By Brian Jerzak
Former Minnesota Gophers’ wrestler and assistant coach Joe Russell has seen the extreme highs and lows that wrestling and life have to offer. His wrestling life has been a series of dreams and realities. Although personally not his greatest challenge, after helping to build Minnesota into a national power, Russell took a leap of faith four years ago and took over a struggling George Mason wrestling program. Like Russell’s career, when he talks to prospective George Mason recruits he alternates between showing young men his dreams for the Patriots’ program, but also the realities.
Russell’s father was a high school wrestling coach in Idaho before the family moved to Oregon, so the future Gopher was exposed to the sport right away. He started competing as a four-year-old. He had some success early, but when Russell and his older brother were exposed to television – things changed.
“My dad didn’t think kids should watch TV – we didn’t have a TV in the house. Before the Olympics in 1976 when I was eight years old he bought a TV so we could watch the Olympics. I got to watch Jon and Ben Peterson wrestle. My brother and I wanted to be like the Peterson brothers. We told our dad we wanted to do what the Peterson brothers did. Fortunately, our dad took it seriously. He set us down and explained to us what it would take to get to that level, and we still wanted to do it.”
The dream was in place. The Russell brothers wrestling ramped up from there. Within a few years, they were wrestling year-round. Joe started to have success at a national level and by the time he was a junior in high school, he was one of the most highly coveted high school wrestlers in the nation.
That summer reality came crashing down on Russell and changed the course of his life forever.