Shortly after the red, white and blue ribbon was placed around Auburn Riverside’s Yusef Nelson’s neck to commemorate his eighth-place finish last season at 106 pounds in the Class 3A state wrestling tournament last February, he made a phone call.
His cousin, Isaiah Diggs, was the recipient.
Nelson let him know that he had placed at state as a freshman, which Diggs did not accomplish. Diggs responded that he had won a state championship.
The message resonated – and left Nelson with a simple goal for this season.
“Win state,” said Nelson, who plans to compete at 113 this season.
Auburn Riverside coach Kyle Jones said that commitment was displayed throughout the offseason. He said that Nelson participated in freestyle wrestling during the spring and competed again during the summer. Nelson also participated in the Freakshow Wrestling competition during the summer in Las Vegas.
“From the time we ended the season last year, there’s not been a kid in our program who’s worked harder to get to where he is now,” Jones said. “He’s put in a ton of time to get where he’s at.”
In addition to his work ethic, Jones said Nelson’s character is strong. While many families gather for Thanksgiving dinner, Nelson’s family has a different tradition. Each year, he gets together with his mother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless in Seattle.
“He’s very involved in some extracurricular things that have kept him grounded and given him some life experiences outside of wrestling,” Jones said. “I appreciate that he gives back to the community.”
Nelson would like to continue working with people as a career. Last year, he said he took a survey that revealed he would make a good marriage counselor.
“I started looking into it and thought it would be interesting,” he said. “I think people get into arguments because they only think about their side. It’s better to talk with someone on the outside who can see both perspectives.”
Nelson, who maintains a 3.7 grade-point average, is hopeful he can find a major that fits his career path at the University of Nebraska, where one of his favorite wrestlers, Jordan Burroughs, competed. When he wrestled for the Cornhuskers, Burroughs was a three-time All-American, and won a pair of national championships. He also won a gold medal during the 2012 Olympics in London.
“He and Yusef have a similar style,” Jones said.
Burroughs also won a state championship when he attended high school in New Jersey. And Jones believes Nelson has plenty of help to get him a title of his own. In practice, he competes against Jaden Cassel and Marco Galeano, whom Jones refers to “as talented in the 106-113 weight class as any team around has.” If that is not enough, Nelson also competes against assistant coach Michael Turner, who wrestled in a similar weight class for the Ravens.
“That’s been a great relationship in terms of developing Yusef as a wrestler,” Jones said. “He’s got a great room around him in the lightweights.”
Nelson said those will be important components if he can stand on the top step of the podium during the awards ceremony in February at the Tacoma Dome.
“Just a lot of practice,” he said, adding that he also must remain confident even if he faces adversity. “And all of our lightweights are really good. It’s good practice.”