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Big brother rolls out the welcome mat

Del Oro graduates come together as Jesse Stafford joins Joe on the Air Force Academy’s wrestling team
By: Ray Hacke Journal Sports Correspondent
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Jesse Stafford was a more decorated wrestler at Del Oro High School than his older brother, Joe. Whereas Jesse twice placed in the top four at the CIF State Meet, finishing second last season at 152 pounds, the best Joe could do was qualify for the State Meet. Jesse, however, is the first to credit Joe with serving as the role model for his achievements. “I maybe had more success in high school, but I definitely attribute a lot of that to him,” Jesse said. “He’s always been a real hard worker, and that motivated me to follow him.” Jesse means that figuratively and literally. Both Staffords are wrestling for the U.S. Air Force Academy – Joe as a senior at 174 pounds, Jesse as a freshman at 157. “We’re like best buds,” Joe said. “It was great to be in high school with him, and now I get another year with him. It’s awesome.” Both have had success on the mat this season. Joe – Air Force’s team captain – captured his first collegiate tournament title in November, at the University of Wyoming’s Cowboy Open. Joe has a career record of 38-52, including 8-8 this season. “He’s exceeding what someone with his high school accolades should be doing at the (NCAA) Division I level,” Falcons coach Joel Sharatt said. Sharatt credited Joe’s success to his ability to wrestle from positions of strength and avoid positions of weakness. “He’s a grinder,” Sharatt said. “He’ll make you fight for every point you score on him. It doesn’t matter if he’s ahead 14-1 or if he’s down 14-1 – he’ll make you work. If you score a point on Joe Stafford, you’ve earned it.” “He just outworks other wrestlers,” Jesse said. “In practice, he’s in better shape than most of the other wrestlers, and he pushes the pace until they’re tired, and he capitalizes on their mistakes.” Jesse, meanwhile, is 18-8, having wrestled primarily in amateur – as opposed to elite – divisions in tournaments. He was fourth at the Cowboy Open and fifth at the Kaufman-Brand Open in Nebraska. “The record sounds good when you listen to it, but I’ve also wrestled a bunch and lost,” said Jesse, who doesn’t start for the Falcons in duals because he lost a wrestle-off to a teammate. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I know what I need to fix to get better.” “He made some freshman mistakes in his first two tournaments,” Sharatt said. “But he’s a sponge when it comes to learning, and he has tremendous athletic ability. I’m excited for the future accolades he’ll bring to the program.” Jesse has embraced the regimented schedule, rigorous academic course load and rituals that freshmen at non-military institutions don’t have to endure, such as walking only on certain portions of the school’s premises and standing at attention when being addressed by upperclassmen. After all, it takes a special type of student to attend a service academy, and few are selected. “I have an opportunity to be here, and it’s a real big deal,” Jesse said. “I try to have a lot of fun with it.” “Every day when (Jesse) steps onto the red line in the wrestling room, he’s always ready to compete,” Sharatt said. “No matter how mentally drained he is from his studies or physically drained he is from his military training, he always brings his best effort onto the mat.” Jesse is grateful to have his older brother to lean on when times get tough – as they inevitably do at the Air Force Academy, where instructors and peers push cadets to their physical and mental limits. “He looks out for me because he’s been through the same stuff,” Jesse said. Still, freshmen at Air Force are supposed to know their place. It’s part of surviving the first year and preparing for post-graduation military service. Thus, Joe can only be his brother’s keeper to a limited extent. “I don’t protect him at all,” Joe said. “I let him do his own thing. I don’t want it to seem like he’s getting special treatment. But he’s pretty tough.” Joe will graduate this spring, and instead of the typical five post-graduation years of military service, he’ll serve 12. That’s because Joe is entering the Air Force’s pilot training program, which requires a 10-year commitment in exchange for up to two years of training. “When he’s 36, he’ll have tremendous leadership skills and the responsibility of handling a $250 million aircraft,” Sharatt said. “Those are great transferable skills to whatever he wants to do.” “I’m pretty pumped,” Joe said. Jesse isn’t sure he wants to fly fighter jets like his older brother. What he does share with Joe is a desire to compete for a national championship – even if they both don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament this season. “I’m really proud to have them both on the team,” Sharatt said.