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Katz: A journey to the center of the sport

Jason Katz

1/31/2013
Jason Katz, Special to InterMat
jason.katz@mlb.com

If you asked me four years ago what I thought about wrestling, I would've told you I grew up watching Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Savage in the '80s and that I didn't know it was fake until I was 10. I've learned now what most outsiders don't understand -- that wrestling is as intense and mentally challenging a sport as there is -- and that it's a fantastic community that has opened its doors to this outsider and made my life the better for it. I take immense pride in the fact that I've been embraced by so many on the inside.

I grew up an athlete, and most of my life has been centered around sports for as long as I can remember. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey -- you name it, I loved it and played it. I was good, but not great, and one of my regrets is that I didn't really figure out the mental side of sports until I was in college. I'd wanted to go to the University of Michigan since I was 8 years old and since they weren't looking for 5'8" guards who were average shooters, my 'official' athletic career was over. But I loved competition, so for the next decade, I still played in as many leagues as I could, first in college and then back home in New York City.

I've been asked by a bunch of people inside and outside the sport how I got involved with wrestling. Here's the (long) answer: Every summer growing up I went to a sports camp in upstate New York, first as a camper then as a counselor. One of my passions as I got older has been working with high school and eventually college athletes and trying to help them in sports and in life. My camp was the place that taught me a lot about mentoring others. I was lucky enough to have counselors who were like big brothers to me growing up, and they helped me grow as an athlete and a person. I've been trying to pay it forward ever since.

In my early 20s I got really into lifting and would always work with the kids I knew who needed help or advice. Anyone who knows me knows that when I do something I'm passionate about: I'm all in. So when it became lifting, I tried to learn as much about it as possible. When I graduated from Michigan, I got a job working for Major League Baseball Productions, a job I'm at to this day. For a kid who grew up a sports fanatic, it doesn't get much better than traveling around the country producing TV shows, roaming around the field and clubhouse and hanging out with pro athletes, many of whom I now call friends. My first few years at MLB, I would try and train some of my kids in the gym -- football players, basketball players, martial artists, you name it -- around the Tri State Area when possible, but I was focusing on my job and getting myself in the gym.

It wasn't until my body broke down and I wasn't able to do what I wanted to physically that I realized that a big part of my life had been missing the previous few years, and so I got back into putting others through workouts with the challenge in my head that I'd help kids be better than I was and teach them what I wish I'd known when I was in high school.

By this time, I'd gotten into sports psychology and really focused my workout on the mental side as much as the physical. The workout wasn't anything complicated -- it was basically a challenge to see how far someone was willing to push themselves, and my job was to help them get to and past their breaking points. I had one kid who always did better than the rest as far as pushing himself and getting through the workout where others couldn't. I asked him one day how he handled the workout better than the other kids, out of curiosity but not necessarily expecting a meaningful response. His answer changed a lot about my life and sucked me into a world that has made me many friends and taught me about a great sport. It was simple, but prophetic: "J, you're working with the wrong kids. I can get through this better because I'm a wrestler."

He told me I should put some of his wrestling friends through the workout, and I did. The difference in mentality was amazing. Here were 135-pound kids who didn't look like much, making guys I'd trained who looked like Greek Gods and benched houses seem like grade schoolers mentally, fighting through with a mental toughness that was simply different than what I'd seen in most other athletes. There are kids in other sports who have this mentality and have supreme mental and physical toughness. It's not unique to wrestling. But as I've now found out through my experiences, it's far more prevalent in wrestlers than any other athletes. I decided to learn more about this sport I knew nothing about.

One thing I learned pretty quickly is that if you're a really good wrestler, you know a lot of other really good wrestlers. Not in your town or your county or your state, as it is in other sports in high school, but in the COUNTRY. The sense of community is pretty amazing, and it wouldn't exist without the sacrifice a lot of wrestling parents make, driving their kids all over the country to get the best competition -- just one of the many things that makes the wrestling family special.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to travel a lot, and once I got the "I need to tap into the wrestling mentality" bug, I decided that I'd try and find someone to put through my workout whenever I was on the road. One of the first nationally ranked high school kids I worked out was Tanner Eitel, who now wrestles at the University of North Carolina, down in Texas when I was working with the Rangers a few years ago. I stayed in touch with him and his family and when they came north to the Final Four Duals in Easton, Pennsylvania (not too far from my NYC home), I decided to show up and support his Bishop Lynch squad.

By that point I'd watched some matches online and talked to a bunch of kids and their parents about the sport. But until you see it live, you don't really understand what's at stake. Sure, a batter and a pitcher can settle things on one-on-one at times in baseball, but for the most part there are going to be other players and factors involved. And yeah, a wide receiver and cornerback can be out on an island one-on-one in football, but the quarterback has to make the throw, and there's always the potential for a safety to come over and help. In wrestling, it's just you and the other guy, which sounds obvious and simple if you're a wrestler. But from the outside looking in, the mentality you have to have to go out there knowing that there's nobody else responsible for you winning or losing but yourself seems extremely gratifying, but also quite daunting, especially for a kid.

Nothing illustrated this more than one of the matches in Easton. I might not have every detail perfect, but here's the gist of what went down. In one of the big duals, Bishop Lynch was tied going into the heavyweight match. I'd noticed that while a lot of the kids were very close, the heavyweight pretty much kept to himself and wasn't really a part of the bigger group of friends. He was also a wrestler who was average, at best, on a team with nationally ranked kids. What I saw next is part of the reason I fell in love with the sport. Going into the match, the rest of the team didn't seem at all confident that they'd get the "w." When their guy got the first takedown, the body language started to shift. When he went up a few points, the team started going BALLISTIC. The huge upset was now a possibility. As the seconds ticked down and the upset and the dual were in the books, the team engulfed the heavyweight with high fives and hugs. Here was a loner who went onto the mat with everyone expecting a loss, now the team hero. And it was all him. Nobody passed him the ball, nobody drove him in, nobody helped him out on the tackle. He was out there on an island against a superior opponent with no help save for what was in his mind and heart, and he got the job done. I had zero attachment to this kid, and I thought it was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen. I was hooked.

This pushed me to want to be around the sport more and to find out how the best high school kids ticked. The workout became almost like a game of telephone. When I was traveling to a new city for work, I'd ask a kid I'd trained with to recommend someone to work out and with the help of word of mouth from the wrestlers I'd worked with, I'd find someone to beat up on. And that was really the essence of why I was doing it -- it was really fun and challenging being able to push really tough people to a breaking point and help them through it while seeing how they handled it. In the process, I learned more about the sport and saw the immense sacrifices wrestlers make.

Taylor Massa, Jordan Thomas, Jason Katz, and Dan Yates (Photo/Michigan Sports Information)
Wanting to see how the best conducted themselves and handled the workout, I ended up working out a few top recruits -- David Taylor, Logan Stieber, Destin McCauley, Taylor Massa and Ben Whitford. Taylor and Stieber were the first among the big recruits to do the workout -- both in the summer of 2010. They'd talked to guys who had been through it and figured they'd give it a try. This wasn't something they 'needed,' but the essence of who they are is that they'll attack challenges even if it will only help them .00000001%. Largely thanks to those guys vouching for me, I've had a number of really good wrestlers before and after that I worked more closely with and tried to help with the mental side of training and life in general -- when David Taylor and Logan Stieber say something's tough, other wrestlers will listen. And once I started understanding the sport better, it helped me work with wrestlers more closely. I still can't help anyone with a double leg, though.

One of my favorite anecdotes proves how a lot of the top guys are wired and how competitive they are. At a certain point, I started ending the upper body portion of the workout with Tabata pushups. Tabata is a principle of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off for four minutes. Pushups might sound simple, but when your arms are dead beyond belief, it's no fun.

Stieber was the first to get to four minutes without falling on his face. We decided to keep going to six minutes to get a "full match" in, and we stopped there. That became the new benchmark. Flash forward to a year or so later: I'd done my homework on Taylor Massa before we trained, as I always did with whomever I worked with. Part of my job was to get in the head of the guy I was training. In my mind, if I couldn't do that, it would just be another workout and not worth their time. I'd already worked with three of his close friends who are also studs -- Jordan Thomas, Ben Whitford and Dan Yates. What I found out from his friends and family was that if you ever watched him in practice or Phys. Ed, he couldn't do a proper pushup worth a damn. And my rule was if the pushup wasn't legit, I was going to make you miserable. It just so happened Yates had grabbed the new record a few months earlier at a little over eight minutes. Before we got going, I stoked the fire a little and told Massa that I hoped he didn't embarrass himself. His response? "Yates has the record, right? Tell me what it is and it won't be the record for very long." Eleven and a half minutes and a half-dozen smacks to his head later, I had a new record holder. And every pushup was PERFECT. Funny what happens to stud wresters when something becomes a competition. Just another example of the mindset. It's a pretty impressive feat, although I enjoy joking with Tay that if Stieber got another shot at it, he'd probably be in second place.

Over the past two years, I've had a chance to go to a bunch of practices run by Taylor Massa's father Rodger and Ben Whitford's dad Pat, who have helped the team in St. Johns, Mich., become a national powerhouse. Being inside a competitive room was another learning experience on how wrestlers are wired. I had my share of physical battles in practices growing up, but I can't really say that if started throwing punches with one of my teammates I'd smile about it and go out to eat with that guy a half hour later. More proof that wrestlers are indeed a different breed.

I've talked a lot about some pretty big-time wrestlers, and they deserve all the accolades they get -- they've earned it. But I want to point out the kids I respect as much as the stars -- the backups. I can't imagine what it's like being a third or fourth-string wrestler, knowing that I might never get into a dual and that I'm going to get beat up on most days in the room. It's not hyperbole to say those guys who go to practice day in, day out and bust it when they could be doing A LOT of other things in high school and especially college, deserve as much respect as anyone. In any sport, you can't have strong teams without character guys like that, but with the physical and mental toll wrestling takes, it's even more impressive.

All that being said, what makes wrestling special and personal to me are the moments and memories I've been able to witness and share over the past few years. Here are just a few:

Being at the 2011 Pennsylvania State Championships and watching Nathaniel Brown win his first state title as a senior was the first time I TRULY understood how much all this meant to kids and families. After we worked out, I'd talked a lot with Nate after -- now starting for Lehigh -- about the mental side of getting over the hump and so watching the finals match with an understanding of how badly he wanted it, and witnessing dreams come to fruition ... man, it's an emotional thing. Seeing his family in their pure joy and pride was enough to make me lose it. Not to mention that the PA state tournament is something any wrestling fan should get to at least once.

Jason Katz with Taylor Massa and Ben Whgitford after they won Super 32 Challenge belts in October of 2011
Rushing from the 2011 World Series to see my Michigan guys (Massa, Thomas and Whitford) wrestle at Super 32 Challenge was a treat. I tell this story and people think I'm full of crap, but it's true. I'd just come from one of the great World Series' of all time, an epic seven-gamer where the Cardinals beat the Rangers after a great comeback. A lot of my friends saw me on TV on the field and in the middle of the celebration and it was a great experience. But I'm used to doing things like that, so it wasn't as rewarding as being in the corner for my guys at Super 32, especially after Massa and Whitford won belts. Yeah, those things are cool.

Seeing Jordan Thomas get a late takedown against a big-time kid to win his third state title last year literally almost gave me a heart attack because of how much I wanted it for him. For a few minutes, I realized how a parent must feel in a close match of such a high magnitude. I've played and coached other sports, and I know how hard it is as a coach to not have as much control as you did as a player. Understanding for a brief second that what a wrestling parent must go through was what a coach goes through multiplied by a million was pretty crazy to think about. Getting a big hug from his dad, then collapsing into our chairs, both of us drained from what we'd just witnessed, was something I remember like it was yesterday.

Going to the 2012 NCAA tournament and realizing how many people I knew as I walked around St. Louis brought a smile to my face.

David Taylor celebrates after winning the NCAA title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Being there to see David Taylor and Logan Stieber win titles, knowing how hard they'd worked was awesome to see. But as always, it's about family, and what I enjoyed most was seeing their parents after and congratulating them. A quick aside: Mr. Taylor had introduced me to Troy Letters earlier in the week, and when Troy said, "Oh, you're the guy with the workout," I was floored and humbled. And having the dad of one of the best wrestlers in the country introduce me around to people as the guy with "one of the best jobs ever" was a riot. Everyone else wanted to talk baseball; I wanted to talk wrestling.

Getting to spend a little time with the Stiebers and Tessaris (Cam Tessari was another unfortunate victim of mine) before the tournament was a treat. I can honestly say that having seen them at a few tournaments and events since, Jeff and Tina Stieber are folks I always look forward to talking with. It's one of my favorite parts of any tourney that Logan is at. Just good people who have made it hard for me to completely hate EVERYTHING Ohio State as I was brought up to do being a Michigan fan since I was 8, and now being a Michigan Man.

Speaking of Michigan, being in the Wolverine section when Kellen Russell won his second title and seeing his family explode was a great moment. And watching Zac Stevens, who I've gotten to know pretty well, will himself to the podium knowing how hard he worked to get that All American status was exciting to witness.

Jason Katz presented Taylor Massa with the 2012 Dave Schultz Award (Photo/Larry Slater)
Having the honor of being asked to present Taylor Massa with the 2012 Dave Schultz Award is way up there on the list of my favorites. His dad was at a big tourney with his brother Logan -- who, by the way, is a complete stud and will be making a lot of noise the next few years -- so I was called in to go to the Wrestling Hall of Fame with Taylor and his mom. The Massas are great and have treated me like family, so it was nice to be there for a big award like that. Being around the wrestling history and greats in Stillwater just added to the experience. Little known fact: Taylor can put a tuxedo on in 68 seconds. Amazing, but true.

Having the privilege of getting to see how the Michigan wrestling team practices and learn about some of the nuances of the sport from the coaches is up top on my list of wrestling memories. I can't thank Joe McFarland, Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff enough for letting me hang around and pick their brains a little over the past year or so. Seeing the direction the program is going in from up close has been great to witness. If you told me at any point before 2010 that I'd know as much about Michigan wrestling as I do about Michigan football, basketball and hockey, I'd have told you to gently lay down the crack pipe. Alas, it's now true. The respect I have for those men is sky high. I coached some in the past, and I've always said one big measure of a coach, in my view, is whether or not his players want to go to battle for him. I can say without a shred of doubt that if I were 15 years younger and knew how to wrestle, I'd run through a wall for those guys. I think Bormet summed up the wrestling mentality best when he told me that within five years, he'd be able to play in Major League Baseball, or at least hit any pitch. Granted, this was coming from a guy who Pritzlaff later told me didn't know if he was a lefty or righty batter. So yeah, good luck with that, Sean. But I guess the moral is that wrestlers really do think they can do anything.

I was fortunate enough to be at the practice at which Dan Yates, another part of my Michigan 'family,' was named captain of this year's Michigan wrestling team, which was very special. To see a lot of hard work and maturing come to fruition made me extremely proud, especially having seen a lot of it up close. And then getting to see Danny, Taylor Massa and Jordan Thomas in Maize and Blue for the first time together made me a happy "Uncle J."

Jason Katz with Jake Herbert
How could I not mention one of the great characters I've met and had a chance to spend time with on this wild ride, Mr. Olympian himself, Jake Herbert? When we're working with MLB teams, we have certain guys who make our shows better and who we love working with because of their personalities. Jake would be one of those guys. My hope is that he doesn't completely humiliate the wrestling community if I can get him to take some batting practice with the Pirates at some point. One thing I can guarantee is that he'll wear something loud, obnoxious and ridiculous on to the field. And amazingly, the guy will pull it off. Just make sure you never ask him for spelling tips -- top-five worst speller on the planet. And that's being kind.

And last, but certainly not least: as I was finishing up this article, I took a quick trip down to Naples, Fla. I'm taking a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, and who do I have the pleasure of striking up a conversation with? None other than the great Dan Gable. A half hour later, after picking the brain of one of the best, I was much wiser about the sport. Can't beat having one of the all-time greats share some wisdom and kind words. It's a small world indeed. I guess, depending on how you look at things, maybe it's proof that things happen for a reason -- the story ends with my meeting the man who uttered the famous quote, "Once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy," which I've learned must be true from watching the sport the past few years. Most importantly, now I know that Dan Gable grew up loving Mickey Mantle.

All these memories -- and I didn't wrestle a single match or know a single rule until four years ago. Mainly because of my wonderful herniated disc, I haven't put anyone through the workout in over a year. I knew it was bad when world-class (in his own mind) chiropractor and wrestling guru Rodger Massa told me I was screwed after looking at my MRI instead of giving me grief for being soft, which is what I expected from someone in the wrestling community. But I'm content in what I've done with the workout and hope to make an impact in other ways. A lot of the kids I've worked with, especially my Michigan crew, have become a big part of my life. As I've said multiple times, wrestling is about family. These families are now MY family. This is when paying it forward comes back to you tenfold. I owe wrestling for that, because as I tell my guys, the more good people you have in your life, the better off you are. Earning the trust, respect and friendship of so many great people in this amazing community is something I take great pride in.

So I thank all of those who have been part of this ride -- those I've named and those I haven't. You all know who you are. Now someone please teach me what a Granby is.

Comments

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matman133 (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Jason, great article you have captured a sport that is difficult to define. I have not stepped on a mat competitively in 42 years, yet, I still remember the rush of victory and the utter dejection of losing. I’m still an avid fan of the sport and the discipline it brings. When you talk about Stieber, and Taylor they are the pinnacle of the sport. There many thousands more young people, who as you say were beaten up in the room, that have taken the lessons learned and gone onto very successful lives build on the discipline wrestling brings.

I often think what would I have been without wrestling...
Keep up the good work!!

Jerry Morris
tonyrotundo (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Hey Jason, great article, welcome to the family (belated as that is). I am currently working for MLBAM in San Francisco as a contract project manager, I'm hoping to secure a full-time position this Spring. Maybe we'll run into each other somewhere, possibly NCAAs? Will you be out for the WBC in SF, it's on March 19th, which is cutting it close to NCAAs? Cheers!