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Wrestler for Life Story of the Week: How an outsider came to love wrestling

By Wrestler for Life/USA Wrestling | June 11, 2020, 8:26 a.m. (ET)

Photo of Jake Aferiat at the 2020 Big Ten Championships

USA Wrestling’s “Wrestler for Life” program has started accepting submissions for “The Story of the Week”. It can be about anything wrestling related, whether it’s a particular wrestling match you’ll never forget, or a life lesson that the sport taught you. If your story is chosen, it will be featured on TheMat.com, and winners will receive a pair of USA Wrestling socks.

Send your submissions to: Wrestlerforlife@usawrestling.org.

This week's submission is by Jake Aferiat

I'll admit it. I had no idea that there was wrestling beyond WWE (which I never really watched or got into) until around my junior year of high school. My high school always had a wrestling team, and I knew it existed and the coach, Tom Gallione, was one of my favorite gym teachers, but beyond that, I knew nothing about the sport.

Maybe you've gleaned this from just reading that first paragraph, but I've never stepped foot on a wrestling mat even once. And despite all that, covering and reporting on the sport of wrestling has opened so many doors for me and has had a profound impact on my life.

I was always a pretty mediocre athlete. I knew early on I wouldn't have a career in sports but always wanted to be around them, so I figured writing about them would be the next best thing. I was right.

So how did a kid who knew squat about wrestling and still to this day has never tried to perform a takedown or an inside trip or any other move in the book get into covering it? It all goes back to high school. I joined my high school paper my sophomore year and my longtime mentor and former adviser Bill Rawson was a former journalist who covered high school wrestling in New Jersey.

Eventually being around him rubbed off on me to the point where I had apparently turned enough heads covering high school football and other sports that I parlayed all of that into an internship with NJ.com and another longtime mentor Pat Lanni. I shadowed Pat for high school football season, but it was in shadowing him covering wrestling where I think I learned the most.

I really grew to appreciate the sport and the simplicity of it being so individual yet so team oriented simultaneously. I grew to appreciate how seemingly anyone could be successful from a 113-pounder to a heavyweight, there was such parity, and it was unlike any sport I'd seen. I also grew to appreciate the people affiliated with the sport who seemed to me to be more salt-of-the-earth than any athletes I had dealt with previously.

I also remember when the scoring at duals and at tournaments was explained to me and my head was spinning. I thought there's no way I was going to remember it all. Thankfully I did. Because again, without covering the sport of wrestling I'd never have the opportunities I've been given.

As a kid, I always watched ESPN and saw Adam Schefter or Adrian Wojnarowski breaking NFL or NBA news and thought about how cool it'd be to be "the guy" for a sport — I just never envisioned that I'd be one of "the guys" for a niche sport and a major wrestling team as a college student.

I've covered Penn State wrestling for each of the last three years with Penn State's student paper The Daily Collegian. I've written hundreds of articles on seemingly every topic. I've broken news like Anthony Cassar's senior season being cut short or Penn State being announced as the site of next year's Big Ten tournament. I've written much longer, in-depth features and profiles about the worst team in Penn State history, a detailed look at the funding of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and the arms race that creates and chronicled David Taylor's road back from a torn ACL only to win a Pan-Am title 10 months later, to name a few.

But no story tested me more as a journalist or a person than a story I did this past February examining race as it relates to wrestling. I never would've thought in a million years that I'd write about race or that wrestling would be the conduit to me writing about it or even that I could necessarily do it justice. I was so nervous about messing up and questioned if I, a white kid from suburban New Jersey, was really the right person to examine this topic. But in talking to people like Ed Ruth, Kerry McCoy and Kevin Jackson, I quickly learned what it took to report on such an important issue and to do right by them.

That brings me to another point — at Penn State, football reigns supreme. And while wrestling is a close second in terms of popularity, my time at Penn State has become so shaped by wrestling it's hard to separate. I'd spend so many weekends up on press row in Rec Hall and then I'd go home, write another story and then spend part of my weekend either transcribing audio or planning a longer feature.

So while many of my friends and colleagues who cover Penn State sports revel at a chance to cover Saquon Barkley, I always thought it was so cool to be able to cover an Olympic champion like Cael Sanderson. I mean how many journalists, be they professional or in college, get to cover athletes with such impressive resumes on a routine basis?

I've spent hours on the road to document and report on Penn State's rise, what makes the Nittany Lions tick and to try to give readers as much of an inside look as I can. I've traveled to places as close as Bucknell or Columbus for a dual meets, I've traveled to East Lansing and Piscatway for Big Ten tournaments, I've been to Pittsburgh for the NCAA Tournament and I even traveled two hours from Penn State's campus to go to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to watch and report on a six-minute match that led to Zain Retherford winning his wrestle off at 65 kg against Yianni Diakomihalis.

I've been fortunate in my time at Penn State to have made the connections I have and to have the sources I do and that I can call on some of this sport's most iconic wrestlers or coaches and be confident I can get a response for a story. I'm fortunate enough to have covered some of this sport's top events year-in and year-out. I'm also fortunate to have met and interacted with fellow journalists and fans who love such a niche sport as much as I do.

I don't know what's next for me in my journalistic pursuits, but I know for a fact I wouldn't be where I am today and know I wouldn't have success in the future if not for the sport of wrestling, the people that follow it and the opportunities it's provided to me — a relative outsider — to be embraced by a passionate community. I owe it all to wrestling.