The former University of Minnesota wrestler started with a screenplay, and is now in the process of producing a series of novels about amateur wrestlers under the title NearFall. The first in the series -- NearFall I: The Adventures of Matt and Mike -- was published in 2008; book two -- NearFall II: Keep the Faith and Keep Swinging -- is expected to come off the presses in late November 2009.
Why the screenplay first? At one time, Joe Reasbeck was involved in movie production in California. "Wrestling needs more media attention," said Reasbeck. "There's not much wrestling in L.A. It's not like guys in the Hollywood film industry come home from work and hear their kids tell about wrestling practice or dual meets ... That's one reason why there have been so few movies about wrestling."
Why the interest in wrestling? "I've been in wrestling most of my life," Reasbeck disclosed. "My dad was a coach who had wrestled in college, and in the Marine Corps. Dad laid out breadcrumbs and I ate 'em up."
An upper Midwest matman
A native of Superior, Wisconsin -- twin city to Duluth, Minnesota up on Lake Superior -- Joe Reasbeck wrestled at Minnesota for J Robinson in the 1980s. He also was actively involved in Greco-Roman competition, training for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
"My career was pockmarked with injuries," said Reasbeck. "I had eight surgeries ... My last match was in Finland."
But that wasn't the end of Joe Reasbeck's involvement in the sport. He coaches a club team, Cap City Youth Wrestling, in Austin, Texas, and provides private training for young athletes who are interested in wrestling in college.
Promoting wrestling reading
"Wrestling never got a fair shake in the media," asserted the former Golden Gopher wrestler. "For as large a sport as wrestling is in terms of numbers of participants, wrestling doesn't get its due. It's treated more like badminton."
Joe Reasbeck wrestled at the University of Minnesota for J Robinson in the 1980s. He also was actively involved in Greco-Roman competition. (Photo/University of Minnesota Sports Information)"As a kid, I enjoyed reading Halfback on His Own. Now that I coach, I see kids reading Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine, not books. I thought, if we could get kids reading about wrestling, we could kill two birds with one stone: get more kids to read, and build interest in the sport of wrestling."
"Sadly, some wrestling books emphasize the negative -- weight cutting, obsessive parents," Reasbeck continued. "I wanted to emphasize the sport from the top of the mountain, especially in reaching upper grade school and middle-school age kids."
"My goal is to sell the sport to a wider audience. I needed it to be compelling and story-driven, to appeal to the wrestling community, as well as to those outside the community."
"I wanted people to respect the sport, to appreciate the work ethic of wrestlers," said Reasbeck. "I tried to strike a balance between providing an authentic portrayal of wrestling, without it being too over-the-top."
Reasbeck took his original screenplay, and fleshed it out into what is planned to be a series of five novels aimed at readers age 10 and up, with the first two books in the NearFall series to be available for the 2009 holidays.
Why a series? Reasbeck saw the success of the Harry Potter series as being an example to follow -- a way to get young readers hooked on a set of characters, whose exploits they would then follow through a series of books.
The pitch to get NearFall published
As someone with a background in film production in California, Joe Reasbeck provided a Hollywoodesque "pitch" for his NearFall books that incorporates other familiar sports movies: "Rocky for kids, plus Sandlot."
Despite that clever yet easy-to-understand description, getting NearFall published wasn't an easy process. "It was rejected by big publishing houses who said, 'Boys don't read.'"
"A publisher I knew in California from my production career was looking to expand into fiction. They were concerned, 'Is there a market?' They did some research on wrestling, and believed I could have success in marketing to the wrestling community and beyond."
That research has been borne out; the first book in the NearFall series has sold about 10,000 copies.
The story of Matt and Mike
NearFall is set in the state of Iowa. The focus is on two brothers, Matt and Mike Dean, their parents, and their friends who are involved in wrestling. The series starts with the main characters as kids (Matt in fourth grade, Mike in seventh), with plans to end the series in college.
The first two books show the different ways young athletes can be attracted to the sport. Mike is a middle-school wrestler who has his share of struggles with the sport, while his best friend Dan seems to be a natural -- someone who thrives on the tough workouts, weight work and the mat action as an escape from a rugged home life with an abusive, alcoholic father. A classmate of theirs, Billy, comes into the sport as a bright but non-athletic student, seeking acceptance among the "cool kids", attracted to wrestling by the chess-match strategy and historical aspects of the sport. Matt is the younger brother who sees wrestling as a way to learn self-defense against a school bully.
"The kids in the story come together from various starting points," said Joe Reasbeck. "However, they all become a band of brothers, finding acceptance and friendship with each other and their teammates ... I don't know what it's like to serve in the military, but from what I've read of those under fire in combat, wrestling is much like that -- a commonality of experience."
The two NearFall books also manage to weave in some historical aspects of wrestling. "I wanted to incorporate some wrestling history, to get readers to think about some of the great stars of the sport, and the various styles of wrestling," said Reasbeck. What's more, in NearFall II, the book takes on regional aspects by having the boys go to a summer wrestling camp, where they meet up with young wrestlers from other parts of the country. There's a lively discussion among the characters about the relative merits of wrestlers and wrestling styles in hotbed states such as Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Keeping it real off the mat, too
The first two books in the NearFallseries go beyond the wrestling room and matches to incorporate the world of teens and pre-teens, addressing issues such as dating, peer pressure, bullying, abuse, economic pressures of a parent without a job. There are different types of families within the story: Matt and Mike have two strict-but-loving parents ... while Dan deals with a father who can be physically and mentally abusive when drunk ... while Billy and his younger sister are raised by a single mother, having lost their father to a heart attack.
While addressing real-life concerns of teens and pre-teens, Joe Reasbeck has strived to make the NearFallbooks appropriate for readers as young as fourth grade. "The hardest thing in writing to this age group is not to cross a line regarding language and subject matter," said the author. "There's no swearing, or sex."
"The challenge is to keep it relevant and real for young readers, yet still pass muster with parents, coaches and librarians ... You don't want it to be preachy, or not ring true for readers."
"It's most gratifying to get letters from kids who say that they don't read that much, but really enjoyed the first book."
Reinforcing the value of wrestling
Joe Reasbeck truly sees the value in the sport of wrestling, not just for his own life, but in the lives of others.
Joe Reasbeck"I grew up with parents who were teachers. Dad was a wrestling coach. In fact, he was active in bringing the sport to the Duluth-Superior area."
"I was blessed to have that upbringing. Some of my friends weren't. However, I saw what wrestling did for friends who could have gone either way, who are now positive contributors to their communities."
"Wrestling can be a true difference-maker in someone's life."
"As I get older, I've come to appreciate guys who are supposedly 'not going anywhere' who are making strides to achieve great things through wrestling."
"The beauty of wrestling is, if you're big or small, slow or fast, a jock or not, you can excel."
All those messages come through in the first two books in the NearFallseries, which makes these books winners for young readers.
To learn more about NearFall I: The Adventures of Matt and Mike and NearFall II: Keep the Faith and Keep Swinging -- or to purchase copies, visit the Web site www.nearfallbooks.com