When Penn High School wrestling coach Brad Harper’s father, Terry, passed away three weeks ago, it took him just days to return to his team.
The relatively short hiatus was not for lack of grief. Harper just knows what the sport of wrestling can do for a person and considers it his mission to share it.
“Wrestling is what has made me who I am today,” he said. “I want to give that back to our wrestlers. I'd like to have state champions. I'd like to have a state championship team. But wrestling for me, ultimately, it's what it's done for me and I want to give that back to our wrestlers."
"I want to show them the opportunities they have through wrestling to build character, make them a good role model for young wrestlers. Discipline. Hard work. Teaching them that in life a lot of things are going to be thrown at you and you can't quit. Adversity. That's why I like to do this."
Those lessons couldn’t come at a better time for the Kingsmen as they prepare for the team wrestling state finals on Saturday. Penn has never won the team title. And this is their last chance. The IHSAA will do away with the team honor beginning next season.
“It's really exciting,” said Trevor Manspeaker, wrestler in the 145-pound weight class. “It's a great opportunity to prove ourselves against some of the best in Indiana. I'm really looking forward to doing it for my teammates, my drill partners, and especially all the coaches and the community.”
“They're going to go in there with no fear and nothing to lose,” Harper added, pointing out that his team is a heavy underdog. “It's going to be pretty exciting if we can pull this off."
The state competition will cap a trying season for Harper. His father, while never pushy, was with him every step of the way as he got into wrestling.
"He was one of my greatest supporters. He's never missed a wrestling match from college or high school. Now I'm in coaching—he still hasn't missed a match. I know he still is watching. He still isn't missing a match for me.”
And Harper’s team has shown they’ve already taken to those lessons of character. At Terry’s funeral, the entire Penn wrestling team showed up in suits, unannounced.
“That was a pretty emotional moment to see the guys,” Harper said. “You give back and then they give back in return. That was cool to see."
And the team isn’t done. The seniors on the team recently called a private meeting, dedicating their state championship run to coach Harper and his family. Winning one for Brad would mean the world.
“He’s like a father figure to a lot of us—always having our back and being there for us,” said Manspeaker. ”It's just what we should do back to him, paying him back for all he's given us.”
“He really has given me honestly everything I see to be in a man,” said Devin Reagan, Penn’s 220lb wrestler. “He's just a great guy and I'm thankful for everything he’s done for me. I'm sure the guys in there feel the same way.”
“When his dad passed, he was there for us still,” added Daniel Ginter.
Harper, of course, doesn’t want to make the championship about him. He just wants his team to learn what it feels like to be on top.
"If everyone goes out and we could win the final it would be a high emotionally. I don't know how I would describe it,” he said. “It would be something really special if we could go out, as a program, as a team, and win the state finals.”