Wrestling's life's lessons: Former college athlete shares passion for wrestling with Fort Drum youth
March 20, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When he was 4 years old, Joshua Herzig's grandmother brought him, along with an older brother, to Copenhagen Pee Wee Wrestling in Copenhagen, N.Y. From that moment, wrestling would be a significant part of his life for the next 25 years. The following year, his father enrolled them in the Lowville Wrestling Club, the organization that would develop them through high school.
"I didn't go to my first tournament until I was 7," Herzig said. "I think I placed eighth; I got a pink ribbon."
Herzig excelled in the sport throughout high school, and because of that, he was able to wrestle competitively in college. But it was the education he received from Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., that Herzig values the most, and as the founder and head coach of the Fort Drum youth wrestling program, he does not miss an opportunity to encourage young athletes to strive academically as well as athletically.
"I try to stress the importance of getting a college education to kids, given the estimation that 99 percent of kids will do something else other than professional sports when they grow up," he said. "For a wrestler, there are few opportunities to compete professionally. One needs to have something to fall back onto. "
At age 8, Herzig won his first trophy. It was during this time that competing against a visually impaired opponent not only exposed him to a new style of wrestling -- matches involving a visually impaired wrestler requires each competitor to start by placing their hands on their opponent's hands and remain in contact at all times -- but nurtured compassion for others and an appreciation for people with disabilities.
"One weekend he would win; the next weekend I would win," he said. "People with disabilities can be just as successful as someone without disabilities."
Beginning in the fourth grade, Herzig served as manager of the high school wrestling team where he was able to observe the commitment and hard work required to compete at that level. After passing the required maturity test in the seventh grade, he was able to begin competing with the varsity squad.
Herzig earned a starting spot as a freshman, where he went 38-6 and won the Frontier League at 119 pounds. During his sophomore year, he moved up to 130 pounds, defended his Frontier League title and placed third in Section III. En route to compiling a 40-3 record, he helped his team win the Section III team title. Herzig wrestled 130 pounds during his junior season as well. He finished 43-4, won his third Frontier League title, and led his team in defending its Frontier League and Section III titles.
"I was ranked fifth in the state," he said of his junior season. "In the semifinals, I wrestled a kid who was ranked seventh in the nation and pinned him in overtime. I lost to a kid from Long Island in the finals. He went on to be a two-time college All-American."
Wrestling took Herzig to places such as Michigan and Pennsylvania between his junior and senior seasons. He was an Eastern National runner-up and went to Florida as part of an All-Star team.
During his senior year, he wrestled at 135 pounds, he was ranked 15th in the nation and went 43-3. He was ranked No. 1 in the state most of the year and was the first wrestler from Lowville, N.Y., to win four Frontier League titles. He won the Section III title as well.
"I advanced to the State Tournament finals," he said. "I was winning 3-2 in the second period and got pancaked, went to my back and got pinned."
At the culmination of his high school wrestling career, Herzig broke the Lowville Academy High School record for career wins, previously held by his brother, Jake, with a 190-34 record. Josh and Jake do just about everything together, from hunting to coaching youth wrestling. Jake competed two years at Morrisville State College in New York during which he was a two-time national tournament qualifier.
"My family has always been a big factor in why I was so successful for so many years," Herzig said. "I believe they are a major reason for everything good that has come to me."
Recruited by several Division I schools, Herzig chose to attend Ithaca College, which boasted a program that has consistently finished in the top 10 nationally. Herzig found that college wrestling was quite a bit different from high school wrestling.
"In college wrestling, everyone is as good as you, if not better," he said. "These were your workout partners day in and day out. We came from the same backgrounds; we were all state placers and state champs."
Herzig redshirted his first season and wrestled well, going 4-2 in an open tournament against Division I opponents at 149 pounds. As a redshirt freshman, he went 12-8. After a 5-3 start to his redshirt sophomore season, Herzig decided he needed a break and stepped away from the sport.
"It was a big mistake," he said, "but it helped me understand and realize what wrestling meant to me."
Returning to the mat for his redshirt junior season, Herzig placed sixth at a prestigious Division I tournament but suffered a muscle tear of his obliques. His season ended with an 11-4 record and a No. 2 ranking in the conference.
"In high school, you have a whole town on your side," Herzig added. "In college, you're on your own. In high school, your teammates are like brothers. In college, they're out to take your starting spot."
In his final year of college, Herzig had to make a difficult decision. In order to graduate on time, he had to complete a required internship. He would have to miss his last year of collegiate wrestling. As difficult as it was to miss that season, he knew it was the right thing to do.
"I had to make a decision to quit wrestling or quit my education," he said. "I chose to quit wrestling and complete my internship required for graduation. It needed to be done in order to graduate."
Herzig completed his internship at Robert H. Treman State Park a few miles outside Ithaca. He graduated in May 2007 knowing the importance wrestling had on his development as a person.
"I got a great education from a great school, and it was wrestling (that) got me into a great school," he said. "Wrestling in college taught me to be independent and gave me an appreciation for how important my family is to me. I have also made a lot of new friends (and) made new connections through college."
After college, Herzig returned to his hometown, where he was hired by a local construction company and worked on water and sewer lines. After two years, he was laid off in 2008 and decided to search for something for which he went to school.
In 2009, he was hired as a child youth program associate at Fort Drum Child, Youth and School Services. After about two years, Herzig was hired to be their facility and equipment manager, a position he has held for nearly three years.
"When I came to my job interview, Jon, my boss, … asked me what I would bring," Herzig said. "Fort Drum didn't have a wrestling program. If I was hired, I would try my best to form a wrestling program. We are required to do a special project every year, and so creating the wrestling program was my first special project. We started the program in 2010, and we're now in our fourth year."
The program has grown from 17 children ages 4 to 12 the first year to nearly 50 last year. Due to the popularity of the program, Herzig decided to divide the kids into two groups -- 5- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 12-year-olds -- because of the difference in teaching younger kids and older kids.
"When it comes to coaching wrestling, Josh shows a lot of patience, especially with the less experienced kids," said Jon M. Burnard, sports fitness director, Fort Drum Child, Youth and School Services. "He breaks it down to their level. He always encourages them to reach their potential."
Wrestling is a big part of the North Country community. Learning that Fort Drum had an extensive youth sports program but no wrestling program, Herzig knew what he could bring to his new organization.
"It's a big part of my life, and I wanted to pass it on to the younger generation," Herzig said. "It's a great way for kids to get aggression out, let a little bit of craziness out.
"It teaches a lot of life lessons," he continued. "It makes you respect things you have and don't have. It goes hand and hand with a job. You get what you put into it. I give 100 percent, just like what I did in wrestling. When things aren't going well, you fight on."