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Benton State Champion Eric Hess
"Let the battle begin. Bring it on."
Facebook post by Eric Hess on March 31 at 7:43 a.m.
Eric Hess has used his extraordinary mental and physical toughness to conquer plenty of rugged opponents throughout his impressive wrestling career at Benton High School. Those qualities carried him to 154 career victories, a pair of state championships, and a No. 6 national ranking at 160 pounds according to Intermat.
Now Hess is relying on his strong spirituality to help vanquish another daunting opponent - Hodgkins disease, a form of lymphoma.
Only a few weeks after his 1-0 victory over Coudersport's Dirk Cowburn earned him his second PIAA state title, Hess's life dramatically changed when doctors at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville discovered a malignant tumor the size of his fist behind his heart.
"It was like getting hit in the face with a two-by-four," said Eric's father, Shane, an assistant wrestling coach at Benton.
Wrestling at the NHSCA Senior tournament in Virginia Beach, Va., the last weekend in March, Hess was one of the favorites in a formidable bracket and a virtual lock to become an All-American as he wrapped up his high school career.
But in his opening bout with Kurtis Julson, Hess suffered a tremendous pain in his chest while leading the Minnesota wrestler in the first period. He managed to hang on for a first round victory but had difficulty recovering after the match.
"I felt a piercing pain in my chest during that match," Eric said during an Easter weekend interview at Geisinger. "Without that (pain) we would have never known what's going on."
The tournament's medical staff told Hess his vital signs were normal but advised him to get the problem checked out. Instead, he continued in the tournament.
"His attitude was, 'If I can walk, I can wrestle'," Shane said.
Hess was able to pin his second opponent, Adrin Taylor of Virginia thanks to an arm bar. But back at the beach house where they were staying, Hess slept for 15 hours after his first day of competition.
"I was concerned he had the flu, that he might be sick" Shane said. "We wanted him to sleep it off and see how he felt in the morning."
Said Eric, "I felt half-way decent the next day and was able to go out and compete. I built a pretty good lead (over Ian Roy of California) and then hung on in the second and third periods. I came out on top of that match but was totally wiped out. I found a quiet spot in the convention center and slept for an hour-and-a-half."
In the quarterfinals, Hess gave up two takedowns and lost 4-2 to Joe Latham of North Dakota and was so spent that he crawled off the mat.
"I didn't know what was wrong but I knew we had to find out," Shane said. "So we said, 'enough is enough'. Eric's goal was to be an All-American, but he really had nothing to prove."
Three days later, expecting to confirm that Eric had a problem with his lungs, Shane and his wife Suzanne were staggered with the news of the malignant tumor.
"That was the worst day of our lives when we heard this," Shane said. "We didn't come in here thinking Eric would have this diagnosis. We came in here thinking he had a lung problem."
Throughout the state tournament, Hess's wrestling head gear was inscribed with the words 'Wrestling for Jesus' to reflect the Hess family's strong faith in God. It's not lip service for the athlete who's headed to Lehigh University on wrestling scholarship.
"Eric knows that through this, God will be glorified and we have faith in that," Shane said. "We know that everything happens for a reason and I tell that to people when they are going through things. It's easy to talk the talk but now we are going through it and we have to walk the walk. This happened for a reason."
Hess admits he was frightened by the staggering news of a tumor growing in his chest.
"At first I was extremely scared and I wondered why it would happen to me," he said. "But I got some alone time that day and prayed really hard about it. I am at peace. I know I will be used as a tool to help another life, if not many lives."
Benton wrestling coach Russ Hughes and his teammates have provided plenty of support in the early stages of his fight.
"Russ dropped everything to be with me," Hess said. "Coltin Fought and Mike Rhone have been here for me every step of the way, even helping me to get dressed and walk when I was too weak to do so on my own.
"I have had so many other family members, friends, classmates, and teammates come and visit me in the hospital. They will never know how much that helped me. My girlfriend Adriana has not left my side through all of this. I am so grateful for them all."
And the prayers and get well wishes he's received from strangers has has a profound effect on Hess, as well.
"I feel extremely blessed. The support I have had from people I have never even met has been tremendous. To know there are people out there I have never even spoken a word to but are praying for me is really uplifting."
It's doubtful if anyone has a busier Facebook account these days than Eric Hess. He's added new friends at a rate of about 40 each day. The postings are filled with prayers, Bible verses, and encouragement.
"I see you have a big army lining up to help you in battle," posted one of his 1,000-plus Facebook friends.
It's a battle Hess expects to win.
"I'll be back on the mat, that's the bottom line," said Hess, who will begin his course of treatment soon. "It might take a little longer than I wanted, but it's going to happen."
Updates on Eric's condition are available on the Benton Wrestling web site at www.bentontigerswrestling.com.