What started as something Jesse Leng did on a whim has turned into a career full of memories.
Leng, 33, who will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 12 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth, was first introduced to wrestling by a friend when he was 11.
He showed up in tennis shoes and sweatpants, entered an open tournament at Highland and finished second.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Too small for football and basketball, the 1999 Highland graduate, eventual two-time state champion, high school All-American, University Freestyle All-American, NCAA national qualifier and assistant coach at powerful St. Paris Graham took to the sport.
“I had a knack for it,” he said. “Wrestling was a natural fit for my body and the things I did athletically.”
It was also a natural fit for his mindset, as he believed athletes took in what they put out. A big believer in character, Leng loved the one-on-one aspect of wrestling.
“He had a fiery attitude,” former teammate Steve Kibler said. “He has such a drive to be the best at whatever he does. When he decided in middle school to be a great wrestler, there was nothing stopping him.
“I can’t put into words how much better he made me as a wrestler and a person. Everyone needs to learn how to get past things. Getting your butt kicked by Jesse Leng in practice really teaches you how to get up and keep going. He’s such a motivator. He set the tone for the team and made it so much better.”
Motivator, intimidator, winner
To a man, those who talk about Leng talk about his determination.
David Taylor needs no introduction in wrestling circles. A four-time state champion at Graham who accumulated 180 wins, Taylor went on to have quite a successful career at PennState.
This year’s Dan Hodge Trophy winner — wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy — Taylor just wrapped up a stellar career with the Nittany Lions, winning two national titles and finishing second twice. The four-time Big Ten champion notched a 134-3 record at PennState and finished second at the World Team Trials.
He says those accolades were helped by having Leng as one of his coaches in high school.
“He was a great motivator,” Taylor said. “He was very high energy and it’s always nice to have a guy like that in your corner. He was excited to be there and was excited to push you in practice.
“He’s a guy with a lot of enthusiasm. You can tell he’s very passionate about whatever he’s doing, whether it’s wrestling, life or whatever is on his mind. Being around that energy, excitement and passion is something that you can address anything you’re doing and really enjoy it.”
Those around Leng enjoyed seeing that drive.
Whether it is coaches or the countless others who still talk about Leng’s accolades, they marvel at his will to win.
“He was short, stocky, very physical, energetic and showed emotion,” Wadsworth coach John Gramuglia said. “You knew that passion matched his heart. That’s what drove him. I go to camp every year now, to be around him. That energy revives you. Every time you’re around him, it’s hard not get that vibe. You want to run a marathon after talking to him.”
Mark Savoia, a Highland assistant who would later become head coach, worked with Leng one year and saw all he needed.
“He was a very head-strong, athletic dude,” Savoia said. “When you love something that much, it is fun to put your heart and soul into it. He had the tenacity about him where he would go, go, go, go, go until he got what he wanted. I always looked at him as a kid who was non-stop.”
Leng was the buzz
The last two-time state champion at Highland and only the third in school history — Don Tomko (1970-71) and Rick Burton (1981-82) were the others — Leng didn’t win a district match his sophomore year.
Then he took the words of Hornets coach Bryan Marcelli to heart and refocused his thinking.
“Jesse had beaten the state champ Shaun Tomkins (of Coventry) that year something like 7-2,” Marcelli said. “The potential was there, but the mental discipline wasn’t.
“He was a little bit sick before the tournament, but we all have our issues. I said at the banquet at the end of his sophomore year if this kid pulls it all together, he won’t lose another high school match and he basically did that.”
The four-time letterwinner and 1999 Gazette MVP put on a clinic wherever he went.
Leng beat Twinsburg Chamberlain’s Jimmy Michalek 8-2 to claim the 119-pound Division II title in 1998 and followed with a championship at 125 in a 4-2 match against Columbus DeSales’ Jason Barnett in 1999.
“I hated and loved wrestling him in practice,” Kibler said. “He was just dominant. It was a good practice if I touched his leg while trying to get in a shot. I’m not saying I even took him down.
“It was like, ‘Oh, he only tech-falled me twice today instead of four times.’ He was just dominant. He was a fire hydrant — short, stocky, strong and hard to take down.”
By the time Leng left, he was Highland’s most decorated wrestler with 136 wins. While wrestling schedules today allow for as many as 60 matches in a season, what the two-time state champion did was nothing short of amazing — even though his career wins record has been eclipsed at the school.
“He knew what needed to be done and stepped up to the occasion,” Marcelli said. “He’s a good leader. He was a good influence. He had a positive aspect on everything. You wanted to be around him on and off the mat. The kids wanted to be where he was.”
College might not have panned out the way Leng wanted, but he made the most of his time at OhioState.
A national qualifier as a sophomore, two hernia surgeries and a dislocated elbow kept Leng from his dreams.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t push through and become an incredible teammate as he balanced being in the Marines Corps with a busy schedule.
Many times Leng wrestled on Friday and Sunday and then headed to Akron to fulfill his Marines commitment for three days before driving back to Columbus to do it all over again.
“The Marine Corps/college experience was one of the most formative things I’ve done,” Leng said. “I reference it all the time. Phrases and mindsets I learned then, I draw on all the time. I never knew the structure would form me that way.”
That dedication rubbed off on his teammates and brought a new-found respect from former Buckeyes coach Russ Hellickson.
“The college experience is totally dependent on your approach,” Hellickson said. “Jesse was very motivated. He worked very hard and was positive for the team. Wrestling was more to Jesse. He was one of those guys when he came out you thought he’d be a multi-time All-American if not national champion, but if the body doesn’t respond you won’t get it done.
“Jesse never gave up. Nothing is as contagious as being an example, and you see that now in his coaching. I don’t think you’ll find a kid in St. Paris Graham that doesn’t have respect for Jesse. He cares so much about the guys he’s around, and that reflects on his entire life.”
The Falcons and the future
Graham was a D-II state power before Leng arrived eight seasons ago. With the Marysville resident as an assistant, the Falcons are untouchable.
Leng, who is an assistant director for Graham coach Jeff Jordan’s state champ wrestling camp, had helped Jordan in high school and got a hold of the legendary coach and former four-time state champ. He was trying to help Tucker Armstrong get to Graham and found out there was an opening at the school as an assistant coach.
“I interviewed him and loved him,” Jordan said. “He’s become like a little brother to me. He works his tail off and is a great, great person.
“Jesse means everything. He’s my right-hand man. He’s on the same page. He’s a great assistant coach and could be a great head coach. His loyalty is what I love the most. He still gets in the trenches with the kids. The kids have the utmost respect for him.”
Leng’s skills as a coach have led to state titles every year at Graham. It has also meant 38 individual state champions, 41 placers and four-time state champions in Taylor, Micah Jordan and Bo Jordan in those eight seasons.
Part of that is Leng’s determination, part of it is his knowledge and part of it his ability to connect with student-athletes.
“As a high school kid, you have those guys that are reassuring and are always in your corner,” Taylor said. “They want you to do well and be successful. As an 18-year-old kid, I really appreciated the things he did for me. He always made sure I was ready to go. It was really important to me that he was always there.”
Leng will be at Graham as long as Jeff Jordan wants him. Jordan has kids in college now and has made no bones about wanting Leng to take over for him someday.
It’s a possibility Leng embraces and bats away at the same time.
“It’s a tricky thing,” he said. “It’s an honor, but he has shoes I could never fill. I’m honored he feels that way, but Graham is his baby. He built this. It’s a freight train. I might be the second-best coach in the state, but I’ll never be Jeff Jordan.
“I’m competitive. I’ll do what’s best for the program, but it is daunting. It’s difficult to be the guy that takes over for the guy. … It would be very difficult for me to maintain the standard Jeff Jordan put in place. I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. He’s second to none in coaching. I just don’t want him to leave. I tell him I won’t let him retire. It’s in his DNA. I’m completely loyal to him, if that means me holding down the fort until he’s ready to come back. I’m the person where I believe he built the ship. I might drive it for a while, but he built it.”
That said, Jeff Jordan has faith that when the day comes for him to step aside, Leng will be there with the same grit and determination he showed on the mat.
“Jesse loves wrestling and loves to win,” he said. “He’s an overachiever. He trains hard and always has a purpose for what he is doing. He’s great at convincing the kids that.
“That’s the hard part. It’s real easy to show kids what they need to do. To transpose that technique to the believing is what he does. Hopefully he sticks with the state champ camp and becomes the next head coach at St. Paris Graham.”
Contact Brad Bournival at email@example.com.