When Joe Mejia looks back on his wrestling career at Gering High School, one might think his most memorable matches would be for state championships or district titles.
As Mejia prepares for inclusion in the Nebraska School Activities Association Hall of Fame after a career that saw him go 103-10 with two individual state championships, the match that stands out for him is a dual in Mitchell.
“My proudest moment in my wrestling career was when two of my brothers and I, Edward Salazar and John Mejía, wrestled varsity in the same dual at 98, 105 and 112 against Mitchell,” Mejia said.
His parents Joseph and Virginia Salazar instilled the value of faith and family for Mejia, who grew up with sisters Sandra (Carter) and Irma (Gancze) and brothers John and Edward and Richard Salazar.
“The importance of faith was instilled in me from my grandma,” Mejia, who is now a State Farm insurance agent, said. “You’ve got to have your health, but I’ll always say, ‘Faith, family, friends and the Farm.’”
Today, Mejia is close to his daughters, Brooke and Alexandra, who are roommates living in Denver. The family values have been passed on to the next generation.
“It’s amazing to see them as they grow up and mature, and see them get into society and into the workforce, the things they carry on from what they grew up with,” Mejia said. “They’re very thankful, and we’ve been very blessed.”
There is a certain pride in the Gering wrestling tradition under coach Chuck Deter for Mejia as well. He was a part of a stretch where the Bulldogs didn’t lose a dual match for 11 years straight, 106 duals from 1974-85, a national record at the time.
“It started before me, and I was on the team that it ended, but just having that experience is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in setting the expectation,” Mejia said. “I’m going to go back to not knowing any different.”
After wrestling at Gering, Mejia went on to the University of Wyoming, then the University of Nebraska-Kearney, but the college wrestling environment wasn’t the same.
“You go to duals, here you have over 1,000 people watching you,” Mejia said of matches in Gering. “You go to college, and you have 30 people watching the whole team, so it’s totally different. The support in the community here, again you go back to you didn’t know any different. I was thinking everybody was like this. No. That was a special time, having great friends and great parents and community support second to none.”
Mejia looks back at his experience with pride, and he served the Gering program by helping with coaching until he moved in 1997. He has since continued to help coach wrestling programs wherever he has gone, and helps out with the Gering Wrestling Club now.
“It was an honor to be able to wrestle for Chuck Deter, first of all,” he said, “and then to be representing Gering just because of the tradition. Any time you put on that singlet, you’re representing everyone else who has put on that singlet. Not only that, you’re representing the community, your family and yourself. Being in the practice room was often a lot tougher than competing against other competitors, because our practice room was a quality set of kids.”
Deter always stressed the importance of practice, telling his wrestlers that for each missed practice, they would likely experience one loss.
“I don’t remember missing that many practices, but it’s so true,” Mejia said. “What he was getting at is, come to practice and I will make you a good wrestler, no matter who you are, and that’s what was so great. Wrestling has the ability to have people who weight 98 pounds at that time ... all the way up to heavyweight, of course. A lot of other sports, a little 105-pounder, 112-pounder is not going to do much. And if they’re not very tall, that’s needed for basketball.
“That’s where somebody, often times you think a sport can’t go on, but so many individuals need wrestling more than wrestling needs them because it’s a secure, safe place to go. You had a father figure, and you had a bunch of brothers together and sisters with women’s wrestling, too.”