When Carlton Haselrig was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in spring 2016, Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora conveyed the improbability of the Greater Johnstown High School graduate's career path.
“Imagine I was going to produce a movie,” Pecora said during the induction ceremony in Stillwater, Oklahoma, “and some guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, let’s make a movie about a young man who goes to a high school that doesn’t have a wrestling team and wins a state title.’ ‘Wow, that’s a pretty good movie!’ ‘Hey, wait, let’s have him go to the local college and win a national title! No, let’s have him win SIX national titles! No, it’s not over yet. Let’s have him go and play for the local football team that is the Super Bowl champions and become an All-Pro football player even though he didn’t play football in college!’ Who’s going to believe that?”
Throw in a fall from grace, a prison term and a return to society that includes coaching jobs at his alma mater and the Carlton Haselrig story probably is stranger than fiction.
He started to realize in his teenage years that he had a athletic talents that few could match.
“I thought I really started picking it up around ninth grade,” Haselrig said. “I started to see a difference in players and becoming the player I wanted to be in sports.”
He wrestled in open competitions when he was younger, but Greater Johnstown did not field a varsity program in the 1980s. Competing as a one-man team during his senior season, Haselrig went 10-0 and won the district, regional and state titles in the unlimited weight class.
He wanted the opportunity to play football and wrestle in college, so he chose Lock Haven, but he transferred to Pitt-Johnstown after suffering a knee injury.
Haselrig took the wrestling world by storm after sitting out a year. He became Pitt-Johnstown's first Division II national champion in his sophomore season – an accomplishment that he takes more pride in than any other.
“There were a lot of naysayers,” Haselrig said. “They said I'd never be able to achieve the things I wanted to at UPJ. Being the first national champ on the wall, that was something that was very important to me to be able to give to Coach Pecora.”
At that time, champions from the Division II and Division III tournaments earned a chance to compete in the Division I tournament, and Haselrig won the heavyweight title in the top flight as well.
Haselrig never doubted himself even when he faced opponents from traditional wrestling powerhouses.
“It was just a name on a singlet to me – Iowa, Michigan, whoever,” he said. “I felt like I put the work in and I deserved to be a national champ. I put the work in and I prepared for that.”
He repeated the feats during his junior and senior seasons – prompting the “Haselrig Rule” that now prohibits small-school champions from moving on to the Division I event – on his way to a then-NCAA record 122-match unbeaten streak.
Haselrig's raw athletic talent and his desire to play pro football attracted the attention of a number of NFL teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected him in the 12th round of the 1989 draft.
He quickly progressed into a starter at offensive guard for the Steelers and made the Pro Bowl in his third season.
His NFL success was fleeting, however. A little more than a year after his Pro Bowl selection, drug and alcohol problems had taken him out of the league. Despite a short comeback with the New York Jets, Haselrig struggled with those issues for years, which led to run-ins with the police and he ended up serving time in prison.
Haselrig has since gotten sober and serves as an example to the young players and wrestlers he coaches at Greater Johnstown High School. His successes can serve as inspiration to them while his failures provide a cautionary tale.
“I'm at peace with all that,” Haselrig said. “I did what I did, both on the field and off the field. I'm proud of what I did on the field and not so proud of what I did off the field."