Grandmother's influence paves way for Joe Heskett to excel on and off the mat
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
This story originally ran in the June issue of USA Wrestler
Joe Heskett never knew his father.
His mother fell into the grasp of drugs and alcohol, and died when her son was just 10 years old.
It would have been so easy for Heskett to follow the wrong path.
But Evelyn Nye, Heskett’s grandmother, was not about to let that happen. Even after her daughter was unable to raise Heskett.
Nye stepped in and saved young Joe Heskett’s life. She raised him virtually from the time he was born. She provided the guidance that helped steer him down the right path. Nye served as mother, father and grandmother to Heskett and his younger brother Jayson.
“My grandmother taught me everything – discipline, sacrifice, love, loyalty and unselfishness,” Heskett said. “I am the way I am 100 percent because of her. I have her values instilled in me and those will never be uncompromised. She definitely did it all right.
“You can’t really put into words what she’s meant to me. Hugs and ‘I love yous’ are not enough. She is an amazing person.”
It is only fitting that Heskett’s 68-year-old grandmother will be in attendance when Heskett tries to take the biggest step in his wrestling career. Heskett will attempt to make his first U.S. World Team during the U.S. World Team Trials on June 9-10 in Las Vegas.
The 28-year-old Heskett will take the No. 1 seed into the Trials at 74 kg/163 lbs. in freestyle after winning his first U.S. Nationals title on April 7 in Las Vegas.
Heskett’s story is remarkable, heartwarming and inspiring. He has excelled on and off the mat.
He was a three-time Ohio state champion for Walsh-Jesuit High School. He was a four-time All-American and three-time NCAA finalist at Iowa State. He won an NCAA title in his final match for the Cyclones in 2002.
He earned his master’s degree in educational leadership with an emphasis on athletic administration from Cal Poly.
Even more impressive is that Heskett has never had a drink in his life. He’s never smoked a cigarette. He’s never done drugs.
“I will always hold to that – it’s as easy doing that as it is telling my kids I love them,” Heskett said. “I learned from my mother’s downfalls and I was determined not to let that happen to me.”
Heskett also has a beautiful young family. He and his wife, Tara, have a 2-year-old daughter Olivia and a six-month-old daughter Ava. Joe is now a volunteer assistant coach at Ohio State.
“I truly believe there is a gene inside of me that could be my downfall if I ever picked up a beer or used drugs,” Heskett said. “To know that could be carried on to my kids is scary. My job as a parent is to educate my children every day and hopefully my wife and I will do our best to raise them.”
The success story Heskett has become is impressive when you consider where he came from. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, and developed an early love for wrestling.
“It was a difficult childhood for Joseph,” Nye said. “It was difficult for him to understand what was going on with his parents because he was so young. Explanations don’t mean much when you’re that young. Joseph has always been very mature, ever since he was a young kid. He never missed curfew and he always was very responsible.”
Nye made plenty of sacrifices for her grandson. They would hop in the car and drive more than an hour away so Heskett could wrestle in a top kids wrestling club. While his grandmother drove, Heskett sat in the backseat doing his homework.
“My grandmother put me in an environment where I could develop and excel in wrestling and in life,” Heskett said. “I was very blessed. She is an angel – she’s the greatest.”
When Heskett chose to attend college at Iowa State, Nye was at most of the meets. She would make the long drive from Ohio and travel across several states on I-80 to be there for her grandson.
Nye said she was adamant about making sure Heskett had his priorities straight while growing up.
“Joseph truly loves wrestling and it was always something that was extremely special for him,” Nye said. “But I always stressed that education was the most important thing. His grades were always good. He never got below a B. I am proud of his academics. He has his master’s degree and was an Academic All-American all four years at Iowa State.”
Heskett has found another inspirational person in his wife.
“My wife is just spectacular,” Heskett said. “It’s hard to put into words how much she truly does for me and our family. She’s a great individual. She is special.”
Heskett will try to win a tough 163-pound class at the World Team Trials that includes long-time rival Donny Pritzlaff, a 2006 World bronze medalist who beat Heskett twice in the NCAA finals. Pritzlaff was upset at the U.S. Nationals by Casey Cunningham, a past World Team Trials runner-up who fell to Heskett in the U.S. Nationals finals in April.
The winner of the World Team Trials qualifies for September’s World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
“Winning U.S. Nationals was a positive step, but only a small step toward the big picture,” Heskett said. “Winning U.S. Nationals doesn’t put you on a World Team. My job is not even close to being done with. My weight class is very, very deep with a lot of guys who are very, very talented. All the guys in this class are outstanding. It will never be easy in this weight class – ever.”
Heskett, who competes for the Gator Wrestling Club, placed second at the 2003 World Team Trials and 2004 Olympic Team Trials. He was third in the 2001 and 2006 World Team Trials.
“I’ve been close a number of times, but being the competitor that I am I want to win whether I was close in the past or not,” he said. “I don’t do this for recreation. I do this because I want to be the best.”
USA Wrestling National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson said he is impressed with Heskett’s progression up the ladder.
“Joe is sitting in his best situation possible to make the team,” Jackson said. “He has consistently moved up the weight class to the No. 1 spot. (Past World medalist) Joe Williams was a tough matchup for him in the past, but with Williams moving up to 84 kilos Heskett understands the position he is in. He has a ton of international competitions over the last few years and he’s confident he can medal if he makes the team.”
Heskett plans to compete at least through next year as he shoots for a spot at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
“After 2008, I will evaluate it,” he said. “I love competing and I love wrestling. I will take it year-by-year after 2008.”
Heskett said he is enjoying his role as an assistant coach at Ohio State. He just completed his first season with the Buckeyes.
“I think the sky is the limit with this program,” he said. “Tom Ryan was a great hire – he’s a great coach and a great person. Our whole coaching staff is very motivated to have success here. We are really excited about next season. We return 9 of 10 starters and four All-Americans.”
Heskett’s own wrestling also has benefited with the help of Ryan and Ohio State assistant coach Lou Rosselli, a past Olympian.
“My training environment is really good,” Heskett said. “Having Lou Rosselli and Tom Ryan in my corner has been a very positive step. My training has been very consistent under those guys the last 10 months.”
Heskett is not the only Ohio State assistant coach trying to make his first World Team. OSU assistant coach Tommy Rowlands also won the U.S. Nationals. He will be the top seed for the World Team Trials at 120 kg/264.5 lbs.
“When both of us won U.S. Nationals, knowing how much time we’ve put in and how many draining practices we’ve put it in, it was among the top feelings I’ve ever had in wrestling,” Heskett said. “It was a lot of fun to share that experience with Tommy and it would be great if we could do it again at the (World Team) Trials. Tommy and I are real good friends. How can you not love Tommy Rowlands? He’s one of the greatest individuals you will ever meet. He is a phenomenal person, he is very intelligent and he is very caring. He’s a great guy to be around.”
Training alongside a guy like Heskett, a fellow Ohio native, also has helped Rowlands.
“Joe and I have a great relationship,” Rowlands said. “We both are aiming for the same thing. International wrestling is a lonely road. In college, you live with your teammates and best friends. It’s nice to have at least one person around that shares the same dreams and lifestyle as me.”
Being back home in his native Ohio, after attending college in Iowa and being an assistant coach in California at Cal Poly, also has made a difference for Heskett.
“This is home and this is where I’m most comfortable,” Heskett said. “It’s been great to come back home to Ohio. I’m close to my grandmother again and it’s just a short drive from Columbus to Akron for me to see her. I’m excited to be back home again.”
Nye said it was “very, very exciting” seeing her grandson win his first U.S. Nationals title last month.
“I still get nervous watching him and I’m sure it will be the same way at the Trials,” she said. “I am real hopeful he will do well at the Trials. I’m partial of course, but Joe’s just a wonderful person who has worked so hard. He has put in so much time and sacrifice.”
Just like his grandmother did for him.
“To win the Trials with her there in Vegas, it is hard to describe what that would be like,” Heskett said. “To see her face and her reaction after a big win, it just takes my breath away. She loves me the same, win or lose. But to win something like that for myself and for her, after all we’ve been through, that would be pretty amazing.”