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Finding His Way with the Right Flock
Liberty's Frankie Gayeski is living proof of the proverb's vitality, resulting in a transformation that landed the redshirt junior at Liberty after a tumultuous two seasons at Lehigh.
The Malega, N.J., native's passion for the sport of wrestling was born in third grade, after Gayeski saw a flier posted in the hallway of his elementary school. After finding a training partner in his next door neighbor, Gayeski couldn't be kept off the wrestling mats.
"As soon as I started, I fell in love with it," he reflected on his earlier years in the sport. "I just wanted to go anywhere I could to wrestle. My parents never pushed me to do anything; they took a very hands-off approach. They would take me anywhere I wanted to go, but it was always my drive."
The connections that eventually landed Gayeski on Liberty Mountain began when he entered high school, as he trained under the tutelage of former Flames standout Steve Iles at Delsea Regional High School in Franklin, N.J.
Iles graduated from Liberty in 1981, after posting a 60-18 career mark. The three-year team captain for the Flames capped off his stellar stay at Liberty by capturing an NCCAA national championship title at 150 pounds in 1981.
Iles spurred Gayeski to spurts of greatness, but never any level of consistency. "I was able to beat people at times, but I just always underperformed when it came to the scholastic season," he remembered. "Going into my junior year, I was ranked No. 16 in my weight class, but I still couldn't place in the state tournament that year."
Despite the lack of reliable success when he was grappling against his foes on the mat, Gayeski certainly found a stable level of accomplishment in the classroom. He graduated 11th in his class, with solid enough grades to catch the watchful eye of a storied wrestling program.
Less than two hours from his hometown stood Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., home of one of the most recognized wrestling programs on the East Coast. The Mountain Hawks have had 26 NCAA champions come through their ranks since starting their program in 1904, ranking fifth nationally.
Lehigh, also known nationally for its academic prowess and high scholastic standards, was in the midst of its run of five consecutive Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association conference titles that included a third-place finish at the 2004 NCAA National Wrestling Championship.
Then-assistant coach Chris Ayers, who is now the head coach at Princeton, saw a strangely familiar promise in Gayeski. Ayers came to Lehigh as a walk-on athlete, but ended his career with the Mountain Hawks as an All-American.
Gayeski seemed to be traveling down a similar path as his mentor, posting a 12-6 overall record in open events while redshirting his first year at Lehigh. The 149-pounder placed at such events as the Nittany Lion Open and the Southern Scuffle, leaving him "hungry, as I was getting all the mat time I wanted."
Poised to make a run at a starting position in his weight class following a strong first season, Gayeski made a fatal mistake that often trips up most developing adults during their post-adolescent years.
The engineering major started to succumb to college peer pressure and the brutal academic demands of his engineering course of study.
A fact not often published by Lehigh's admissions office, the institution was almost as well known for its party atmosphere as it was its academic endeavors.
"Going to college, I never knew what I was in for and it was rough," reflected Gayeski regretfully. "I was never involved with the party scene during high school, but I started to dabble too much in college and it finally caught up to me."
A year-and-a-half into his stay at Lehigh, Gayeski's cumulative GPA was below a 1.8, leaving him ineligible to compete by Lehigh and NCAA academic standards.
Looking for answers, he turned in the direction that a lot of wayward college students turn after straying from their initial path of pursuit – home and the church.
"I really messed up at Lehigh," admits Gayeski. "I started to go to church to look for answers. I still hadn't given my life to the Lord yet, but He was already starting to lead me in the right direction."
Less than 20 minutes from his home entered the next cog which led to him wearing a Liberty singlet. Robert Becker, who was serving as Liberty's graduate assistant wrestling coach at the time, took Gayeski under his wing and began his road to redemption, on the mat and in his personal life.
"At the time I started talking to Robert, I still didn't want to leave Lehigh," said Gayeski. "I just wasn't ready to go. However, I knew I needed to change, and after visiting here, I just knew this was the place for me."
Gayeski, who came to Liberty in the fall of 2007 and had to sit out his first year to regain his academic eligibility, immediately found solace in Becker, who also developed his All-America skills in college, and in current Flames wrestler Chris Daggett.
"Someone who really has helped me since I got here is Chris," stated Gayeski of Liberty's 184-pound senior, who transferred to Liberty after experiencing his own woes during his troubled years at West Virginia. "He kind of took me along the way and helped me. He came from a similar background."
Now in his second year under the direction of head coach Jesse Castro, who coached Delsea Regional's arch rival, Kingsway Regional, back during Gayeski's high school days, the current finance major seems to have found a solid and firm foundation at Liberty.
He opened this year at 141 pounds, after an off-season conversation with Flames' senior Tim Harner resulted in the two grapplers swapping weight classes. The pair struggled in their respective new-found divisions and, prior to this year's showing at the Southern Scuffle, the two reversed the summertime choice.
The change has done wonders for both grapplers and the Flames as a team. Harner has won nine of 11 bouts since the switch, vaulting him into several national Top 25 polls at 141 pounds.
Gayeski reversed his 1-7 start at 141 pounds with an eighth-place finish at the Scuffle and now has his sights firmly set on helping lead the Flames from the 149 pound-class during the ever-so-telling coming weeks.
"Right now, I'm excited. This is all just practice to me," stated Gayeksi. "Yes, we all want to win our dual matches, but what really matters is what you do in March.
"There is no reason we can't qualify 10 guys for nationals. If we really set our minds to it, I know we can do it."
In what many might term an unfortunate turn of events, Gayeski views nothing more than the Lord's ever-guiding provisional hand. He placed several former wounded warriors in his life at just the right juncture, with the like-minded "birds of a feather" helping Liberty's most recent restoration story find a path that is finally heading in the proper direction.
Todd Wetmore is the assistant athletics director for communications at Liberty University who has covered Flames sports for 15 years.