March 3, 2003
Cleveland State's 184-lb. senior wrestler Gerald Harris (Tulsa, OK/East Central) has already accumulated a long list of "titles:" champion, scholar, student-leader and homecoming king. But to Harris, who on Feb. 23 became CSU's all-time leader in wrestling victories, there are no two sweeter words than "All-American."
"I've been wrestling for a long time but that's what I want to show my grand-kids," Harris said. "It's not even the trophy-it's just knowing that you were All-American. You put a lot of hard work into it and you did it." The All-American squad is comprised of the top eight wrestlers in each weight class. Harris was ranked fourth in a late-February poll, but he knows his All-American status will be determined after the Eastern Wrestling League Championships at West Virginia University on March 8 & 9.
"It's all up to me," he said. "I'm not a Cinderella story. A while back, people were saying 'he could be' when they talked of me being an All-American. Now it's 'he will be,' but at this stage of the season, everybody is both winning and losing-I've beat some of the best and lost to some of the best."
There has been far more winning than losing for Harris in 2002-2003. Heading into the EWL Championships, Harris stands at 35-3 on the season with 113 career victories. He recently became CSU's all-time win leader, passing Toby Matney, who amassed 112 wins at 158 and 167 pounds from 1976-1979. Harris also set the record for single season dual meet victories this season with 18 wins, surpassing the 16-win record held by John Reid, Gary Sorace and Tom Cavanaugh in the 1973-74 season and Tony DiGiovanni in 1975-76.
Harris was headed for a place in CSU's record books long before this senior season. He was the first CSU freshman to win more than 20 matches in nearly a decade, going 26-12 and earning his first NCAA bid. As a sophomore, he went 27-11, tying the team mark for wins in a season. Harris ended his junior year 25-11 at 174 lbs., with a fourth place finish at the EWL Championships that brought him his second NCAA invitation. Ironically, it was the losses in the past three seasons that Harris credits as his motivation for success. "I started to look at those losses, asked 'why' and worked to improve on my mistakes," he recalled.
Harris' coaches, Gary Roberts at East Central High School and CSU's Jack Effner, have supplied a good measure of the necessary encouragement and support. "Here at CSU, I had to figure out why I was losing," he said, "and it came down the fact that my confidence wasn't very high. I didn't know how good I was, but Coach Eff(ner) knew, and that was frustrating to him. It took awhile for him to convince me. In my opinion, it took a little too long," he laughed. Harris acknowledged that it also took a stern reprimand from his high school coach to get himself back on track. "I wasn't doing as well as I knew I could," he remembered. "I called my coach back home, and he said, 'Just shut up and wrestle. If you're going to do it, you'd better do it right. Give it your best shot; what are you going to do, sit around and cry about it for five years?'" Harris chuckled at the memory. "That talk did me a lot of good," he said. "It helped to make me my own best critic."
Harris' esteem for Effner is quite evident. "I had to find a coach I could enjoy being around for five years," he said, "and when I met Coach Eff on my recruiting trip, I could tell right away that he had heart." Harris, a history education major-and CSU's Homecoming King in 2001-hopes to one day coach high school wrestling and model himself after Effner. "I'd like to be as smart a coach as he is," Harris said. "I'd like to emulate his style, his strategy and his way of training kids to get them ready. He's always looking ahead.
According to Harris, the winning formula for him is to go out and simply wrestle. "When you're out there and you're in that zone, it's instinct," he said. "If you're thinking, 'What shot do I use?' it's too late. It should be natural." Harris concedes that he "used to think too much" on the mat. "Instead of taking a shot, I'd think about it, and that's why I lost all the time. By then it was too late, because the opening had already come and gone."
Wrestling is both physically and mentally very demanding, but Harris has been conditioned for the task. The schedule he kept while at East Central in Tulsa-where he was the school's mascot and its homecoming king-would intimidate most adults. "I'd go to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then work at a grocery store from 4-11 p.m.," he said, "and I assumed that was normal. I've actually had more free time in college." The grocery store tried to capitalize on Harris' strength and stature for its own benefit. "They wanted me to try to catch people stealing, but I saw too many people get beat up doing that," he recalled. "I had a career to think about and I didn't want to be Rambo!"
Harris attributes his strong work ethic to his parents. His mother, Marie attended every one of her son's matches from third grade through his senior year of high school. A housekeeping manager for many years, she is about to complete her bachelor's degree in business administration. "She's had to work on that slowly but surely," Harris said. "I'm very proud of her." Gerald Harris Sr., a landscaper, insisted that his son work for anything he wanted. "Nothing was handed to me," the younger Harris said. "When I wanted my first pair of Nikes, I had to mow lawns to earn money to get them. When I wanted money in my pocket, I had to work to get it. My dad has always worked hard, and he made me do the same. I really value that."
Harris hopes his strong work ethic will pay off at the EWL Championships, where he is likely to face defending champion Scott Justus of Virginia Tech, whom Harris edged 6-4 last month. EWL success would likely earn Harris his third bid to the NCAA Championships, held this year March 20-22 in Kansas City, MO. It would also likely bring Harris the coveted title of All-American.