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My 4th Grade Match Vs. Brad Helgeson That Changed My Life Forever

The kid in the purple singlet is me and I am wrestling against Joshua Neer from SE Warren. Neer actually became pretty successful in MMA and competed in the UFC. This was at the same tourney that I wrestled Brad Helgeson.

Ok, so here we go….

This is my story of the one time that I ever wrestled Brad Helgeson. This is a big one for me on a very personal level, as the events that transpired after I wrestled him at the AAU State Wrestling tournament in 4th grade isn’t only just one of my most significant wrestling memories… It is one of THE most significant events that happened in my entire life.  “How is that possible?” you may be wondering.  Brad Helgeson’s home town of Lake Mills are the purple-colored Bulldogs of the very Northern part of the state, right next to Minnesota and my home town of Mediapolis is home of the orange-colored Bulldogs of the Southeast, right across the bridge from Illinois and just North of Missouri. I know it seems odd that a match between us could be THAT significant, considering the match happened when we were 4th graders and we likely didn’t know each other at all before or afterwards. It’s also not likely that we saw each other often enough to form any sort of a rivalry, considering we live(d) 6-7 hours away from each other. Let’s just say, this situation was the absolute epitome of the raw nerves and emotions that can be sparked, set ablaze and burned for years to come from this sport. I have written about wrestling for 15+ years and have always been an open book in terms of what I am willing to disclose, but I have never written or spoken of the sequence of events that transpired from my match against Brad Helgeson.  That’s because it’s a story that involves deep personal anguish, anger, bitterness, jealousy, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, and yes – love…

Sounds like I’m describing the movie – Ben Hur, not a story involving wrestling!

So… my 4th grade season started out as a cruise to the Bahamas, but ended in an aquatic dumpster fire that was engulfed by a dragon in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. I started out the year 42-0 and coming into districts, my closest match all season was a 10-0 win over Dustin Bliven…(although the only match he seems to recall with us was his comeback victory in HS 😊).  Everything that entire season, all 40 + matches was a display of dominance on my end. This reign of dominance came to an end when there were two tournaments left that season. Districts and state. Specifically, things went awry in the 3rd period of the first round at districts. That’s when the cruise ship hit a glacier… We had 17 guys in our bracket at districts. So they put us in a 32 man bracket with only one pair of wrestlers that didn’t get a first round Bye. That was me and Shea Stamp. Shea Stamp was a returning state runner-up as a 3rd grader and I had placed 4th at USA state and was top in the bracket above him the previous year . This was total bull crap of these people to pair us up like that. I still think that. And they did it to Shea and I the NEXT year as well.  Anyways, that year Shea and I were the best guys in the entire 3rd and 4th grade division at our district along with Josh Watts, who was lighter than us. When I wrestled Shea, I was up 3-0 with 30 seconds left in the match when he hit me with a lateral drop to beat me 5-3. I had to win 6 matches on the back side just to qualify for state and I just blew through everyone. Shea went on to not only win districts, but he won our bracket at state. Top 4 guys at districts qualify for state and I secured the #3 spot that year, despite having an otherwise flawless season. Although I lost against Shea, I felt good about state, for I dominated the majority of that match and I figured that state would basically come down to Shea, Travis Kimzey or myself. I was wrong.

Fast forward to AAU State 2 weeks later. My record was now at 48-1. I won my first two matches and was on the track to winning my quarterfinal match-up against a guy who was awesome back then… The one guy other than Shea that I knew was a hammer named Travis Kimzey from Southeast Warren. He had placed 3rd at state as a 3rd grader which was impressive. I always wondered what happened to him. Anyways, I was up by a couple points in the 3rd period and BOOM! He headlocked me with 20 seconds left and despite giving him a few scares in the last minute, he ended up beating me by 1-2 points.  This put me in the consolation side where I had to win 2 more matches to place. In order to do so, I had to beat the winner between Ryan Sturm and this Clint Bitting dude, but I had to FIRST beat a guy named Brad Helgeson.

So the match vs Helgeson began and I felt good and was flowing well. Was hitting my carry series on Brad and it worked. I was leading 4-0 with 15 seconds left in the match and we were on our feet. I was never much for situational wrestling, for I couldn’t help myself from being aggressive. Couldn’t control it. With that said, I took a shot and BOOM, Brad hit me in the world’s most deadly pancake. Just like the one Shea Stamp threw me in at districts. Brad received a 5 count right before time ran out. He defeated me 5-4 and my season was over. I was eliminated from the tourney… and I was DEVASTATED. I worked my ass off that year and everything was PERFECT the first 40 matches of the year. Our whole youth club expected me to win state that year…talked about it as if it were a foregone conclusion. Holy cow, my season just couldn’t have taken a more devastating turn. When Brad and I walked to the center and shook hands, I was shattered and bawling and Brad looked at me and said, “good match.” Which I ignored. Brad’s corner was going crazy. Not outlandish or anything, just very excited for their guy just pulled off a huge win against a returning placer to stay alive in the consolations. They should have been excited. And there were a lot of fans and coaches in his corner area cheering him on.

I kind of looked at his corner while sobbing as I ashamedly and nervously began walking towards my dad, who has somewhat of a reputation for being a hardass and a bit of a hot head if he was upset about something (but respected by most everyone as a great guy, don’t get me wrong).  Dad just hates losing SO badly, and sometimes he was unable to channel his disappointment when it happened. With that said, I was terrified when I took that long walk towards him in the corner. Not only did all my hard work seem pointless, but my overall goal every season that I ever wrestled was to make my dad proud of me… and I knew that I failed him. And I knew how he typically responded to failure… he did so with anger.  When I reached him, he was looking at me like he hated my guts when he threw my clothes at me and said, “You are pathetic. You just humiliated yourself and our entire Wrestling Club. Stay away from me the rest of the weekend!” 

I can’t even begin to describe to you the heartbreak I felt at that moment. It was as if the entire place immediately appeared more grey and bleak, yet the cracks in the floor became more vibrant and noticeable. I walked over to a little secluded area in a space between a couple of folded up bleachers where no one could see me. I sat there for a long time and thought about how difficult the rest of my life would probably be since I had managed to fail when everything previously seemed to be going my way. I thought about the hundreds of miles we ran around the track at the YMCA before practice and getting screamed at by the coaches for putting my head down when I shot or trying my ass off to score one measly takedown on Josh Gunn or Heath Latta who were a couple of studs from our squad that they bumped me up to start practicing with that year. They were a couple years older than me. I thought about the infinite amount of time I spent daydreaming about the day where I actually accomplished a goal I set. I thought about how I envisioned my dad being happy when I accomplished these goals.  All of these things… for this? To have my heart ripped out of my ass? Was anything that I ever tried to do in life ever going to mean anything or even be worth it? Or was I always going to be simply just working my ass off for heartbreak. I wondered if my dad would ever want to get near me ever again and if not, I wondered what the point may be in ever giving any effort in anything that I was forced to participate in again. I wasn’t the one who even wanted to start wrestling as a 1st grader to begin with. He wanted me to. So how is it fair that I have to feel tortured by the shortcomings of this sport? 

It was an infinite spectrum of alternating thoughts and feelings of sadness and anger.

My dad coaching at the AAU State Tournament in 1993.

There was only one person that I know for sure witnessed this exchange with my dad and I. This was a guy in Brad’s corner. There were several people in Brad’s corner in that match and as I was walking off, this guy finished celebrating and walked towards me and stuck his arm out as if he were going to pat me on the back. When he heard what my dad said to me, his smile turned into a frown and I heard him say under his breath, “awwww no.”  This man followed me to the “hole” in the building that I sat down at and he talked to me. Whoever he was, he knew my name. He said, “hey Swafford, no matter what happened there, you are a great little wrestler and your dad loves you.”  I looked at him, tears welled up in my eyes and nodded my head at him. He then said, “Sometimes us dads say things we don’t mean when we are upset. I have said similar things to my own kids after they lost. You don’t realize how ugly it is until you witness it happening to someone else. I just really hope you leave here knowing that you are a great little wrestler and that your dad loves you more than anything. I can tell. Trust me. Keep your head up, kid.” He walked off. I never knew who this guy was. Whether it was Brad’s dad, a relative, a coach? All I know is this: He was average height, average build, had somewhat shaggy brown hair and a beard with a few grey hairs popping up in his beard. Looked to be about in his mid-30’s. A white Lake Mills Wrestling shirt with purple lettering. I kind of doubt that it was Brad’s dad because I’d assume Brad’s dad would have been giving Brad a hug for showing the guts that he did to win that match. This guy went straight to me. Whoever this was, I hope he reads this because his words didn’t fall on deaf ears and I always thought that was nice of him.

So I sat down in that little hole, hoping that the bleachers would be enough to block the sight of me so no one could see me. One of the outside mats were located right in front of me and I just sat there by myself for the next hour, drowning in a concoction of self-loathing, frustration, bitterness and heartache. In that hour, there were two people who approached me to talk to me. The first one to talk to me was my younger brother, Justin. That year, Justin was a 2nd grader. They did not have an AAU State wrestling tournament for anyone younger than 3rd grade, so 2nd graders had to resort to competing against 3rd and 4th graders… the same age division that I was in. This was our 4th year wrestling and up until that very, exact point, I was hands down, the son in the family that was expected to be really good. My results were always better, I was more dominant, etc. I was expected to win state by most of the people in our club. Justin wasn’t even predicted by any of us to qualify for the tournament since he was wrestling 3rd and 4th graders. My parents entered Justin in the district tournament and the talk that took place between my parents was basically, “well, I hope the district experience is good for him and I hope he doesn’t get hurt.” 

They got Justin started with wrestling to begin with not really expecting much out of him. He was tiny as a little kid.  He was so skinny that people just assumed he wasn’t naturally athletic (holy cow were they wrong). Not to mention, he was just so happy all the time… No one thought he was capable of being mean enough to wrestle at a high level, which ironically, his mean attitude on the mat is exactly what he became notorious for in his career. So when Justin WON districts and followed this by placing 2nd at state as a 2nd grader wrestling 3rd and 4th graders, it was a shock to all of us.

No 2nd grader, in the history of the AAU State Wrestling tournament at that time (AAU State was only a couple years old back then) had ever made it to the finals. Justin was the first. He had officially passed big brother up as well as any 2nd grader who had ever wrestled in Iowa at that time. And him passing me up here was just the beginning of what it ultimately became for the remainder of our careers. He was always the more accomplished one from that point on. I mean, he had a 2.5 year streak where he never even lost a match! And this semifinal win just HAD to happen right in front of me on that side-mat that was located right in front of that little hole that I was hiding in. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had just disappointed my entire club and got eliminated from a tournament that everyone thought that I would win and there’s my younger brother, who just became the baddest 2nd grader to ever step on a mat at AAU State in its then short history. I felt as if my failure and the sibling-shift was being rubbed in my face at this point. After Justin won that match, there was a ton of celebrating from our fans. They were so excited for him. Everyone was trying to get to him. However, the first thing Justin did after getting his hand raised was really sweet of him. He ran over to my dad in the corner and gave him a high 5, grabbed his clothes and started running towards me, which took me off guard, for I didn’t think anyone knew where I was, and didn’t think anyone could see me. When he reached me, he was trying so hard to contain his excitement and his smile that came with it from making the finals. He looked at me and apprehensively said, “hey Joshua.”  Although secretly thrilled as hell for him, I couldn’t shake this newly planted feeling of jealousy that I was feeling towards him at that time. I responded with, “Yeah? What do you want?” He said, “state finals! Who would have thought, right? That should be exciting!” I replied, “yeah, no one cares.”  This was followed by about a 10 second moment of silence where we just stared at each other awkwardly before he finally said, “hey, it sucks that you got beat out. You are the best 4th grader here. That was such a fluke, we know that!” I wasn’t having it. I responded to him with, “leave me alone, Justin. I don’t need to hear YOUR bullcrap right now. Just don’t talk to me, idiot.” Justin stood there for a few more seconds, staring at me when he reached his arms out, crouched down and hugged me. I immediately threw his arms off me and said, “I told you to leave me alone! Get away from me, NOW!” Justin looked at me, his eyes watered up a bit and he nodded at me and walked off. What a way to ruin a special moment…

If it’s one thing that became lost and straight-up neglected in my seemingly infinite struggles at earning my dad’s love and approval was my little brother’s own struggles of earning mine. No matter how more successful he became than me on the wrestling mat, he never lost that. He still hasn’t. He always idolized me and has always cared deeply about making me proud. I wish it didn’t take me so long to understand that. I am glad that my jealousy phase only lasted a year or so from that point, otherwise a lot of special moments with him would have been ruined.

Justin, bless his heart…from the time he was a Kindergartner, he has hated seeing his older brother upset.

To give you an idea of what this may have looked like, this picture was taken a year later. I had just won my 3rd place match at state as a 5th grader 20 minutes before this was taken and Justin had just won his first AAU state title as a 3rd grader…this was seconds after he got his hand raised… the last time I ever recall of being jealous or anything other than Justin’s #1 fan.

The other person to approach me while I was sitting there was Brad Helgeson himself.

The holding area where people were standing was to my left about 15 feet and when it became almost time for my weight class to wrestle again, Helgeson began warming up and a couple times took a couple steps towards me and would start shuffling his feet, as if he were deciding mid-step not to say anything to me. I thought I noticed him doing this a few times, but figured that was just how he warmed up. It was confirmed when he finally did approach me and said, “hey Swafford, don’t feel bad. You are a great wrestler.” I contemplated not acknowledging him. My immediate thought was to ignore him as if he didn’t even exist, but somewhere within myself I found the ability to nod my head at him and blurt out the word, “thanks.” I’ve always thought that was incredibly cool of him to do. And off he went. In that round, he wrestled a guy named Ryan Sturm from Emmetsburg and was leading that match before Sturm made a comeback of his own and eliminated him. He appeared as heartbroken as I was afterwards. It happened right in front of me on the same mat where Justin won his semifinals match. 

I continued to sit in the hole and watch all these other guys accomplish their dreams, fall short, etc. I only seemed to notice the people who were accomplishing their dreams. It felt like everyone in the building was on “cloud 9” except me, which was so far from the truth. I watched this go on for about an hour when I saw my dad again. I was hoping with every fiber of my soul that he didn’t know where I was and at first he didn’t appear to.  He was basically shuffling his feet like Brad was earlier, walking semi-circles, looking at the ground and shaking his head. His youngest son just became the best 2nd grader in recent memory and he appeared terribly upset.  My hopes of him not knowing where I was at were shattered just like all my other hopes and dreams were that weekend as he began walking slowly towards me. I immediately began panicking inside. “Maybe my brother making the finals put him in a better mood,” I thought. Doubtful… His expression looked stern still.“I hope he doesn’t tell me that I can’t ride home with the family,” I thought that as he approached and got closer and closer. 

Finally the moment arrived and he sat down next to me and what he said to me is about the furthest thing possible from what I expected. He looked at the floor and said, “I am supposed to be your dad and I just stomped on your heart when it was ripped out of your chest, what the hell kind of dad am I? I can’t believe I did that to you. I’ve never been more ashamed in my life.” There was about 5 seconds of silence after he said this when he said, “I just know how good you are and how hard you worked and I love you more than anything in the world. It kills me when things don’t work out for you. I don’t know why these things seem to happen to you, but I know it’s not fair. It just isn’t fair. I love you so much, Joshua and I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. I love you.” And he started sobbing and hugged me and cried for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality it was probably a couple minutes. I hadn’t ever seen him do this before. In fact, I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think he was a man who could cry. I had imagined this scenario several times and in these scenarios, I imagined Dad’s tears as fireballs, that quickly jumped off his face because they were scared of him and proceeded to burn whatever building he was in to the ground. But no, that’s not how it was at all. He had real tears. Just like anyone else. My dad, the “Hardass”, the invulnerable, the superhero….the human…. with actual human feelings. He actually cried real tears. And I was about 99% sure that I wasn’t dreaming. It was really happening. I’ve only seen him cry one time since. He sat down next to me with his arm around me and neither of us said a word all the way until it was about time for Justin to take the mat for his finals match.

As mentioned, I’ve only seen my dad cry one time since then. That’s when one of Mepo’s standout wrestlers in the 90’s, Corey Baker, sadly passed away. When my dad gave Corey’s dad a hug at the funeral, Corey’s dad said, “please make sure to give your boys a hug and tell them you love them as much as you can because you never know when you won’t have another chance.” This tore my dad up and he was a wreck that entire day. Since then, he has reminded my brothers and I that he loves us whenever he feels the urge to. It’s not calculated in a manner to avoid it from losing meaning, because it doesn’t ever lose meaning.

A few days after the AAU State Tournament, Dad made it a point to take me out fishing, just the two of us… He asked me how my life was going at school, what subjects we were studying in History class, the difference between a curveball and a slider, how to tie a Palomar knot on a fishing line. He and I bickered about the effectiveness of a purple plastic worm. To this day, I have never caught a bass with one of those, but Dad has always knocked them down with it. His 6 lb. 12 ounce trophy fish was caught with one. He didn’t mention wrestling one time the entire outing. This was another thing that doesn’t happen often.

My dad and I have had hundreds of battles since where we have both upset each other, several of them were flat-out ugly…but ever since that match with Brad, I always knew that my dad loved me. I had a couple of terrible losses at HS districts my Sophomore and Junior years and I was devastated both times, similarly to how I felt after Helgeson beat me. He was 100% comforting and supportive after both losses, despite feeling angry. Again, we still had our moments over the years where I was a handful to him and he was too much of a hardass on me. It went back and forth, but not in those big moments where I needed him most. From that point on, regardless of how frustrated he was with me or how badly I felt I let him down or how disrespectful I acted towards him… deep down, I knew that my dad loved me and would do anything to ensure my happiness. I have Brad Helgeson’s pancake that he threw me in to thank for that.

Moving forward…

I had no idea that Brad remembered that match or remembered me at all until I was about 23 years old. I was tailgating in Iowa City when I received a phone call from my brother, Justin. I answered the phone with, “what’s up bro?” And he’s like, “JOOOOOSSSHSHHHHHUUUAAA! WHAT YOU DOING?!?!” Justin was obviously having a good time that day, as was I. I replied, “oh you know, the regular shenanigans. Tailgating in Iowa City.” Justin responded with, “I’m at UNI’s homecoming right now and just met a dude who said he wrestled you as a kid. Said you were beating him by a few points and that he threw you to your back and won at the very end.” “Oh yeah? Who is that?” I asked. “His name is Brad Helgeson and he says – what’s up!” To which I responded, “You are kidding me? Justin that’s the guy who beat me out of AAU State that one year.” Justin asked, “Your 4th grade year, seriously?! This is him?!” He knew exactly who I was talking about. I replied, “Yeah, that’s awesome that he remembers that! Tell him I said what’s up!” We got off the phone and got back to what we were doing shortly after that. It made me happy that he remembered that match. I have no idea why I was happy about that, but I thought it was really cool.

So there’s that. Over the years and the tens of thousands of posts I have written, I have never posted anything about that match. I expect to either regret it fully or feel as if a weight has been lifted off. Hopefully a father who struggles with feelings of anger when their kid falls short, will read this and take something from it.


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