Packers state champion Harms uses wrestling to cope with loss of mother
JJ Harms could always hear his mom loud and clear during his wrestling matches. He'd hear screaming and look up in the middle of a match in confusion, wondering who was yelling at him. It was his mom, Trish.
Wrestling matches have been quieter for the last two seasons at West Fargo for the senior.
At 3:20 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2016, his sister woke him up to say their mother had stopped breathing. He thought she was joking, but he went upstairs and saw his mother on the floor of her bedroom.
Harms went outside, his mind blank. He looked at the ground and waited with the family dog for two hours until his mom and everyone else had left the house.
"I was shocked and didn't know what to do," Harms said. "I went outside and hoped she would start breathing again. And she didn't."
Trish died of a heart attack.
But Harms never wanted pity. He repeated as a state champion nearly six months to the day of his mother's death.
His mom was at work when Harms won his first state championship yet she called him as soon as she heard the news. Harms said she sounded as loud as if she was in the stands.
"She said, 'I'm proud of you. I love you,'" Harms said. "She just kept saying she was proud of me."
Packers head coach Ben Berogan said Harms proves he's tough by the way he responds from losses in wrestling. The loss of Harms' mother was no different. Berogan said Harms has gotten stronger in every way since his mother died. After winning his state title at 113 pounds last year, Harms hit the weight room and moved up to 138 pounds.
Harms usually keeps to himself, but Berogan said he let his emotions go through wrestling.
"He takes losses pretty hard, but at the same time he comes back even harder," Berogan said. "I think that alone describes him perfectly. He takes everything to heart. Losing a match, no matter what match it is, is hard for him. But at the same time, he comes back strong after it, wrestles hard and never quits."
Coaches and teammates say Harms has always followed through when he put his mind to his goals.
Classmate and three-time state champion Jared Franek said the death was tough for everyone. He said Harms grew closer with his teammates as they tried to help him push through.
Harms is quiet, Franek said, but gets his work done and gets better every year.
"He bounces back whenever he has to. A loss is a loss, but something like that is a huge loss for anyone to go through," Franek said. "Anybody complains about a loss, but he just lost his mom and he's back in the room getting better every day."
Harms' family raised him on wrestling. He wrestled with his three older sisters around the house, and they helped him warm up before matches. His dad ran him through drills before tournaments.
His mom, Harms said, was always the most supportive.
"It looked really fun, beating up on people and winning," Harms said. "She didn't care as long as I was happy and I was winning."
If Harms could talk to his mom one more time, he doesn't know what he would say, but he knows he would "give her the biggest hug ever." The pain is easier now, Harms said while outside of West Fargo's wrestling room, but it's still hard when he goes home and Trish isn't there.
But, in a way, she remains with him. Whenever Harms doubted himself, whenever he questioned if he could beat another good wrestler, his mom smacked him across the head, as if to slap away his doubt in one swift motion.
Of all the things his mom did for him, Harms misses those slaps across the head the most.
"She slapped me upside the head and said, 'Yes you can,'" Harms said. "I just picture my mom slapping me on the head and saying, 'Man up. It's just one loss.' So I just go out there and fight for what I want."
Harms still has more to fight for. He wants to wrestle in college, but hasn't talked to schools yet. He knows he'll have to work harder in a new weight class if he wants to win his third state championship.
But all of this wrestling helped Harms cope with the loss of his mother. His father told Harms he couldn't think about his mom when he's on a wrestling mat. Once he's off, Harms can think about her as much as he wants.
Harms remembers advice from his aunt that helped him carry on. It helped him as much as a slap across the head.
"She told me she would want me to suck it up, get out there and beat some ass," Harms said. "So that's what I did."