33-season wrestling coach at Cleveland High retires after winning career
PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - The Cleveland High wrestling coach for the last 33 years is tapping out.
The 56-year-old Jeff Zerba from tiny Milton-Freewater first rolled up to the Rose City as a fresh-faced Oregon State graduate health teacher in 1990 and moved up from assistant to head coach of the Warrior wrestling program in 1991.
“I think wrestling is a sport that sets you up for life,” Zerba said. “They hired me as a 25-year-old who wasn’t ready to do it, but it worked out.”
Zerba said when he took the job, he meant to leave after a year.
“I am from a really small town in Eastern Oregon, so it was stop-off point,” Zerba said. “And I never left.”
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Three decades later, he plans to relax, get deeper into his new love of adaptive skiing and travel with his wife Linda. And this time, he means it.
“I was going to go a couple of years ago and COVID hit, and I wanted to make sure we were able to keep the program going during that because, if you are talking wrestling, anything that is closer contact than wrestling, I can’t think of and I was really worried the program was going to kind of go by the wayside during that time.”
Coach Zerba’s dedication to the Warriors prevailed through the pandemic just like he did since his accident on the mat as a junior at Mcloughlin High on May 4, 1984.
“That day, I kind of knew what had happened.”
The two-time state champion would never be the same. “I was thrown on the back of my neck,” Zerba. “It was kind of a fluky thing. I had been thrown a hundred times. My body went numb. The prognosis was, be in a wheelchair the rest of your life. A C4/C5 quadriplegic doesn’t have a lot of function.”
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Zerba’s life post-paralysis is as a leader of young men and women - 12 straight PIL titles, 18 in 20 years and wrapping up his career this March as the Warrior women placed 4th at State.
“This sport has taught me so much and given me so much,” Zerba said. “I think wrestling has taught me not only how to deal with what’s in front of me, but it’s taught me to persevere, and I think we have to do that, in anybody’s life, to do that.”
His legacy is up on the wall here in the wrestling room at Cleveland High. All of these kids have been state placers under his guidance here where he is a true warrior for all time.
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