November 11, 1997 in Sports

Ancient Cardinal At 30, Neff Looks To Further Career At Nic

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Roger Neff was 29 years old when he first heard of North Idaho College.

Now he’s 30, and an NIC wrestler.

“I saw NIC at a few (open) tourneys and I heard about the program and its successful background,” Neff said. “I was thinking of going back to school anyway.”

Twelve years removed from his “freshman” season at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University, Neff renewed his collegiate career with a win over an opponent from Pacific Lutheran last Friday.

“He was a little nervous,” NIC coach Pat Whitcomb said. “It was his first time back in a dual match.”

Between his native Pennsylvania and NIC, Neff accumulated an intriguing background.

He’s currently on a waiting list - No. 42 - to become a longshoreman in Tacoma. He figures he’s about a year away from being hired full time. He returns to Tacoma once a month to keep his hand in the business.

He’s also a champion power lifter, having bench pressed 551 pounds. He could probably lift NIC’s Christianson Gym if he could find a place to stand.

Neff was close to making U.S. Olympic wrestling teams in 1988, ‘92 and ‘96.

His fiancee, Judy, carries a 4.0 grade-point average at Central Washington in pre-med/chemistry. She holds world junior power-lifting records and also wrestles.

Who said opposites attract? “She’s a tough girl,” Neff beams.

Neff can relate. His father is an ex-Marine and 37-year steelworker, who assisted Neff’s wrestling career at every turn. “He still works 16-hour days,” Neff says.

Neff left East Stroudsburg in his sophomore year, opting to unload trucks for $100 a day and wrestle in open tournaments.

In 1995, he departed the East Coast and bought a double-wide trailer in Tacoma. He eventually met former NIC coach John Owen at a tournament. Owen, forever on the recruiting trail, informed Neff he had eligibility remaining.

Neff scoffed.

“You can’t wrestle in Division I after 25,” Neff said.

JC rules, however, are different. Neff nearly came to NIC last year, but the timing wasn’t quite right. You’ll recall NIC finished second at nationals, losing the title to Lassen in the heavyweight match.

“I would have liked our chances with Roger,” Owen said.

Whitcomb, who replaced Owen last March, dialed Neff with his first recruiting call.

Neff was eager to dive into daily training to continue chasing his Olympic dream. He’s been training sporadically the last 12 years.

“You couldn’t ask for a better workout partner (than Whitcomb),” says Neff, who lost to Whitcomb at the ‘92 Trials.

“We wrestle a little bit,” Whitcomb says, “but I wait until he’s good and tired.”

At age 30, he’s forced to be injury conscious. Regimented training has helped him trim down from 278 pounds to 252.

He is popular with classmates and teammates. He organized 5 a.m. weight-lifting sessions and is quick with pointers not always confined to the mat. He tells teammates to drink apple juice at parties because “nobody will know it’s not beer.”

“I’ve learned more this season than I have in a long time,” said second-team heavyweight Kyle Watts. “He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. You’d do anything for him.”

That’s additionally important at a time when NIC wrestlers have been in the spotlight for off-mat incidents in recent years.

“Everybody likes a tough guy that conducts himself like a normal student and citizen,” Owen said. “He’s very caring and compassionate and he has a natural interest in other people.”

The following story illustrates Neff’s compassion and engaging personality. Fiancee Judy was cutting weight for a wrestling tourney last year when the couple’s $1,850 engagement ring slipped off her finger and fell irretrievably down a drain.

“Next time she’s getting a tattoo,” Neff joked. “You can’t lose that.”

Neff is serious about his role as a team leader.

“There’s a great deal of pride here,” Neff said. “There’s a tradition. When I came here everybody said we’re rebuilding, but a program like this just keeps coming.”

Owen compares Neff to Whitcomb, a former two-time national champion for NIC.

“Leadership is a given, not something that you pick,” Owen said. “He’s got built-in leadership qualities, like his coach. (Whitcomb) was the best leader I ever coached.”

Neff plans on using his one year of JC eligibility and possibly assist Whitcomb next season. Long-range goals remain the Olympics and becoming a longshoreman.

Until then, he’s a 30-year-old JC wrestler and proud of it.

“I’m blending in,” he says. “It feels different, but we have some guys on the team who are 26, 27. Wrestling is in my blood and I’ve got to feed it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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