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, Hawaiis
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 brothers a really
good sumo wrestler, Jake now concedes. Hed
been competing seriously a lot longer than I had.
He kept his hips low and stayed under me. Thats
how he got me. But I still wonder: What would have
happened if I had been able to push with my left
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 didnt
say, Are you okay? He just said, Get
up and get back over here.
It wasnt 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.
Jakes 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 werent
the only Heffernans representing the United States
in the 1999 North American Sumo Championships. Jakes
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 dont
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 Heffernans Phi Gam
fraternity brothersto whom he taught fear-inspiring
Hakas (ethnic Maori warrior dances) throughout his
four years in the houseJakes fierce
fighting spirit is almost legendary. Most former
Wabash football teammates who took the field him
would agree. But anyone whos taken a poetry
class with the muscled 250-pounder knows he has
a softer side, too. Its 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 phraseto heart, completing
a masters 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
Now hes 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
were their last hope.
Heffernans not getting rich
doing what hes 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 daughters doing
so well now, the man said. She doesnt
run away. She doesnt do drugs. She gets passing
grades in school.
If its toughness that gives Heffernan the
strength to delve into the variety of heart-breaking
family situations he has to face on the job, its
compliments such as these that keep him going.
Were not miracle workers,
he says. We dont 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 dont
want to say, Our goal is for the kid to remain
sober for the rest of his life, because thats
unreasonable. Skills Heffernan learned at
his alma mater help him stay flexible when he needs
I learned in psychology
courses at Wabash to think critically, to not classify
everything a certain way, to be open, he says.
Theres a lot of ways to interpret and
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 Im
an aggressive person, too. If I didnt 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.
West is associate editor of Indianapolis