Warrior Spirit




Jake Heffernan ’99 keeps in touch with his heritage and his family in the sumo wrestling ring.

Jake and Kena Heffernan had been wrestling each other ever since they were young boys. But this time it was different. This time, the audience was bigger than their usual crowd of family and friends on their native Oahu, Hawaii’s third-largest island. ESPN cameras were rolling, and the stakes were higher than just bragging rights. They were competing for the North American Sumo Championship in Los Angeles.

The two Heffernans stepped into the ring, faces set in determination. Not a brotherly smile passed between them. Before entering the tournament, each had agreed that if they should face one another in a match, all family ties were out. They were there to compete. Period.

An official sounded the count, then they were off, exploding into each other like rams. Kena, who entered the tournament seeded second, was ready for his younger brother, knowing he liked to throw his opponents off their feet. Jake, who had dislocated his shoulder before the tournament then kept it a secret for fear of giving his opponents an advantage, was too sore to push with his left arm. The disability proved critical, and the match ended nearly as quickly as it had begun. Jake had worked his way into a position to fight for top sumo honors on the continent and advance to the World Championships in Germany, only to fall to his lifelong rival.

In a post-match ESPN interview with both Heffernan brothers, Jake revealed that he had wrestled with an injury throughout the entire tournament. “What?” his brother exclaimed, shocked by the admission.

“My brother’s a really good sumo wrestler,” Jake now concedes. “He’d been competing seriously a lot longer than I had. He kept his hips low and stayed under me. That’s how he got me. But I still wonder: What would have happened if I had been able to push with my left arm?”

Out of the ring, they are family again, but competitive to the last.

In the early summer of 1999, when most of his graduating classmates at Wabash were still looking for post-college jobs, Jake Heffernan was training hard with the Oahu Sumo Club back home in Hawaii and preparing for the national championships. Although he had just completed a major in psychology, he was pursuing an interest he had picked up long before coming to Wabash in 1995. Growing up in Hauula-Laie, a set of adjoining, predominantly Polynesian towns on the north end of Oahu, Jake and Kena began learning the finer points of sumo from their father, who took the boys with him when he traveled the islands of Hawaii to compete.

“My father used to get us in the ring and teach us how to hold and how to tie miwashi [thick belts worn by sumo wrestlers],” Jake says. “He never took it easy on us, even when we were young. I remember getting hit in the jaw by his forearm when I was maybe 11 or 12. I went flying out of the ring, but he didn’t say, ‘Are you okay?’ He just said, ‘Get up and get back over here.’”

It wasn’t pleasant at the time, but those early lessons in toughness would serve Jake well as he continued on the path of his young life, making it through difficult financial times with his family and later adjusting to heavy work loads and cold winters on a small college campus 4,000 miles away from his sunny Hawaiian home.

Jake’s father, on the other hand, would later come to regret the hard-knocks training he had given his young sons all those years ago. It so happens that Jake and Kena weren’t the only Heffernans representing the United States in the 1999 North American Sumo Championships. Jake’s opponent in the very first round of competition was none other than his father, Roger Heffernan.

In a pre-tournament ESPN interview, a correspondent asked the senior Heffernan if he thought he could still take his boys, seeing as how he had quite a few years on them. He looked both of his strapping sons over, measuring his words carefully. “Well, I think I can take one of them,” he replied. “I just don’t want to tell you which one.”

But Jake knew which one his father was talking about. And it was all the fuel he needed to get him fired up for the match with his old man. “I let him have it,” Jake says. “We got into the ring, and as soon as the match started...BOOM.” They butted heads, and Jake was on to the next round.

To Jake Heffernan’s Phi Gam fraternity brothers—to whom he taught fear-inspiring Hakas (ethnic Maori warrior dances) throughout his four years in the house—Jake’s fierce fighting spirit is almost legendary. Most former Wabash football teammates who took the field him would agree. But anyone who’s taken a poetry class with the muscled 250-pounder knows he has a softer side, too. It’s that gentle part of his nature, in fact, that has brought Heffernan the most fulfillment in life beyond Wabash, more than even that brief taste of wrestling glory on the international stage.

Heffernan put his psychology studies to use soon after graduation, working in residential programs for adolescents struggling with substance abuse and depression. He took the mantra of “persistence”— a popular FIJI catch phrase—to heart, completing a master’s degree in professional counseling while working full-time and training for serious sumo competition. “Being at Wabash taught me to be persistent in every single area of my life,” says Heffernan. “Just staying on it, staying on it, staying on it. Getting things done on time, then going on to the next thing. That carried over when I left Wabash, through grad school, and into my profession.”

Now he’s a caseworker with Parents And Children Together (PACT), a nonprofit agency in Honolulu that counsels at-risk families with in-home, multisystemic therapy (MST). He works with parents to give them the skills to get troubled adolescents back on track. “We go into the home and help set up a plan so that the kids can be held more accountable for their actions rather than going to jail,” says Heffernan. “Sometimes we’re their last hope.”

Heffernan’s not getting rich doing what he’s doing, but the rewards transcend monetary gain. The importance of his work came into focus recently when he was in a nightclub and one of his former clients, a man whose daughter had been running away, doing drugs, and engaging in risky sexual behavior, approached him to thank him.

“My daughter’s doing so well now,” the man said. “She doesn’t run away. She doesn’t do drugs. She gets passing grades in school.”
If it’s toughness that gives Heffernan the strength to delve into the variety of heart-breaking family situations he has to face on the job, it’s compliments such as these that keep him going.

“We’re not miracle workers,” he says. “We don’t try to create angels. I would rather have someone smoking marijuana once or twice a week than doing ice [crystal methamphetamine] every day for two or three months. I don’t want to say, ‘Our goal is for the kid to remain sober for the rest of his life,’ because that’s unreasonable.” Skills Heffernan learned at his alma mater help him stay flexible when he needs to be.

“I learned in psychology courses at Wabash to think critically, to not classify everything a certain way, to be open,” he says. “There’s a lot of ways to interpret and understand something.”

Due to differences of opinion with the International Sumo Federation, Heffernan has dropped out of formal competition for the time being. But he still trains with the Oahu Sumo Club and wrestles in exhibition matches around Hawaii. And he has no difficulty transforming from a monster in the ring to a supportive counselor.

“Working with families, I have to be a very good listener and keep my feelings in check,” he says. “But I think I’m an aggressive person, too. If I didn’t have some kind of sport to play, I think my life would be out of balance. Doing it all puts me right where I want to be.”

Evan West is associate editor of Indianapolis Monthly magazine.