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Finding the right path: Hellinger discovers positive direction by coming to Dickinson State

Press Photo by Meaghan MacDonald Dickinson State senior Jesse Hellinger, right, wrestles Montana State-Northern’s Garrett DeMers during the 197-pound championship of the Tyler Plummer Classic on Saturday at Scott Gymnasium.

While many athletes consider awards as their best achievements — a personal-best time or, perhaps, a championship — Dickinson State senior Jesse Hellinger says his greatest accomplishment is the diploma that awaits him in the near future.

Next semester, the wrestler will become a first-generation college graduate.

“I told coach (Thadd) O’Donnell, the first time he’ll see me cry is when I graduate and get my degree,” Hellinger said.

But, at one time, the reality of walking across the stage and receiving his diploma wasn’t even an option.

Hellinger grew up in Winters, Calif., with instability in his early life. During his sophomore year, Hellinger was taken in by his godparents — Frank and Mary Ramos — when life seemed like it wasn’t heading in the right direction.

“It took a village to raise me. I was kind of a rough kid,” Hellinger said. “But those people, my godparents, took me in when not too many people would have. They got me where I am today and I can credit them for almost everything.”

Hellinger hated school and felt college wasn’t in the cards. He was set to enlist in the Marines before his godparents stepped in with an ultimatum. If Hellinger could get a full-ride scholarship to college, he had to go. He begrudgingly agreed but received a wrestling scholarship to California State University-Bakersfield, an NCAA Division I school.

When things fell through there, Hellinger’s godparents convinced him to press on and finish what he started. He spent time at Sacramento City College before transferring permanently to DSU in the fall of 2011.

“Ever since then, that’s kind of when I decided I went from being a kid to a man,” Hellinger said. “Marines is a good path for some people, but having a degree is obviously a better path. That’s when I changed my whole mindset from Marines (and) athletics to education. It’s 100 percent my godparents’ fault it happened. It’s not me or me growing into a human, its them pointing me into the right path.”

Passionate about school, sport

Hellinger has become one of the most consistent wrestlers on DSU’s team.

After suffering a shoulder injury at the beginning of the season, Hellinger has worked his way to a 6-3 record. He claimed the championship belt buckle for the 197-pound weight class at DSU’s Tyler Plummer Classic on Saturday and is ranked in the NAIA top 10 at his weight. Last season, he took second at regionals and nationals at 184.

As passionate as Hellinger is for his sport, he primarily used wrestling as a catalyst to secure his education. The senior expects to graduate next fall with a degree in social sciences with a criminal justice track and a minor in sociology. He hopes to stay in Dickinson and work for either the police or sheriff’s department.

Besides pursuing a career with the police, Hellinger also wants to coach, particularly at the high school level. While at Sacramento City, he helped coach at Antelope High School for two seasons.

The first season, the team finished last in its league. The next season, they finished second. Hellinger said it’s more gratifying to teach and watch high school wrestlers than relishing in any award he has ever won.

“That’s probably my most memorable moment because I got to coach,” Hellinger said with a smile. “I was helping those kids out and they did it using my moves. They’re doing my tilts and the leg ride I do.”

Working with Schlecht

Hellinger has shown he can be a leader on and off the mat.

O’Donnell and DSU assistant coach Justin Schlecht have seen it since he first arrived to DSU and consider him a model example for the younger wrestlers.

“When you have a guy with that caliber and type of leadership qualities, and then he’s good on top of, it makes what he’s doing look important to the young guys,” O’Donnell said. “They see he’s getting extra lifts in, he’s doing these workouts outside the room and working hard in practice. Young guys see that and want to emulate that to the point of being able to get to that level.”

Hellinger said he works predominantly with Schlecht, a three-time NAIA champion at 197.

When something needs to be addressed, Schlecht is the coach Hellinger turns to the most. The feelings of admiration and an easy working relationship are mutual between the two.

Schlecht said Hellinger has been focused since the beginning and he’s easy to work with because he gives back.

“It’s been a lot of fun working with Jesse and the good leadership skills he has,” Schlecht said. “The skills on the mat, his dedication to doing things on the mat, off the mat, in the classroom, in the weight room, runs. Those kind of things make it easy to work with him.”

Prepared for what comes next

For many seniors, the thought of facing the unknown doesn’t cross their minds until after graduation day. Hellinger said he doesn’t dread graduation one bit.

Hellinger recognizes and celebrates the impact he has made on the Dickinson community and is proud to have become a part of it.

He said coming to DSU has made him more open-minded and he is excited to experience new places and things. Hellinger’s entire life journey has come to this moment where he can reach his accomplishment and call himself a college graduate.

“Most people (feel) like they’re scared, but I’m not scared at all,” he said. “I’ve done all that I can do. I’ve went as far as I can go and I have no regrets about anything I’ve done. Every day I come, I work as hard as I can and I’ve done that the last 15 years I’ve been wrestling. It’s almost kind of a relief. I know I started it and I finished it.

“The last three years, I’ve grown so much as a person, as a wrestler, as a student and so it’s been a great ride, the best opportunity I’ve been able to accept in my life.”

Meaghan MacDonald

Meaghan is the sports page designer and copy editor for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.  After graduating from James Madison University (Va.) in May 2013, she moved from New Jersey to North Dakota to start pursuing her career in sports journalism and was a sports reporter for the Dickinson Press and covered Dickinson State athletics. Meaghan has been working for the Forum since June 2015.