CHARLESTON, Maine — Josh Pelletier was home last weekend preparing for the next stage of his life.

The newly minted graduate of Liberty University wasn’t on the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus accepting his diploma only because there was a job interview pending in New Hampshire.

And for the 26-year-old Pelletier, it’s time to move forward because he’s already done a lot of catching up.

Pelletier left Liberty in 2011 just a few weeks short of earning his degree in criminal justice, devastated by a knee injury suffered while on the brink of qualifying for the NCAA Division I wrestling championships.

Of even more staggering consequences were five subsequent surgeries required to remove and heal a pilonidal cyst from his tailbone, a sequence of events that left the former three-sport star at Foxcroft Academy and New England heavyweight wrestling champion bedridden for parts of the next two years.

“I wish I could say I didn’t break or didn’t just want to give up completely,” Pelletier said. “There were moments when I was on the brink of not even knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It just felt like the surgeries were never going to end.

“But I’m a big man of faith, and I think I was put in a position where I had to learn patience and just wait for the right time,” he said.

That right time finally came a year ago, when a chance reunion with his college wrestling coach led to a second chance both athletically and academically.

This time his body didn’t betray him.

Pelletier returned to Liberty University after a three-year absence and not only fulfilled his graduation requirements, he re-emerged as a wrestling force — culminating in a second-place finish at this year’s National Collegiate Wrestling Association championships.

“It has been a bumpy road,” Pelletier said, “some very low lows but also some very high highs.”

A family tradition

Pelletier comes from a family steeped in wrestling tradition.

His father, Maynard Pelletier, was a high school state champion from Fort Kent who in 1984 became the first University of Maine wrestler to qualify for the NCAA championships. His uncle, Romey Pelletier, was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman team.

Josh Pelletier and older brother Caleb Pelletier did their best to live up to that wrestling tradition, each earning three individual state championships while at Foxcroft Academy, with Josh Pelletier adding the New England 275-pound title as a senior in 2006.

Pelletier earned a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship to attend Liberty, and while he gave initial consideration to playing Division I baseball or football, he soon found his way back to the mat.

“He didn’t break into the lineup his first year because we had a very good heavyweight ahead of him,” said Liberty wrestling coach Jesse Castro, “But he was right there, and I knew after a year or two, Josh could break through and do well at our level.”

Pelletier went 8-4 as a freshman, but his sophomore season was short-circuited by a knee injury.

He saw limited duty the following season before gaining a starting spot full time in 2010, compiling a 15-8 record and placing second in the NCAA East Regional, one win short of the nationals.

Earning that one additional victory motivated him throughout the 2011 season, and he returned to the regional qualifying meet top-seeded in his weight class.

But Pelletier’s final bid to qualify for nationals ended before it began.

“I was warming up with a teammate before my first match,” he said. “He went for a takedown on my leg, and my knee went the wrong way. I heard a big pop and knew right away it was bad because of the injury I had in the past.”

Pelletier tried to continue, but with damage to both his meniscus and medial collateral ligaments, he lost his first match and then dropped out of what he believed was the final tournament of his career.

Liberty won its fifth straight NCAA East Regional team title that day — but Pelletier was in no mood to celebrate.

“I was resigned to the fact I was done forever,” he said, “It was a pretty dark time. You train your entire life for this final hurrah, then it’s taken away before you even get a shot at it.”

Tough times

Life soon grew even more troubled for Pelletier, who underwent knee surgery but also stopped going to classes and ultimately left school.

“He lost focus, got depressed and kind of withdrew,” said Castro. “We didn’t see much of him, and come to find out he wasn’t even going to classes and pretty much threw his senior year away academically because the injury affected him so profoundly.”

Pelletier returned to Maine, then moved to Florida near his brother and found work with a swimming pool company.

While his knee healed, his back began to ache. By early 2012, he was diagnosed with a pilonidal cyst on his tailbone and underwent surgery in Jacksonville, Florida, before returning home to recover.

But recovery became regression as a condition that was supposed to heal in three months from the inside out refused to heal at all. Pelletier was left often bedridden, gaining weight, and needing four more surgeries — one an emergency procedure to address a blood clot.

“There were many, many times I doubted my faith,” he said. “But even though you feel the darkness surrounding you, you have to find something small to keep you going.”

For Pelletier that may have been wrestling, and the chance to help coach at Foxcroft Academy during the 2012-13 season as the Ponies won a third straight Class C state championship.

He was still heavily bandaged and nowhere near healthy, but it was the start of a return to normalcy.

“Josh was a big part of our team’s success,” said Foxcroft wrestling coach Luis Ayala. “The kids really look up to Josh. They know all of his accomplishments because they see his picture on our school’s wall and trophy case. He is a legend, so when he talks, they really listen.”

The comeback accelerates

That introduction to coaching led to another opportunity for Pelletier a year later at the University of Maine.

“It was tough because I still wasn’t at 100 percent,” he said. “I was coaching on the mat, but I was just standing there trying to explain moves and not really able to show them.”

As he continued to coach, personal improvement gradually became more evident as Pelletier grew more active and committed to a healthier diet.

“What motivated me the most was when I found out from the surgeons that as soon as it completely healed I could do whatever I wanted to do,” he said. “That’s when I really started getting back in shape.”

Pelletier and the UMaine wrestling team concluded the season at the 2014 NCWA championships at Allen, Texas. While there he reconnected with familiar faces from Liberty, which had dropped NCAA Division I wrestling and joined the NCWA in 2012 to comply with Title IX standards.

Pelletier soon met Castro for the first time since the 2012 NCWA championships near where he had been working in Florida and asked about the odds of getting an additional year of eligibility for himself.

“I told him I thought we could do this but there were no guarantees,” said Castro. “It was kind of a gamble, too, because from the point when I last talked to him he was 60 pounds overweight and hadn’t wrestled in three years.

“But I wanted him to get his degree, too, so it was a worthwhile endeavor to contact the NCWA compliance department and go through all his history. Once I came back to him and told him it was a go, I found out he already was training.”

Pelletier compiled a 33-6 record, reaching the NCWA heavyweight final before dropping a 3-2 decision to Glenn Geurink of Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His performance helped Liberty win the NCWA team championship — and this time he was eager to celebrate.

“If I could stand back now and see that I was going to get another opportunity, I never would have thrown those fits or just wanted to cry and give up. I couldn’t see the bigger picture back then,” he said.

“To be honest, if I had gone to nationals when I was a senior wrestling in Division I, I wasn’t going to have a great shot at All-American [a top-eight finish]. But cut to 2015 and I’m runner-up on a national stage. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...