To many, it’s a sign of brotherly love. A way to hash out sibling rivalries and declare oneself to be atop the household hierarchy; the best, the toughest, the macho-est of all.
Craig and Susan Zeerip saw a great love for wrestling from their three sons beginning at an early age in their Fremont, Mich. home. However, their sons never quite outgrew their wrestling ways. The couple doesn’t have to see their sons duke it out at home anymore, though.
Instead, they travel to Ann Arbor, where their three sons — redshirt junior Justin, redshirt freshman Brandon and freshman Collin — are members of the Michigan wrestling team.
It’s nearly unheard of for three brothers to compete on one team at such a high level, but it’s even more unusual that this family can even utter the words, “Go Blue.”
Craig and Susan are graduates of Ohio State, where Craig wrestled in the mid-1980s — even Justin and Brandon grew up diehard Buckeye fans.
These days, they laugh at stories of getting heckled by classmates for wearing their Buckeye attire to school.
“Growing up in Michigan, there were a lot of Michigan fans around us,” Justin said. “Especially when we were growing up, Michigan was winning a lot in the Michigan-Ohio State (football) game; we’d always get crap. People would even leave messages on the answering machine.”
Only Collin can lay claim to being a lifelong Wolverine. From a young age, pictures show him sporting Michigan attire next to his scarlet and gray-clad brothers.
This season, Justin is 12-7, while Brandon — the reigning Big Ten Wrestler of the Week — is 2-1. Collin, meanwhile, is redshirting this season.
Small town roots
The journey to Ann Arbor started in two small, neighboring towns three and a half hours west of Ann Arbor — Hesperia and Fremont.
Craig and Susan met at Ohio State and married. After graduating, they moved to Fremont — where Craig grew up — and have since taken over the Zeerip family business, Heritage Farms, which provides fresh produce to Meijer.
In 1990, Craig became the head coach of the Hesperia High School wrestling team, located three miles from his house. He remained head coach for the next 15 years, but later swapped roles with the assistant coach prior to Justin’s arrival to high school.
“It’s a wrestling community,” Craig said. “We have a huge fan base. They love wrestling. There isn’t a lot to do in Hesperia. That’s why I think wrestling does very well in Hesperia as far as attendance.”
Craig estimates that Hesperia draws approximately 700 to 800 fans at the wrestling meets. To put that into perspective, the town’s population is under 1,000. The town has just two traffic lights — a shocking number when you consider that there are triple that number of Hesperia alumni who currently wrestle for Division-I schools.
Though the average graduating class at Hesperia is only about 50, six wrestlers are on scholarship at premiere programs. Sophomore Dan Yates — a close family friend of the Zeerips — joins the brothers on the Michigan squad. Philip Khozein — who lived with the Zeerips throughout high school — is a sophomore at Michigan State and Malcolm Martin is a freshman at Central Michigan.
Craig didn’t really push wrestling on his sons, but in 1997 — after being at practices and meets for much of his early life — it was time for eight-year-old Justin to give it a try.
“I think they all grew up with it,” Craig said. “And then, since Justin was going to be wrestling, then they wanted to wrestle too.”
And so it began. In no time, six year-old Brandon and four year-old Collin were also on the mats. The kids — who would create space to wrestle by moving couches in their living room — now create bigger things. And what they left looms even larger.
Big fish from a small pond
You’d be hard-pressed to find a family more accomplished and well rounded than the Zeerips. Each brother was class valedictorian. And on the mats, they earned a combined 749 wins and nine state championships.
Collin — who skipped eighth grade — earned 13 varsity letters in wrestling, golf, cross-country and football, where he started at quarterback. That’s more than one varsity sport per season, all while traveling for wrestling competitions and maintaining a 4.0 grade-point-average. He won three wrestling state titles.
Brandon won two state titles and also starred on the football team — he holds the Hesperia single-season rushing yards record.
And then there was Justin.
“I put a lot of hard work into (wrestling),” he said. “I had always grown up around it, so when I was a freshman in high school, I just wanted to take it one match at a time.”
And he would. From his first match as a freshman to his state championship as a senior, Justin didn’t lose. Two hundred sixty times he stepped onto the mats. And 260 times he stepped off victorious — four of which earned him state titles.
His 260-match win streak and his 203 career pins are national (yes, national) records. To add to his four wrestling state titles, he also won two in cross-country.
“We probably left a pretty good legacy in Hesperia,” Collin, the last brother to leave the town, said. “Everybody not only realizes the success we had on the mat, but they also recognize the success we had in the classroom. I feel like everybody can look at it and see, ‘That’s a really positive legacy.’ ”
Buckeye blood turning blue
In sixth grade — after winning a state tournament — Justin began to believe he had a talent worth pursuing. And in high school, recruiters began to take notice. But from the beginning, it became apparent that the school he grew up hating might be the right choice.
“It was funny, one of the assistant coaches (from Michigan) sent us an email that they’re going to come watch Justin wrestle,” Susan recalls. “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be funny if he ended up going to Michigan?’ But it worked out well.”
Justin committed to the Wolverines during his senior year, mainly because of the strong academics and his comfort with the coaching staff. And thanks to his commitment, he’s not only transformed a house of Buckeyes into Wolverines, but he’s brought along two more prized recruits.
“(My dad) would’ve liked Justin to go to Ohio State I’m sure, but at the same time, he wanted Justin to do what was best for him,” Brandon said. “There’s great academics here, so I knew I’d get a great education. And I like all the coaches, so I just followed (Justin) here.”
The brothers have always been very competitive, whether it came to wrestling, academics, Wii video games or ping-pong. Regardless, they’ve always been very close. Brandon and Justin live together on campus, and all three speak highly of the support they provide each other, whether it’s in the weight room or dealing with personal issues.
And their success drives each other.
“There was a little bit of pressure to always follow in their footsteps,” Collin said. “But at the same time, I tried using that to motivate me. I’m with them everyday. I’m working hard with those guys. I look at it like, ‘If they’re really successful in high school, and they’re really successful in college, why can’t I do it?’ ”
Though it was initially hard, the Zeerips — even Susan’s side of the family, who live in the heart of Buckeye country — can all proudly sport their maize and blue — at least during wrestling meets.
But everything changes during the weekend of The Game.
“(My parents) weren’t that intense about it, but they had some family friends over who were giving us more crap,” Justin said. “Definitely, down in Ohio, all my (family who went to Ohio State), they definitely give us a lot more crap.”
This Friday, Michigan — and the Zeerip family — will make the trip to Columbus, as the Wolverines take on their heated rival.
Interestingly enough, it’s alumni night at St. John Arena — meaning all alumni wrestlers, including Craig, are invited to walk out prior to the match.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far, because the questions we’ve gotten, they all want to know what I’m going to wear when I walk out,” Craig said. “I might look for one of those shirts that says, ‘House Divided,’ but we’re all having fun with it.”
The Zeerips will have more than 20 extended family members — all Buckeyes at heart — rooting on the Wolverines. Well, at least for two of the matches, anyway.
“When it’s family, there’s never a question as to who I’m going to root for,” Craig said. “It was a great college experience for me at Ohio State, but when the match gets rolling, the boys will be at heart. I am an Ohio State Buckeye, but I will be cheering for the Michigan Wolverines that day.”