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FINDING THE ROAD HOME: Justin Zeerip's journey there and back again

By Liz Nagle, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 4, 2012

Justin Zeerip was 7 years old.

There was a guest in the living room, one of the newest arrivals to the village of Hesperia, Mich. It was after dinner and well past his bedtime when the small boy anxiously asked, “Dad, can I put on my stuff for Coach Baird?”

With permission, Justin ran upstairs as fast as his legs would allow. His family waited patiently while the minutes passed. And when he finally came down, he was smiling. He showed off his singlet with a loose green sweatsuit underneath. Black Nike shoes, a few sizes too big, were strapped on his feet.

He proudly took his ready stance. In that moment, he could’ve been on the mat facing any opponent. It was then that Justin became a wrestler.

But on that night, no one could predict exactly what Justin would achieve. All his parents knew was that someday he would fill out those oversized shoes — their son would become the man that everyone hoped he would be.

That little kid still lives in Doug Baird’s mind like it was just yesterday.

***

On Aug. 8, 1862, 30-year-old Henry Becker enlisted to serve for the Union in the American Civil War.

Becker, in the 5th Cavalry Regiment, was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg on July 4, 1863. He was found in the field with a shattered leg and hospitalized until his discharge six months later. He traveled north and became a postman in Montague, Mich.

In time, Becker could finally afford a plot of land, and he purchased a 40-acre settlement in West Michigan — the land that would eventually become Justin’s home.

Becker produced a bountiful peach crop that he sent on the railways headed for Chicago. With good fortune and rich harvest at the turn of the century, he was able to build the farmhouse that would stand as a safe haven for decades to come.

A hundred years later…

As a birthright passed down in its fourth generation, Craig Zeerip raised his children in that very house. He grew up there and now shares it with his family.

He and his wife Susan operate Heritage Farms, once a 40-acre parcel but since expanded into 2,000 acres of fertile land producing zucchini, soybeans, corn, peppers, tomatillos, squash and pumpkins.

But for its size, the farmhouse remains nearly unchanged — full of character. The historical essence that Becker created echoes through the walls.

The textures and colors give it charm, with the stones embedded in the walls and the stained glass windows. Becker left those pieces of history behind — he left his story in the hidden stairwell, in the five bedrooms with old wooden doors and skeleton keyholes, and in the meteor cobbled into the front porch.

What was once Becker’s parlor, left empty except on rare and special occasions when the minister would come for a visit, is now the Zeerips’ living room. Like any ordinary living room, it became a place of gathering, where daily life carries on without worldly disturbances.

Except here, Becker’s once-sacred parlor floor became the stomping grounds of Zeerip wrestling.

***

Summer mornings in Fremont, Mich. are quiet and peaceful, but not on this day, thanks to the Zeerip boys.

Craig had just bought a new zero-turn Grasshopper to mow the lawn, and the Zeerip brigade — Justin, Brandon and Collin — decided to give it a test drive.

“We were doing 360s in the driveway with it,” Brandon said. “When our parents looked across the road and saw us doing that, we got in a little trouble.”

Boys will be boys.

It’s been that way ever since the three of them were old enough to strap on the headgear, push the couches aside and turn the living-room floor into a makeshift wrestling mat — one without boundaries.

The level of sibling rivalry often rose to a boiling point, and in the heat of such moments, Susan crossed her fingers that they wouldn’t tumble into the television or grand piano.

But minutes after Justin would punish Brandon with an unofficial takedown, they would hop back to their feet, scope out the carpet burns and spend the rest of the day fishing.

Every summer, Susan’s father came out to the farm to spend a week with his grandchildren. All afternoon, they fished from the irrigation ponds, pulling out the bass and bluegills that ended up breaded, fried and served hot on the dinner table.

Everything became a competition — who would catch the biggest fish, who would win the tennis match, who would out-wrestle who. Whatever it was, each Zeerip wanted to come out on top.