Pittsburgh values shaped Olympic wrestler Jake Herbert



LONDON -- Jacob Herbert immigrated to the United States from Germany before prohibition, making an honest living by selling alcohol on Pittsburgh's North Side. He had a son, who would become one of the first settlers of the fledgling North Hills suburb called Wexford around the time of the Second World War.

Jacob's grandson, Jacob II, would grow up there and start a construction company. Jacob II's sons would take over the business and call it J.J. Herbert & Sons, and, one of the brothers, Jim, would name his boy Jacob III. The child would go by "Jake."

Jake's life was a Pittsburgh one. He played every sport imaginable -- from judo to swimming to gymnastics -- and during the summers, he'd work at construction sites lugging materials at the order of his father. Sundays in the fall were spent around the television set watching the Steelers, bleeding black and gold and internalizing a key idea: Pittsburgh was a city of champions, and if you were from there, you had better start to view yourself as a champion.

Jake Herbert has traveled a long way from his hometown and his state championship at North Allegheny High School. He will compete today for Olympic gold in the 84-kilogram (about 185 pounds) freestyle wrestling event, and 65 family and friends are expected to be in attendance at London's ExCel Exhibition Centre.

Many of them will be wearing black and gold and waving "Terrible Towels," which will make it seem as if Pittsburgh is one of the 204 countries being represented at the Olympics and not just one city with unmatchable civic pride.

Jake wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a very strong traditional town, and hard work helps you to get ahead," Jim said. "He's learned that from growing up there, from the work ethic that we all have and what we do every day and the pride that we take in the products and homes that we build. It all transcends over into sports and in life."

For the Herberts, it's a simple equation: You get back what you put in. Because they believe nobody in the field will have trained as maniacally as Jake, 27, then it follows that nobody will have what it takes to beat him.

He will have to win four matches in a row, something he has done more times than he can count. And, if you listen to him, Jake doesn't sound like someone you'd want to spend even a second with on the wrestling mat.

"I'm confident I can wrestle six minutes harder than any other person can," Jake said. "If they want to stay at my pace, they can try it, but they're gonna fade, and I'm gonna break them."

Or this.

"I'm gonna dominate this guy from start to finish. I'm gonna make him hate being out there. I'm gonna make it six minutes from hell, where he's gonna be crying to his coach, 'I don't even want to wrestle this guy again.' "

Or this.

"Literally, if he wants to win, his best chance is to end my life."

Good luck with that.

Along with wrestling Jake's 6-foot-tall body, they'll also have to take on his force of personality, much of which comes from his outgoing and quick-witted mother, Kelly. The root of his unrelenting attitude, though, comes from Jim, who was given the nickname "Lucifer" as a high school wrestler at North Allegheny.

Jim went on to wrestle at the college level at Indiana State and later on at Clarion University. The sport was in his blood, and Jim knew that his son would be a natural wrestler from watching him in judo. But he did not want Jake to wrestle too early in life for fear that he would burn out.

"I didn't want him to be the so-called 'man-child' in high school," Jim said. "You're so good you accomplish these goals too early and then kind of fizzle out."

Once Jake started wrestling, around the fourth grade, Jim would coach him all the way up. He became a volunteer assistant at North Allegheny, where he'd re-earn his Lucifer nickname with the workouts he would give the boys.

Their 5-mile Sunday runs became the stuff of legend.

"I understand how much you can push people's bodies and limits," Jim said.

"Some guys can take more than others."

Jake could always take more, and that's where those long summer days at the construction site came into play.

"He'd be like, 'There's 500 sheets of plywood. I'll be back in four hours. Get them inside,' " Jake said. "It made everything on the mat that much easier."

Jim had another purpose in mind, too.

"I wanted to instill in him that, as you get older, you're better off using your mind than your back for a job if you can," Jim said. "He learned to not like that. If you can get up in the morning and go off to work and love what you do, it's not really a job."

Jake got the message, and he did well enough in school and with his test scores to get admitted into Northwestern and Michigan. He chose the Wildcats, winning two NCAA championships and graduating with a degree in communications. Not surprising, when it came down to it, a career in wrestling sounded way better than a career in communications, although Jake excels at both pursuits.

Wrestling, despite all of the work Jake has put into it, has not yet begun to feel like a job. When it does, it will be time to retire.

Until then, Jake will keep wrestling. He has pushed so hard for today's moment in London that he will need several surgeries after the Olympics are over that will keep him out six to nine months. Sometimes, Jim will have to step in over the phone with Jake's coach Sean Bormet, a Michigan assistant who has been training Jake at the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., and ask that his son get a rest because Jake won't do it.

Kelly Herbert has had her own role the past few months. She has been working with a travel agent to make sure that the family and all of Jake's friends from Pittsburgh, Northwestern and around the country were set up for their trips to London.

"I'm an underpaid secretary," Kelly said.

The Herberts will be surprised if it doesn't pay off in Olympic gold today and a triumphant return to Pittsburgh, the city that forged Jake.

"I'm right behind him in confidence that he's going to win a gold medal and get it done," Jim said. "I'm not really nervous. I know my child. I know what he's capable of doing."

Today

Wrestling: Medal matches for the freestyle wrestling 60 kg, 84 kg and 120 kg-classes.

When: 2:15 p.m.

TV: WPXI.

olympics - olympicsfeatures

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 11, 2012 4:00 AM


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