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When Rocky Burkett took over at Northern State in 2015, wrestling had been reinstated after the University had decided to drop the program earlier that year. Burkett was handed the keys to a program with just seven athletes remaining on the roster. Since then, the Wolves have had winning records, have beaten powerful rivals, and have had a national finalist. All of this makes Burkett a Hometown Heroes finalist.
In Aberdeen, South Dakota, the Northern State wrestling program is a hub for the wrestling community. This is due in large part to Northern State's head coach Rocky Burkett who was the head coach at Aberdeen Central High School before taking over at Northern State.
Burkett was quite an accomplished high school coach at Aberdeen Central, even leading the Golden Eagles to a state title in 2014. Burkett's years of coaching the the community help to explain why he has his fingers on the pulse of the community and not just the college.
Coach Burkett's wrestlers make it a point to be involved with youth wrestling in Aberdeen, even hosting kids club practice on campus. The Northern State team focuses on its community, and in turn, the community supports the team. When Northern State freshman Curtis LeMair was found dead in his dorm room in the fall of 2018 from an undetected heart condition, the community wrapped its arms around LeMair's family and developed a relationship with LeMair's parents that still exists to this day. This community focus helps put wrestling into perspective for Burkett's athletes. One wrestler put it this way:
Coach Burkett helped me realize that our wins and losses in the sport of wrestling don’t define who we are. He pushed me everyday and never let me feel sorry for myself.
While Burkett's wrestlers' lifelong lessons are not limited to their records, the Wolves have had their share of success. Joe Gomez, a 197-pounder for Burkett, even advanced to the NCAA DII finals in 2016, and Northern State has had an All-American in three of Burkett's four trips to the NCAA championships.
Now, five years after taking over at Northern State, the program is healthier than ever, and as a result, so is wrestling in the community more broadly.
About Hometown Heroes
The Hometown Heroes program was designed to honor coaches who are making substantive and lasting impacts on their communities, and not just on the mat. The finalists were selected based on a nationwide call for nominations, and the final award will be based on a public vote. The top vote-receiving finalist will be awarded $20,000, second place will receive $5,000, and all finalists will receive a minimum of $2,000. Vote to select the winner today!