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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.

That came from the win-at-all-costs Civil War mentality that runs five generations deep and still lives among the brothers.

***

When Justin was 4 years old, he followed his father everywhere. While Craig was still the head coach for the Hesperia High School wrestling team, his eldest son would tag along to practices and weekend meets.

At that time, wrestling wasn’t just fun and new — it meant a little more than that. It wasn’t until Justin turned 8 that Craig decided it was time for the living-room matches to start paying off. But he didn’t want his son to get burned-out like he had seen happen to so many kids before, so Craig worked him in slowly, just a couple tournaments here and there — years later, his sons were wrestling every day on Michigan mats.

Craig and Susan were in the process of raising four restless children when wrestling took over their lives. By the time Justin was 11, everyone knew the path he was headed down — it was a familiar story, retold.

Craig went from wrestler to coach to father and fan. After wrestling for Ohio State, he passed on the legacy to his children — not the Buckeye tradition, but the lessons of hard work, family and competition.

Justin wandered down the beaten trail with the road map his father provided. And not too far behind, Brandon, Collin and their younger sister Lauren followed.

When the whole family started taking weekend trips for Justin’s tournaments, Craig contemplated whether to have the younger boys start so young.

He finally reasoned, “Well, we’re already here — may as well wrestle.”

***

At Holton High School during the district finals of his junior year, Justin squared off against Kent City’s Derick Russell. He had wrestled him a number of times before, but this time there was much more at stake.

Justin immediately took the driver’s seat, but as he was finishing a takedown, his arm pressed into the mat, and he heard a disheartening sound.

Snap.

“It was the first time I’d seen him take an injury timeout in three years,” Craig said.

Justin trudged off the mat, his hand completely numb. Everyone thought his year was over — they were certain the match would end in a medical default.

But less than a minute later, with his stoic face disguising the pain he was inevitably feeling, Justin returned to the center of the mat, wrestled through the agony and won the match.

On the drive home, his wrist swelled up and doubled in size. But Justin had a date, so his wrist had to wait a few hours longer.

Hesperia’s Snow Coming dance was that night, and Justin couldn’t even button the cuffs to his shirt.

Even though he was just a bystander, Craig felt his son’s emotional pain.

“It was one of the worst nights of my life,” Craig said.

But the night turned out more than okay for Justin — the girl that was standing at his side will eventually become his wife, Jena Miller.

When he came home at the end of the evening, his hand was colored black and blue — Craig knew this was no ordinary sprain.

The doctor delivered the news that Justin already feared in the back of his mind. His wrist was broken in two places, and that meant no wrestling.

Justin wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The doctor compromised. “If there’s no swelling, you can wrestle.”

That was good enough. It gave him three weeks to change his style and prepare for the four most important meets of the season. But he had to follow the doctor’s orders, which turned into a prescription for ice buckets.

4:00 a.m. — the alarm rang.

During those moments, he just kept thinking about the state championships around the corner.

4:05 a.m. — Justin filled a bucket with ice.

“I was a little scared for him,” Collin said. “But he has a real high pain tolerance and persevered through it.”

4:10 a.m. — Justin plunged his hand into the frigid water.

Though he remained collected and calm in the public eye, the physical and emotional stress took its toll.

4:15 a.m. — Justin’s hand was almost numb.

Competitors would torque on his wrist, but Justin wouldn’t whimper. And as fate would have it, Justin defeated Russell twice more in the regional and state meets en route to the 152-pound state crown.

“He was able to show everybody what we already knew,” Baird said. “He had mental toughness beyond belief.”

***

The temperature was below zero degrees in the middle of winter, and Justin was saturated in sweat. He was tireless — always the first one to soak through his shirt and the last one to leave practice.

The year had passed, and Justin’s bones were mended. He was as healthy as ever and wrestling in his last dual meet as a Panther.

Hesperia was fighting for a spot in the team state finals against long-time rival, Addison High School. They were locked in a tie and knew whichever team moved forward would go on to win the championship.

Baird couldn’t have asked Justin to do any more than he already had — he pinned his opponent. And just seconds later, he came off the mat to strategize for the team’s last match, the deciding factor of the meet.

It came down to a fifth-criteria tiebreaker decision and there was nothing Justin could do to prevent the loss. He was heartbroken, but he held his composure like he always had before.

So when the local newspaper approached Baird for an interview, he pointed in Justin’s direction instead because he was “the face of the program.”

Baird gets choked up remembering.

“It was probably one of his hardest moments,” Baird said. “I thought he handled that with such class and dignity, and it really taught me a lot about the character he has.”

But Justin’s Hesperia history didn’t end on a low note. Though the team’s journey fell short of a happy ending, he had the opportunity to soak in one more moment of glory — one more title.

And when he succeeded in his final high-school match, no one felt a greater sense of pride than Baird.

Justin became a four-time Michigan state champion and finished his high school career with a perfect 260-0 record. Between 2003-07, he claimed the most career wins and pins (203) in state history.

“He showed everybody that there’s no magic recipe,” Brandon said. “There’s no magic dust that you sprinkle on your cereal. It’s all hard work and no shortcuts.”

On the night Justin achieved the quadruple feat, he climbed to the top of the podium in the Palace of Auburn Hills with a medal draped around his neck. The 20,000 people in attendance gave a standing ovation as his academic and athletic accolades were acknowledged.

Yet Justin only cracked a humble smile.

“That’s what legends are made of,” Baird said. “Up here in Hesperia, he is certainly one of our local legends.”

***

There’s a joke floating around the Stephen Ross Academic Center these days. Some of the counselors frequently suggest to Michigan coach Joe McFarland that the Zeerips are a superhuman breed.

“They have seen what kind of guys they are, how respectful they are, how polite they are, that they’re very successful on the wrestling mat and in the classroom,” McFarland said. “They’re not sure what the parents are doing, but they want to send their own kids up there for a summer.”

Justin was never too far outside his comfort zone at Michigan. While he redshirted his freshman year, he grew acclimated to the University’s academic rigors, later becoming a two-time Academic All-American and four-time Academic All-Big Ten.

But the elite level of Division-I wrestling brought more of a learning curve.

“I think he struggled early-on with the pressures,” McFarland said. “He dealt with it by closing down a little bit. He didn’t open his wrestling up — wrestling very tight — but we gradually were able to get him away from that as he got more confidence. But it was tough.”

The range of competition was intimidating, and he knew he could no longer post a perfect winning record. So Justin just had to work harder.

“He really buckled down, just like he always had,” Craig said. “He rolled up his sleeves and said ‘It’s time to go to work.’ ”

Justin went into the Bahna Wrestling Center every day with a goal and a plan.

He was focused. He was ready.

During his freshman year, Justin fulfilled most expectations with his 23-6 record.

But everything didn’t continue falling into place.

Though Justin was one of the most consistent and reliable wrestlers on the team, he plateaued — never sank, never peaked. He wrestled in four straight NCAA Championships and placed in four Big Ten Championships.

But Justin didn’t leave home to become a champion — he left so that when he returned, he would have the knowledge and experiences to better understand the place where his roots run deep.

***

All of the endless competition unfolded on Feb. 3, 2012 — the penultimate dual meet of Justin’s career — and the Wolverines were in Buckeye territory.

Then ranked No. 8 nationally, Justin squared off against No. 7 Nick Heflin in search of a mild upset. After 10 minutes into the extended match, the score remained locked in a 2-2 tie without a single takedown from either opponent.

In the second tiebreaker, Justin started in the down position, immediately escaped out of a flurry and earned a two-point reversal. Ohio State appealed the official’s call and Justin was robbed.

“It was like a bad dream,” McFarland said. “You look in the officials’ eyes and you could tell that neither one of them could recall what had just happened.”

In the final 30-second period, Heflin answered with an escape of his own to bring the score back into a 3-3 knot, where he won on riding time.

“That was the toughest match I’ve ever been in,” Justin said. “The ref made a mental mistake — I don’t know what happened. I knew I should’ve had five points.”

Michigan was outraged. Justin was worn down. But he held his composure.

“He just stayed very classy,” Craig said. “Most people would’ve erupted, but win or lose, he always tries to show sportsmanship.”

A few weeks later, during the NCAA Championships, Justin finished out his wrestling career with his 100th win, just the 35th Wolverine to do so.

In his last handful of matches, each victory and defeat had a magnified role. So the last time he dressed in the maize and blue singlet, Justin found that one final win — the one that mattered, the one that left a mark on the Michigan legacy.

When Justin returned to Ann Arbor, the quote plastered to the wall of Bahna stuck out as if it was written just for him.

“It came from your father, a worthy name to bear,” the quote read. “When he took it from his father, there was no dishonor there. On the day he gave it to you, it was all he had to give. So be sure to guard it wisely for as long as you shall live.”

***

Justin and Jena had been together for four long years.

With Brandon and Collin by his side for moral support, Justin drove to Briarwood Mall. This was the next step.

After browsing through a few stores without any luck, the three of them walked into Rogers and Hollands Jewelers.

After picking out the ring with his brothers, it was no secret when Justin would propose. On a warm July afternoon, he escorted Jena to the farm market’s perennial gardens — the flowers blossomed above a wooden trellis as he got down on one knee.

That night, the newly engaged couple went out for Chinese. The coincidence in the fortune cookie was almost too perfect — “Music, flowers, invitations and gifts are in your near future.”

Craig and Susan have stood back and watched the relationship progress over the years since their first Scrabble games in high school. She seemed to fit right in with the level of healthy competition in the Zeerip household.

After Justin and Jena shared the co-valedictorian honor at graduation, they realized just how compatible they were. Though Jena went to Central Michigan and Justin was committed to Michigan, they made it last.

“It made them appreciate the time they had when they were together,” Susan said.

With wedding plans in the works, Justin will have to confront the near-impossible matter of who will be the best man — Brandon or Collin?

Regardless, on the day of the wedding, both brothers will stand by Justin’s side and share that moment with him.

***

On one particular afternoon, the small boy felt the need to escape and search for adventure. He packed his backpack full of the toys necessary for survival and embarked on this short-lived journey.

Justin marched down the driveway and stopped where his tiny feet met the edge of road. He could almost taste the freedom. Just one more step and he would be on his way to see the world.

But he couldn’t go through with it — something he couldn’t define was pulling him back. So he turned around and headed home.

It was that moment that Craig and Susan knew no matter how far Justin may stray, he would always find his way back again.

After five years in Ann Arbor, Justin has realized where he belongs.

Now that his wrestling career has come to its end, he is preparing for the future that will lead him in that very direction.

His family, the farmhouse, Baird and all of Hesperia welcomes him home because to them, it’s like he never left.

Just like his father, Justin’s life will complete the full circle with his venture back to Fremont. After coming so far, he feels ready to return to the place where he first discovered life’s lessons.

“I always felt that he’d go back home,” McFarland said. “He’s definitely leaving a man, and someday he’ll bring his kids down to watch wrestling matches at Michigan.”

In these last few chapters, Justin wrote the story of a boy who learned the meanings of competition, brotherhood, love, defeat and victory.

And as his story continues to unfold, Justin will continue being the man that everyone knew he would be — the little boy who never really left the end of the driveway.


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