have travelled across America in a 1960something motorhome, I have been to Russia for 5 weeks, I have met the world’s most amazing people and have had the incredible opportunity to pass the love on to my son for this sport. I continue to follow the sport of wrestling and man do I miss it! I honestly think it was harder to stop wrestling and competing than anything else I have ever done! Not being the center of attention and not being in the spot light was hard, so hard in fact I searched in all the wrong places for attention. I have had to deal with emotions and feelings that I had no idea were going to be there, but again long story short the sport of wrestling created me as a man and saved me as a man and most importantly showed me how to be a servant to God and to the sport that has showed me so much about life. I thank you Wrestling for providing me the most important things in life: my entire wrestling family an amazing wife, an unbelievable son and absolutely wonderful daughter! Thank you wrestling for given me a life that no other sport could have!