The Strange Journey of Jojo Garcia

By Brian Jerzak

It has been a strange, sad journey for former Minnesota Gophers' football recruit and one-time possible Gophers wrestler Jovanny "Jojo" Garcia. As a freshman, he was one of the top Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestlers in his age group in the state. As a senior he is hoping to wrestle for the Simley Spartans.

As a sophomore and a junior Garcia was one of the top football recruits in the state. He played defensive tackle for two years for the East Ridge Raptors and nearly helped his team to a state championship. Although he has not wrestled a varsity match, he is active with the Minnesota Storm.

One of the best football players in the state – even though he has not played in a year – Garcia feels wrestling was invaluable to his football success.

"Wrestling has been my sport since I was four years old. My hips are strong. Pretty much everything a defensive tackle needs to know with hand techniques I have gotten it all from wrestling."

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Wrestling is a Family Affair

By Brian Jerzak

From a very young age, Marty Morgan has been involved in some aspect of wrestling. From youth wrestling, through his time as the Minnesota Gophers' head wrestling assistant, and beyond, Morgan has been involved in the sport. Wrestling has always been a big influence on his life. It has had almost as much influence as his family. For Morgan, wrestling has always been – and always will be – a family affair.

"My three oldest brothers were all professional boxers, and my dad ended up switching to wrestling. Three of us, the younger brothers – we had six boys total – the three younger ones, we all switched into wrestling. I just followed my brothers who were older than me. We were at Kennedy High School, which was a strong program in the early 80’s in which we were state champions twice. My brothers both went on to become college All-Americans and were both on the Olympic team. I had some good mentors right in my own house."

Morgan was a very good high school wrestler, but could never get over the hump and become a state champion. After he got into college Morgan got over the hump. He won two national championships – one with (at the time) Division II North Dakota State and one with Minnesota.

"When I got to college I became an NCAA champion which is probably my number one athletic moment."

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Messages From The Mat to The Gridiron

By Brian Jerzak

One thing I have learned while covering both wrestling and football – coaches in both sports feel the two disciplines complement each other in ways that improve the athlete in both sports. Wrestling coaches routinely look to the football field each fall to find diamonds in the rough to add depth or fill a hole, especially in the upper weights. Football coaches, on the other hand, often encourage their athletes to wrestle because of the many crossover skills associated with each sport. One of the many football coaches who have used wrestling to help his football career is the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer.

Although wrestling was not his first choice, the Illinois native quickly found a home on the mat.

“When I was in sixth grade I went out for the basketball team and did not make it,” said Zimmer. “My dad said ‘why don’t you come over to the high school and wrestle after school.’ That is pretty much when I started wrestling. I would walk down to the high school after school and wrestle with the freshmen.”

Zimmer had success right away.

“When I was in sixth grade, I was beating freshmen, so I thought I was pretty good at it.”

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Plastic Trophies to Olympic Medals

By Brian Jerzak

There never has been much doubt in the mind of St. Michael-Albertville wrestler Mitchell McKee. He had a pretty good idea what he wanted to do at a young age. Most kids have an idea of what they want to do when they get older, but few have the talent and drive of a guy like McKee. From the day he invited his friend over for a play date in kindergarten, Mitchell McKee knew he wanted to be a wrestler.

McKee’s goals are much higher now than they were when he invited his friend over for a weekend play date, but big goals always have to start small.

“I invited (Mound Westonka senior) Lee Schmalz over, but his dad said he had a wrestling tournament first,” recalled McKee. “He came over afterward and he brought his trophy with him. Once I saw the trophy I knew I wanted to wrestle. I started that next Tuesday.”

When he had success at his first national tournaments, McKee knew he had a chance to get to an elite level. Watching others succeed heightened his drive.

“I started watching all the Division I championships and when Jake Deitchler was an Olympian I wanted to do that. Just seeing it first hand – as a wrestler – I wanted to do the same thing.”

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Turning Dreams Into Reality – Joe Russell

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.

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Brotherly Advice – Nathan Rose

By Brian Jerzak

As a young kid he didn’t even want to wrestle. Now he is preparing for his senior season and a run at a third straight state championship. Sibley East 195 pounder, Nathan Rose, went from nervous about even participating in the sport to one of the best high school wrestlers, not only in Minnesota, but in the nation.

“My brothers both wrestled, but I didn’t want to,” said Rose. “I thought I was going to hurt somebody. I thought it was like WWE, but they talked me into it one year.”

Rose, who started wrestling in kindergarten, had success right away. His first year he was second in the NYWA, then two years later he started a run of three straight titles.

“When I was young I only lost a handful of times.”

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The Transfer Debate – Many Shades of Gray

By Brian Jerzak

Two years ago I had a few conversations with The Guillotine brass about doing this story. I am not ashamed to admit it, but I chickened out. Even as I am writing this I don’t know if I am going to let this get into print. When I was trying to come up with an angle, I realized that part of the reason I was interested in doing the story this time around was I didn’t know much about it. I wanted to know what I didn’t know. I would guess a number of high school sports fans are in the same boat. They hear rumors and think they know, but like me, probably don’t.

My intentions are not to single out any one program, coach, athlete, or as I found out – athletic director. My intentions are to show both perspectives and let the reader decide. I did go into the story with a personal bias, but by the time I got done interviewing a number of people not only in wrestling, but other sports, as well as the media, I got frustrated because I realized I could see both sides of the debate. I was hoping for an issue that was black and white, but in the world of high school transfers there is a whole lot of gray.

One quick disclaimer - while doing research I talked to five current wrestling coaches, two retired wrestling coaches, a boy’s basketball coach, a girl’s basketball coach and a member of the media who covers high school sports mainly in the metro area. Some of the coaches were fine with me using their names for this story and some asked to remain anonymous. Because of the sensitive nature of the story I decided to leave almost everyone anonymous. I also tried to contact the Minnesota State High School League multiple times and did not receive a response.

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28 days that will change your life

J Robinson Intensive Wrestling Camps

By Brian Jerzak

The temperature was over ninety degrees in late July. Wrestlers from around the country were engaged in one-on-one live wrestling. Not more than ten minutes passed and everyone on the mat was drenched in sweat, but they pressed on. At 15 minutes the whistle blew, the action stopped and each wrestler found his individually labeled water bottle for a two minute water break. After the two minute break the whistle blew again and the paired off wrestlers began again, this time for ten minutes. The intensity of the wrestling didn’t slow down as time went on. None of the wrestlers wanted to be responsible for making the group do 50 yard bear crawls or push-ups because he was not pulling his weight. Ten physically draining minutes pass and the whistle blows again. Two minutes of water and rest before the next whistle. Five minutes, break, five minutes, break, ten minutes, break, and finally one more grueling 15 minute live wrestling session.

After the final 15 minute session, the camp leader, who had been observing the action from the side, gathers up the sweat drenched wrestlers. He summarizes an earlier session the wrestlers had with a group of Navy SEALS giving them the collective group results of the swimming test the SEALS put them through. He then moves on to the final day’s workouts. He asked the wrestlers how many of them are worried about the 15 mile run that laid ahead of them the next and last day of the camp. About half of the wrestlers raised their hands. Then he asked how many of them think they can run seven and a half miles. Every one of the wrestlers’ hands went up. “All you have to do then,” the coach said, “is turn around and run back.”

I asked Ed Henry, a wrestler from Michigan who was preparing for his senior year of high school and was back for his third straight year at the camp, why he puts himself through this. I mentioned there must be a hundred wrestling camps he could choose, why choose this camp?

“Here you have no distractions. It is all about wrestling. Before my first year coming here, I was 18-32. After coming here one year I was 32-18. It (his big turn around) was all because of this camp. It gave me the confidence I needed to compete against the top guys. After wrestling with (among others) Cole Konrad and Rulan Gardner, I knew I could handle any wrestling situation I would get into.”

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