It was around Thanksgiving Day of 2006, and Jerome Otis-Harris was just finishing up his sophomore year with the Bayonne High School football team.
“I was thinking about going out for the basketball team,” said the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Otis-Harris. “I had plans to play basketball. I talked about basketball with my father.”
What about wrestling?
“I didn’t even know what it was,” Otis-Harris said. “I thought it was like ‘The Undertaker’ taking on Kurt Angle slamming people to the mat and throwing people into the ropes. I had no intentions of wrestling.”
John Rickard, the assistant football coach, also works with the wrestling team. Rickard tried to convince Otis-Harris to become a wrestler.
“Coach Rickard always tried to get me to come to wrestling practice, but I wanted to play basketball,” said Otis-Harris, who uses the hyphenated name to honor both parents (Otis is his mother, Harris his father). “One of my football teammates Marcus Jones told me that wrestling was actually harder than football.”
Then Otis-Harris met Bayonne head wrestling coach Joe Collins.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Are you the wrestling coach?’ ” Collins said of that first meeting. “And I said, ‘Are you my heavyweight?’ I’m always looking for kids to come out. I scour the hallways looking for kids. I saw his size and thought he would be perfect for us.”
Otis-Harris decided to give wrestling a try.
After the first day of workouts, he wondered what in the world he had done.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Otis-Harris said. “I never wrestled before. I had no idea about moves. I went to practice and I almost died after that first day. At one point, I got slammed. I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t have wrestling shoes and had to wear socks on the mat. It was frustrating. I didn’t know anything.”
But Collins saw promise from that very first day.
“I think he surprised everyone with how quick he was,” Collins said. “He was very good on his feet. He was very strong as well. I thought he could become a good wrestler.”
However, no one could have ever imagined just how good Otis-Harris would become. He’s been wrestling for all of 15 months now and he’s already ranked as the No. 1 heavyweight (275 pounds and up) in the entire state of New Jersey.
It’s one of the most rapid ascents ever seen in New Jersey high school wrestling. Most wrestlers take years to gain enough experience and knowledge to become one of the state’s best. Most have extensive wrestling backgrounds, dating back to practically infancy.
Otis-Harris, still virtually a total novice to the sport, has a 20-0 record this season and has a 42-5 career mark. All five of his losses a year ago came to wrestlers who eventually wrestled at the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City.
This year, the remarkable junior climbed to the head of his weight class by upsetting Andrew Jennings of Manasquan, 5-1, at the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association’s All-Star Festival at Brick Memorial High School last weekend.
Just getting invited to compete in the tournament is a huge feat for someone with such limited wrestling background. Winning there? It’s unheard of.
“I was going down there to win,” Otis-Harris said. “I had no doubt I was going to win. I wanted to show everyone that I wanted to be considered with the top heavyweights in the state.”
Not bad for someone who just started competing a little over a year ago and was on the verge of walking away from the sport after the first grueling practice.
“I thought about it, but I don’t quit easily,” Otis-Harris said. “I was just disappointed at first. I’m usually pretty good when I start something.”
‘Heart of a champion’
Otis-Harris never played organized football before he entered Bayonne High School and has been a two-year starter along the line for the Bees, especially at nose guard.
“Wrestling was hard at first, but then I got used to it,” Otis-Harris said. “I didn’t know about the equipment. I didn’t know how to put on the head gear and wearing the singlet was ridiculous. I got banged around by Coach Rickard a lot when I first started. He would tell me names of moves to use and I didn’t even know what they were.”
“He knew absolutely nothing,” Collins said. “We had to teach him everything.”
Otis-Harris focused on the basics, like head throws and body locks. But he knew one thing right away.
“I loved it,” Otis-Harris said. “I was glad I threw basketball out the door. My father asked me, saying, ‘Are you sure?’ I was definitely sure. I loved it.”
Collins knew that Otis-Harris had the basics down.
“He has the heart of a champion,” Collins said. “He believes he’s going to win. He doesn’t think he can lose. He’s tough to score on and outsmarts people. He also has good endurance for his size. He never gets tired. He works as hard as our 130-pounder and sets the pace for our conditioning. No other heavyweight does that. He goes hard every match, every practice.”
Added Collins, “Plus, he learns things so quickly. You teach him a move and he absolutely gets it down pat right away.”
Collins entered Otis-Harris in a junior varsity tournament to begin his career in December of 2006. In his very first action, Otis-Harris placed second in the tournament, losing to Ameer Washington of Long Branch in the finals.
Much like Otis-Harris, Washington has now become a success story as well, as a football player who had never wrestled prior to high school.
Instead of being proud of his instant accomplishment, Otis-Harris was angry.
“I was disappointed,” Otis-Harris said. “I was dominating that tournament and lost. I wanted a spot on the varsity. When I lose, I’m disappointed.”
Otis-Harris eventually became the Bayonne regular at heavyweight and found instant success, winning 22 matches and losing in the District 16 finals. His match in the Region 4 tournament went to four overtimes and he had no idea about the overtime rules.
“He was so naïve last year,” Collins said. “He had no idea what the Districts or Regions were. He just wanted to win. It was just absolutely a case of simple raw talent. After his first year, nothing surprised me anymore.”
“I learned a lot last year, but I wanted to learn more,” Otis-Harris said.
So after his breakthrough season, Otis-Harris dedicated himself to wrestling. He attended the prestigious Bruce Baumgartner Wrestling Camp at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, run by the former world and Olympic champion from New Jersey. At the camp, Otis-Harris got to train and drill with another Olympic gold medal winner, Rulon Gardner.
“I didn’t know anything about them before hand,” Otis-Harris said. “But I know now. When Rulon was there, everyone was excited and I said, ‘Who is he?’ But once he drilled with me and beat me up bad, and that’s an understatement, then I got to know who he was. I became more of a student of the sport and that helped me a lot. I learned so much stuff.”
When the current season began, Otis-Harris was ready. He knew he was going to have a solid season.
The only problem was finding a suitable workout partner. He’s blown past his two coaches.
“I don’t even try to wrestle with him anymore,” said Rickard, who wrestled at Bayonne during his high school days in the late 1980s.
“Most of the time, I just work on my own,” Otis-Harris said. “I’m 282 pounds and most of my bigger teammates are 220, maybe 230. I don’t want to hurt them.”
Otis-Harris steamrolled through the first 18 matches of the season when he was approached to participate in the All-Star Festival. Kids from Bayonne don’t get the invite for such prestigious state tourneys.
“When I got the call, I was hoping to get a chance at Ameer Washington, to get some revenge on him,” Otis-Harris said. “I didn’t think I’d get the No. 1-ranked kid in the state. I was amazed and excited.”
But Otis-Harris was paired with Jennings and manhandled the previously top-ranked heavyweight in New Jersey.
“It was amazing,” Otis-Harris said of the win. “I think Coach Rickard was more excited than me. I just thought it was a good opportunity to help put Bayonne wrestling on the map. Now, everyone knows about us.”
When the state rankings came out last week, Otis-Harris went from No. 7 in the state to the top spot. The second-year wrestler was actually sitting atop the statewide rankings.
“Coach Rickard sent me a text message and I said to myself, ‘No, it can’t be,’ ” Otis-Harris said. “I ran to the store, bought the paper, opened it up and saw my name. It was unbelievable.”
But now, the ranking means something totally different.
“Everyone is shooting for me now,” Otis-Harris said. “I now have the bulls’ eye. I used to like being the underdog. Now, I’m the top dog. I have to want it more. I think I’m more motivated now to stay there, because everyone is going to try to beat me. I’m not going to let it happen.”
Bayonne hasn’t exactly had a rich tradition in wrestling. The school has crowned only two District 16 champions in the tourney’s history and had two wrestlers, Teddy Delgado and Rob Barry, to advance to the NJSIAA state championships.
That’s Otis-Harris’ mission now, become the first-ever Bayonne District 16 champ who made it on to the states.
“Jerome hasn’t won anything yet,” Collins said. “The ranking doesn’t mean anything. But I see him working every day and he’s definitely determined and very, very driven. He also has this quiet confidence. The way he handles pressure is amazing to me. You don’t see it on the high school level. He works very hard. He hasn’t achieved his goals just yet, but he hasn’t lost sight of what he has to do. He’s motivated to take it to the next level. I can see him stepping up and achieving.”
Just like Otis-Harris has achieved in the classroom. He’s ranked among the top students in the junior class and is a First Honors student with an average of 90 and above in all classes. He’s also an avid singer and a member of the school choir.
But being ranked the top wrestler in his weight class? As a second-year wrestler? It’s beyond words and comprehension.
“It really is amazing,” Collins said. “I don’t think anyone saw this coming.”
Even Otis-Harris is stunned by his success.
“I never thought I’d get this far, being No. 1 in the state,” Otis-Harris said. “Some people have been wrestling for years and don’t get this success. I have less than two years under my belt. It is amazing. They’ve been wrestling for a lifetime. I’m still new at it. But I definitely feel I have something to offer in the sport.”
And now, Otis-Harris is a wrestler, through and through.
“I’m a wrestler more than a football player now,” Otis-Harris said. “I think that’s my future.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com