When Carlton “C.J.” Haselrig Jr. enters the Fort Lewis military base in Tacoma, Washington, on Monday, he’ll have a tangible piece of his legendary father’s wrestling history in his possession.
A heartwarming, months-long saga concluded on Friday afternoon on the Hornerstown side of the Carlton Lee Haselrig Memorial Bridge.
Pitt-Johnstown wrestling coach Pat Pecora and Bruce Haselrig, Carlton’s uncle and a well-known wrestling official, presented C.J. and his mother, Michelle Haselrig, with a replacement for the late Carlton Haselrig’s stolen National Wrestling Hall of Fame ring.
Carlton Haselrig died on July 22 at age 54 after a lengthy illness.
The Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, with the help of an anonymous donor, replaced the ring and even surprised Michelle Haselrig with a necklace featuring a replica of the hall of fame band.
“My dad was a very humble person, but one of the greatest accomplishments for him was to get into the hall of fame,” said C.J. Haselrig, a Greater Johnstown High School graduate who serves in the U.S. Army and has been home the past three weeks. “That ring being missing felt like a piece of him was missing. Just being able to get that back, it really brings the family closer together and makes us all feel good.”
In August, Michelle Haselrig saw a Facebook memory about the original ring, which was presented to Carlton for his 2016 induction as a distinguished member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The ring went missing two years later. The family learned it had been stolen when a local jeweler called Haselrig to inform him someone had brought the ring to the store seeking to sell it.
Michelle reposted the Facebook memory hoping perhaps a good Samaritan would see the post and the ring might find its way back to its rightful home.
“I never thought this would happen,” Michelle Haselrig said. “It was a pop-up memory on Facebook. I believe because of his passing, people saw his name and saw what this is about and the story became a little bit more public, nationwide.
“We are so humbled and grateful for this. This means a lot to me and my family.”
Multiple media outlets, including The Tribune-Democrat, reported on the August social media post and the story went viral.
Following his interview with The Tribune-Democrat and publication of the ensuing story, Lloyd Rhoades, treasurer of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, announced the chapter had decided to replace the ring.
Eventually, an anonymous donor representing the hall stepped forward, wanting to cover the costs.
“When our chapter first became aware of the fact that Carlton’s family didn’t have the ring, there really wasn’t any decision to be made,” Rhoades said during a Friday telephone interview. “We knew we were going to take care of that.
“His family deserved that ring. Carlton means a lot to our chapter. That ring was so very important to Carlton. We’re very happy to be able to do it.”
‘Little piece of him’
The ring was ordered soon after the late August announcement about the donor. It took several months to arrive at the home of Ann Peery Ritter, president of the state chapter of the national wrestling hall.
Ritter had the ring and necklace shipped to Bruce Haselrig, who set up the presentation at the Johnstown bridge recently renamed in honor of Carlton.
“I just could not believe it,” an emotional Michelle Haselrig said of the surprise necklace.
“It’s just like me and him, Carlton and Michelle. A little piece of him is going to be around my neck. What that ring meant to him. ... If you knew Carlton, he didn’t get rowdy about a lot of things. But that ring, he did.
“For Carlton Jr. to have the ring and me to have a little piece of it, the necklace, a surprise – thank you very much. I’m humbled.”
From 1987-89, Carlton Haselrig won six heavyweight national championships at Pitt-Johnstown, three apiece in NCAA Division I and II. The former Trojans football and wrestling standout went 143-2-1 on the mat with UPJ and had a 122-match streak without a loss.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected him in the 12th round of the 1989 NFL Draft even though he didn’t play college football. Haselrig emerged from the practice squad to an All-Pro offensive lineman until off-field issues with alcohol and substance abuse cut short a promising career.
He eventually turned around his life and spent many years coaching youth football and wrestling throughout the region and at his alma mater, Greater Johnstown.
‘A great day’
“I’m really pleased with the (Pennsylvania Chapter) National Wrestling Hall of Fame following up and making it happen. It was their idea,” Bruce Haselrig said. “They wanted to make it happen. To be able to get this done is great. It makes you feel good.”
On Friday, Bruce Haselrig and Pecora each wore the green jackets they received upon their respective inductions into Pennsylvania Chapter of the national hall of fame.
“We’re just grateful for the (Pennsylvania Chapter) National Wrestling Hall of Fame to take a special consideration for this situation,” Pecora said. “Carlton was someone very special. I’m so glad that his son was here. That’s what made it so special.
“And then to have that necklace with the same exact replica emblem for Michelle was really a special extra. It’s a great day. I’m sure Carlton is very proud. A good day, a good moment and a lot of good memories.”