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Wrestling with demons: How a troubled child turned into a champion

At 13 his life was already spinning out of control. Homeless. Selling drugs. Brutal fights. Arrests. Even at this young age, Hugo Harp knew where his path was taking him. He was craving stability. And it would come in the form of a coach whose own back story rivaled that of Hugo.

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Hugo Harp has trouble sleeping.

As he lies awake in bed, his mind spins the wheel of misfortune. It usually lands on the stretch of weeks when he was 13 and his wild and twisted childhood was reaching its breaking point.

The memories are graphic.

Like the time he used a piece of wood with nails protruding from it to attack a 17-year-old who was threatening him. The bloody mess he delivered had Hugo taken away by  police.

Or when he led Middletown police on a six-hour chase before he got so tired he sat on a stoop waiting to be found. Or the time his guardian called police after a disagreement ended with Hugo punching a hole in the wall.

“It was getting to a point where I really didn’t care,” Hugo recalled. “I was like, f--- it. I’ll probably never get back to a stable environment anywhere again.”

For 13 years, Hugo wrestled with demons. No father in the picture. His mother spent nearly a year in jail. He passed through more than a dozen foster homes.

He would spend hours roaming the streets of Wilmington’s Westside. The group he ran with liked to fight, and Hugo had his share of bouts. He sold drugs to keep money in his pocket.

Hugo tells these stories in the way someone describes a scene in a movie. He laughs. He recalls vivid details, like from the start of that night in Middletown.

He didn’t know much about the Delaware town a half hour south of where he grew up, but he knew a guy who had a bike in a shed. And he wanted that bike.

Hugo Harp
It was getting to a point where I really didn’t care. I was like, f--- it. I’ll probably never get back to a stable environment anywhere again.

So Hugo took it, escaping from police out the back of the shopping center across the street from Middletown High.

He giggles when he recalls the two officers pulling up next to him and asking if his name was Hugo. He said no and started pedaling faster, taking them for a ride around town that lasted until the next morning.

He can joke about those days now. Six years later, everything has changed. 

Following a stint at a juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania, Hugo would finally find the stability he was seeking. It would come from Aaron Harris, a wrestling coach who is uniquely qualified to lead Hugo on his path toward college.

Hugo Harp sits on the winners podium as he mentally warms up for his Henlopen Conference Championship match Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Milford.
Hugo Harp sits on the winners podium as he mentally warms up for his Henlopen Conference Championship match Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Milford.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Harris, once homeless himself, found his own purpose years ago helping underprivileged students in Florida become productive citizens through wrestling.

Now back home in Delaware, miles from where he used to sell drugs before becoming a state champion wrestler at Caesar Rodney High School, Harris saved the life of a Delaware kid.

The 19-year-old version of Hugo Harp is a different person. From a withdrawn and angry childhood emerged an affable teenager whose animated personality lights up a room, and dominates in a wrestling gym.

He became a three-time Delaware state wrestling champion during stints at two high schools, and an all-state football player during his senior year at Smyrna.

And it was at Smyrna where he quickly became one of the school's most popular students despite being at the central Delaware high school for less than a year.

In the fall, if pandemic rules allow, Hugo will enroll at Iowa Central Community College to wrestle and work on his grades with the hope of landing a Division I scholarship.

Harris helped Hugo become a man. And Hugo has those three state championship medals, a high school diploma and college-bound dreams as proof that, yes, anything is possible.

Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris, right, watches as Hugo Harp wrestles in the semifinals of the Henlopen Conference Championships Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Milford.
Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris, right, watches as Hugo Harp wrestles in the semifinals of the Henlopen Conference Championships Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Milford.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

“He changed my whole life,” Hugo said.

This is the story of two lives that were almost lost, brought together by chance, bound together by love.

That fateful day

Hugo was born in Orlando, Florida in March 2001. His mother, Lydesia Long, took Hugo and his two brothers north five months later, first to Maryland and then to Penns Grove, New Jersey.

When Hugo was 5, the family settled in Wilmington. Hugo was a big and hyper kid. “You couldn’t stop him from being hyperactive,” Long said. In first grade, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and put on medication.

Hugo Harp at age 13.
Hugo Harp at age 13.
Photos courtesy of Hugo Harp

By third grade, Hugo became a bigger problem. The family moved to Wilmington’s Westside, and Hugo started hanging with a group of older kids that liked to fight. He was a follower, Long said.

Hugo was held back after third grade and Long many times was forced to leave her job in the middle of the day to pick him up at school because he was fighting so much. She eventually switched to night shift, but that didn’t help.

Things took a turn when Hugo was about 12. Long was arrested and had to serve 9 months in jail. Over those months, Hugo spiraled out of control. He passed through dozens of foster homes (22, as he recalls) and was eventually separated from his brothers. 

He disobeyed his foster parents and stayed out in the streets until late at night. He smoked weed, sometimes sold it, and got in fights. In the nine months Long was away, she said Hugo racked up seven criminal charges. He floated among foster homes to behavioral health programs and detention centers.

“His behavior was starting to escalate like he could seriously be behind bars the rest of his life,” Long said. “That’s how his anger was.”

It all reached a climax at Governor Terry Children’s Center, a temporary shelter for children, when Hugo was 13. Hugo and a 17-year-old had been having words for a few days until it escalated to a near-physical altercation on the porch.

Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris, right, watches as Hugo Harp wrestles during practice in February, 2020, at Smyrna High School. Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris, right, watches as Hugo Harp wrestles during practice in February, 2020, at Smyrna High School. Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris, right, watches as Hugo Harp wrestles during practice in February, 2020, at Smyrna High School. JERRY HABRAKEN, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

Things calmed down, but Hugo knew it wasn’t over. He found a piece of wood with nails in it and hid it under the porch. He hid some glass shards in his bedroom.

The next day, Hugo returned to his room to find the shards were gone. The other boys were assembling in a nearby room, and Hugo offered to take it outside, knowing his only defense was under the porch.

As they went outside, Hugo made a sharp turn at the bottom of the steps, grabbed the wooden board with the nails and started swinging. There was blood everywhere. The police arrived not long after.

Hugo Harp
There’s a lot of people in the hood who want to be in the hood. I didn’t want to do it, but that was the only thing that was around.

“There were about 12 cops,” Hugo remembered. “He ran. I stayed. I already knew, when you’re doing stuff like that, you have to understand every action has a reaction. At the end of the day there’s going to be a consequence.”

The consequence was an assault charge and probation, Hugo said. He was placed in the foster home in Middletown and wasn’t there long before getting into an argument and taking police on that six-hour chase.

Hugo said he was placed in New Castle County’s juvenile detention center for about two months before being released to another foster home in Wilmington. He linked up with some of his friends and started selling drugs.

He also recounted a story about a man getting his fingers cut off during a meeting in a drug house. The man had stolen some of the group's profits. Hugo wanted money in his pocket. He didn’t want this.

“There’s a lot of people in the hood who want to be in the hood,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it, but that was the only thing that was around.”

The final straw came when Hugo was caught with weed and money. All of the past transgressions landed him in a Pennsylvania detention facility.

The anger, aggression, desire to fit in had all caught up to him.

“It came, I think, from not having a father figure,” his mother said. Hugo's father was never really in the picture. The rare times they've spoken in Hugo's 19 years, their relationship has been more like that of a distant friend and not a father and son, both Hugo and Long said.

“Working and raising three boys, I can give you all the best I can, but when you’re missing a father it’s totally different," she said.

Hugo Harp is hyped up by his teammate JT Davis at the DIAA Dual Team Wrestling Championships Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Abandoned at a young age

Aaron Harris doesn’t love to reflect on the past, but he remembers the pots of soup that would sit in the refrigerator inside the home he shared with his mother and siblings in Washington, D.C., in the early '80s.

The soup was food for a month, or at least, it was supposed to be.

“You’d have to heat that s--- up on the freakin’ stove and it would just be disgusting,” Harris said.

With no money, his mother dropped Harris off in Harrington, Delaware to live with his father. Life wasn't much more stable there. They lived in a one-room house in Clark's Corner. Going to the bathroom meant using an outhouse.

There were drugs and sometimes the threat of violence. Harris vividly recalls one harrowing night.

A man kicked in the door. He was the husband of a woman Harris' father was seeing. Harris watched as the man stabbed his father. Then his father then pulled out a gun and started shooting.

The man, wounded, retreated back behind the door and Harris’ father pinned him.  “Either you’re going to get the f--- out of here or I’m going to kill you,'' he recalls his dad saying.

The man left.

“My dad closed the f------ door and started watching TV,” Harris said.

If that didn’t highlight the instability of his early years, one fateful winter day would.

Harris returned home from elementary school to an empty house. Everything was gone except for his clothes and a couch.

He was 8. And homeless.

Harris had two friends, Terry and Tony, in Clark’s Corner, and a cousin. Sometimes he’d have a place to stay inside but other nights he’d sleep on an electrical utility box outside the housing complex.

This is when details become harder to get out of Harris. He wanted the story to focus on Hugo. But, really, there is no Hugo without Harris, and there is no Harris without the past that shaped him.

Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris trains with the team Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Smyrna wrestling head coach Aaron Harris trains with the team Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

He turned to the streets and started selling drugs. Attending school became an afterthought. He sold drugs to survive, but even at a young age he knew it wasn’t his future.

“I remember being 9 and having conversations with adults and thinking, ‘Y’all are stupid,’” Harris said. “This is your goal? I don’t know what my goal is but it’s not that.”

To this day, he never got an explanation from his late father as to why he abandoned him, even after they reconnected years later.

“I say now I don’t have any questions because I’m OK, but I wasn’t OK back then,” Harris said.

“If you don’t know what normal life is, then you don’t know what to expect. How could I be mad at my mom and dad for not being together when I don’t know that they’re supposed to be together?

It took a lot for him to make it out “OK,” though.

By 14, Harris was spending some time further up Route 13 in Woodside, where the people he was running with had a house where they moved drugs. 

He ran into his brother and cousin, and the two wanted him to get into sports. In eighth grade, he started wrestling at Caesar Rodney Middle School.

He was still selling drugs. By 15, he was renting a house in Woodside. He became emancipated at 16. There was enough money coming in that some of it was buried on the property, he said. At Caesar Rodney High School, no one knew what his life was like outside school.

“There were nights,” Harris said, “where I’d go out to a party and see what normalcy was and think, ‘Why can’t I live in this big house in Wild Quail and have parties?’ 

“Anyone who sees or hears this type of story that went to high school with me, unless they knew me outside of school they wouldn’t even believe some of the things that I did. 

“I was very careful to keep them separate. I was able to speak proper English and go to parties and hang out like I was a normal kid and drive up in a car like my parents bought it for me.”

His eyes were always on the future, though. He would be inside those big houses at a party and see the way paintings were arranged and take note of the bedrooms and furniture. 

One day after school, the mother of Harris’ best friend, Jason Slater, followed him home. She stayed in her car and watched Harris from afar. She saw people coming and going and knew what was going on. Later she would ask him why he did the things he did.

“I said: What else am I going to do? Who else is going to take care of me?” Harris said.

The Slaters, a military family, offered to let Harris come live with them on-base. He said no at first. “But I started visiting and hanging out more. Within a couple of months, I started to see people actually sit down together and eat dinner. This isn’t just TV? Parents ask how your day was?”

By junior year, Harris moved in. Jason became his brother, and Jason’s parents became “mom” and “dad.” The mother has since died, but Harris is still close with Jason and his father.

At the Slaters, Harris saw the path out.

“I still lived a little bit of the life because that’s what I had to do, but I was able to figure out what real life was going to be like,” said Harris, now 41. “The whole time growing up, not having a place to stay, I’d think to myself and I’d look around and say, ‘There’s something out there other than this for me.’

“I just didn’t know what that was. And they gave me a taste of what that was.”

So, too, did Caesar Rodney wrestling coach Dicky Howell and his brothers, Brad and Kurt.

“I saw a grown man who wasn’t getting anything out of this directly spend his time and come pick me up in the summertime at 9 o’clock in the morning and train with me for three hours and then take me to eat and take me back home,” Harris said of Dicky Howell.

“His commitment and time started to make me turn the corner and think … it just showed me that somebody was there and it was possible to do something else.”

It made him realize wrestling was a tool. A tool for a scholarship, and a tool to help him be successful.

That drive brought him a state championship at 140 pounds in 1997 as a senior. He continued wrestling in college, and was an All-American as a freshman at Lycoming before a knee injury there and later at Delaware Valley College ended his wrestling career. While he finished his business administration degree at Del-Val, he was offered a spot on the coaching staff. 

He later coached at Davidson College in North Carolina, but was there less than two years before coaching changes were made. With no plan, he thought Miami would be a fun place to "hang out" for a while.

It turned into 10 years and helped shape the rest of his life, eventually bringing him closer to Hugo.

Aaron Harris in a 1997 News Journal photo during his state championship-winning match.
Aaron Harris in a 1997 News Journal photo during his state championship-winning match.
Gary Emeigh, The News Journal

Channeling Hugo's anger

The sound produced by a crunching football tackle is distinct.

It was August, 2016, outside Dover High School on one of the first practice days of the athletic calendar. Harris kept hearing that same sound

One after another. Pop. Pop. Pop. 

The loud tackling sound – to the wrestling coach and athletic director’s surprise – was coming from the freshman football practice.

Harris, who had just returned to Delaware, was intrigued, so he drove his cart over to the field to investigate.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

It was a big kid out there, bigger than most of the freshmen, causing all of these loud noises.

During a break, Harris approached to introduce himself.

Dover’s wrestling program needed more kids, and Harris told Hugo to come to open mats that night.

“He told me you get to slam people,” Hugo remembered.

So Hugo did.

That night, Harris matched up one of his seniors, a state runner-up, with Hugo, who had a size advantage.

“Hugo just kept picking him up and throwing him against the wall and picking him up and throwing him this way,” Harris said. “He wasn’t scoring any points, but it was just funny to see. The kid ended up beating him, obviously, but he impressed me with the fact that he was mean and aggressive. That’s really something I can’t teach. It’s inside of you.”

Harris had no idea then how much anger there was. It would quickly become apparent.

Hugo & Aaron: The first practice
Hugo and Aaron tell the story of when they first met.
Jerry Habraken, The News Journal

The first tournament of Hugo’s freshman year at Dover was at Polytech High School, right down the street from where Harris grew up in Woodside.

Hugo, wrestling at 220 pounds, his weight class all four years in high school, lost a double overtime match. Harris had been trying to motivate him most of the day, yelling at him in the locker room at one point. 

But now he wanted to give Hugo some praise.

“I was proud of him because he kept wrestling,” Harris said. “He thought I was going to yell at him again.”

Hugo walked away as Harris approached. 

“Hugo, come here,” Harris said. And then he told him quietly in his ear: “If you’re not going to listen to me then you can’t be on this team.”

“OK, what’s that mean?” Hugo replied.

“That means you give me the uniform back and you’re not on this team anymore,” Harris said.

Hugo took off his uniform and sat up at the top of the bleachers, wearing nothing but his boxers.

“I realized right then what I was dealing with,” Harris said. “We talked through it … I knew from that day he needed somebody.”

In order to get back on the team, Hugo had to prove he wanted to be there. At practice, he had to go up against the coaches, all former state champions.

“My goal was either he was going to quit or he was going to be the best,” Harris said.

Hugo Harp is surrounded by his teammates before his match in the DIAA Dual Team Wrestling Championships Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Hugo Harp is surrounded by his teammates before his match in the DIAA Dual Team Wrestling Championships Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

If you know anything about Delaware wrestling over the last few years, you know the latter became true.

Hugo and Harris started spending more time together. Harris would take Hugo to eat after school most days. One time, early in their relationship, they stopped at 7-Eleven, and Harris bought Hugo white powdered doughnuts. “He was hooked,” Harris said. “I don’t think he ever went away after that.”

Those car rides became sort of like church, Hugo said. It’s when the bond between them grew.

“It was probably the best part of my day,” Hugo said. “I would just love getting in the car and riding around.”

By sophomore year, Hugo had become a much better wrestler. He entered the individual state tournament as the seventh seed with a 28-6 record. He pulled off a major upset in the quarterfinals and coasted to the state championship.

Hugo Harp celebrates his 2018 individual state championship.
Hugo Harp celebrates his 2018 individual state championship.
Jason Minto, The News Journal

The following year was different, Harris had left Dover to take over the wrestling program at nearby Smyrna. The two stayed in touch and talked almost every day because “we have a bond that’s more than just wrestling,” Hugo said.

“Whenever I needed something, he got me. That man used to drop me off places at 9 o’clock and used to come get me at 2 in the morning and take me home.”

Hugo went 37-2 during his junior season and entered the state tournament as the third seed. No one in the 220-pound division could stop him. He scored two pins and two dominant decisions to win another championship, one that he still credits to Harris because “I was so out of shape. The only reason I won state junior year is because I went and practiced with Smyrna.”

Months later, Smyrna became his home school.

Hundreds of Hugos

Harris’ track record at Dover, where he led the program to the state playoffs for the first time in 20 years and cultivated two individual state champions, put him on Smryna’s radar when the school was looking for a new coach.

“That's a testament to what he is and what he gets out of the kids,” Smyrna athletic director Bill Schultz said.

On that resume, too, was Harris’ time in the Miami area, where he said he worked with “hundreds of Hugos.”

Harris first went to Miami thinking he was just going to hang out for a while and take a break. He found a job working at Miami International University as an admissions adviser.

He missed coaching. So he found the Homestead YMCA, which led to a job at Homestead Senior High School. He became certified to teach and became the athletic director before leaving for South Dade Senior High.

About 1 in every 3 people in Homestead and nearby Florida City live below the poverty line.

What once was a hotbed for wrestling had almost vanished by the time Harris arrived in the early 2000s, said Walt Thompson, Homestead Senior High’s former head of security.

“Most of the kids there were gang kids,” Harris said. “You were either going to straighten up, go to a different school or you were going to wrestle.”

“Our idea was to change the school,” said Thompson, himself a Homestead wrestler in the ‘80s. “The tough guys didn’t have anything to do. They’d gravitate to the gangs, they’d gravitate to the streets.”

The program needed an overhaul.

“When I first walked in (at Homestead), there were two kids on the team,” Harris said. “By the time I left, we were winning districts, regions, placing top 5 in the state every year.

“I put everything I had into it,” Harris said.

That meant time and money.

“During the summertime I made sure my kids were with me and at a tournament out of town so that they weren’t in the streets Saturday night,” Harris said. “I’d load up 10 to 15 kids, and that may seem impossible but I could call some kids right now and ask how many kids we packed in the Tahoe and they’d say, ‘Twenty-five, coach!’” 

“I can recall loading up 15 kids and driving to Broward County and saying, ‘If you don’t have money stand over here and if you do have money stand over there.’”

None had the $30 necessary to wrestle in the tournament. So Harris would pay. And since they didn’t have any money to wrestle, they definitely didn’t have any money to eat.

Asked how much money he’s spent on his students and wrestlers over the years, Harris estimated it’s easily six figures.

With Hugo, Harris said, he regrets not buying Wawa stock.

Two of his former wrestlers from Florida showed up this year at Cape Henlopen to surprise Harris at the individual state wrestling finals.

“They’re not strangers,” Harris said. “I kid you not, there’s like 150 kids on Facebook that reach out to me to say thanks.”

In a recent Facebook post, Harris asked some of his past students and wrestlers to leave a comment and say how they’re doing or where they are, as part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

“Man. I don’t know where to start,” one ex-student wrote. “I wrestled with you for two years. I can’t sum into works the impact you have on me to this day. My wife used to tell me all the time, ‘I can tell you love Coach Harris.’”

Hugo commented: “My name is Hugo Harp and I’m getting ready to go to college. Coach Harris taught me a lot of things but the one thing he taught me is never to quit in life no matter how hard it gets.”

“That’s what keeps me going,” said Harris, who also teaches health and gym at Smyrna. “That’s what keeps me doing this.”

“You can see, even outside of wrestling, when I walk by his classroom, kids clearly are very comfortable with him and drawn to him and they like to sit around with him and chat about life itself and his door is always open to that,” Smyrna Principal Stacy Cook said. “He’s not just a classroom teacher.”

It translates easily to the mat. Smyrna has won the Division I dual team state championship in Delaware both years Harris has been there.

Aaron Harris celebrates Smyrna's team state championship in 2019.
Aaron Harris celebrates Smyrna's team state championship in 2019.
WILLIAM BRETZGER, The News Journal

“He’s somebody that you want to follow and want to fight for,” said Smyrna senior JT Davis, twice an individual state champion under Harris. “He has this way of getting everyone to fight for a common goal. He brings the best out of you.”

When Hugo’s junior year ended, he decided to attend Smyrna. All parties agreed it was in Hugo’s best interest.

He was labeled a McKinney-Vento transfer, the name of the assistance act that aims to minimize the educational disruptions experienced by students who are experiencing homelessness.

Hugo wasn’t technically homeless, but he was staying with his mother in Dover about three days per week. They weren’t getting along well. He had other places to stay, both in Dover and Smyrna. 

JT Davis
He’s somebody that you want to follow and want to fight for. He has this way of getting everyone to fight for a common goal. He brings the best out of you.

A family in Smyrna, the Gils, offered to put Hugo up during the 2019-20 school year. The mother, Jess, had known Hugo’s mother from work.

Hugo and Harris were reunited.

An evolving personality 

The drive from Smyrna High School to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio is more than 400 miles and nearly seven hours long.

In December, Harris drove a van carrying Hugo and a few other Smyrna wrestlers to the Ironman tournament, one of the top wrestling competitions in the country.

Hugo wouldn’t shut up. If he wasn’t freestyle rapping, he was telling stories. If he wasn’t telling stories, he was making up stories. At one point, he took out his phone to start prank-calling people, even pretending to use another language.

“I’ve learned to block him out,” said Harris, who recalled a trip back in their Dover days when he had to pull over at a Steak ‘n Shake in Maryland.

Hugo had been rapping and harmonizing nonstop, and Harris was getting mad. So they had some words outside the vehicle and got back on the road. Hugo immediately picked it back up again.

The others in the van to Ohio didn't quite have Harris’ patience. And it was nearing 10 p.m. after a long day in the car.

Somewhere in eastern Ohio, Harris took a few dollars out of his pocket and told Hugo if he stayed quiet the rest of the ride he could have the money.

“He shut his mouth,” Davis said. “We tried to get him to talk but he wouldn’t. It was a good time. In the moment, it was annoying, but when you look back on it …”

It was Hugo being Hugo. 

Hugo Harp, left, jumps in excitement as Smyrna wins the  DIAA Dual Team Wrestling Championship Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Hugo Harp, left, jumps in excitement as Smyrna wins the DIAA Dual Team Wrestling Championship Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Spend a few hours around him in a comfortable setting and you’ll see quickly why seven consecutive hours of conversation isn’t crazy. Asked why he’s that way, why he couldn’t stay quiet and relax during the car ride, Hugo paused for a few seconds and offered perspective:

“All my life, I never really had the chance to joke around.”

Now, he doesn’t miss a beat. At February’s Henlopen Conference Championships at Milford High School, Hugo had everyone’s attention during a break in the action.

“It’s just his personality. Even though I lose to him over and over again, I love the dude,” said Kristopher Thompson, the 220-pounder who lost to Hugo at the Henlopen Conference final and in the state championship.

Hugo’s personality wasn’t always that way. It used to be an act.

“People don’t realize. Hugo is not the goofy, social person you see,” Harris said. “He really started playing that role back as a freshman and sophomore to not be angry. And now it’s really him. It’s funny to watch if you’ve known him since he was Angry Hugo. And now it’s just funny to see the transition. It’s a cool transition to watch.”

The first time Cook, the Smyrna principal, met Hugo was during a quick, informal meeting at the school.

“He wins you over very quickly with his personality, with his smile, with his laid-back attitude,” Cook said.

At Smyrna, Harris wanted to make sure Hugo had every opportunity possible. They decided Hugo would play football, where he played defensive line.

Of course, he became All-State. 

Success didn’t come without its ups and downs. There were times Hugo wanted to quit. Harris referenced a picture that circulated on Facebook of him and Hugo during a Senior Night celebration.

“People said, ‘Oh, you guys look great!’” Harris said. “No, I’m talking him out of quitting. Honestly.”

“I didn’t love it,” Hugo said of football. “My body hurt so bad.”

Hugo Harp paces and listens to music as he prepares for his final match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Hugo Harp paces and listens to music as he prepares for his final match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Miracle wrestling move

The Beast of the East wrestling tournament held every year at the University of Delaware is always one of the top tournaments on the wrestling calendar. To reach the medal stand in one of the top seven spots is a major accomplishment.

In December, a week after that Ironman tournament in Ohio, Hugo was in danger of failing to reach the medal stand.

He was behind 7-2 with 1:30 on the clock and then 8-5 with 30 seconds left. He scored a two-point reversal and two-point takedown, letting his opponent up and conceding a point after each to try and get more points.

The clock was winding down, Hugo was down a point and Harris called out for one last double-leg, one of the more basic wrestling moves. Hugo’s, most people in Delaware wrestling circles know, is lethal. It’s known as the “Hugo Double.”

“He has this way of lulling you to sleep and then he just explodes,” said Davis, his Smyrna teammate and practice partner.

Hugo’s opponent ducked low to avoid it. So Hugo tried the impossible, leaping over his opponent to pull off a “flying squirrel,” a move he’s been watching on YouTube that earns him a dramatic takedown win and a shot at a medal.

Hugo Harp, top, wrestles against Sussex Central's Hiram Lasher in his semifinal match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Hugo Harp, top, wrestles against Sussex Central's Hiram Lasher in his semifinal match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

“I just jumped for it. It was timed so perfectly,” Hugo said.

“Hugo became an All-American because of a move that’s stupid and a move that he’s never done before,” Harris said.

“It’s perfectly Hugo. It’s a rollercoaster. I want to choke him and then I say, ‘I love you, kid.’”

The two use that word often.

Saying “I love you” started when Hugo was a freshman. “I think I started saying it back right away, not necessarily meaning it,” Harris said. “Now? We mean it.”

What does he love about Hugo?

“Everything. Even his flaws. Because they just make him.”

Hugo Harp rests on the wrestling mat during practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Hugo Harp rests on the wrestling mat during practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Smyrna High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

One night, after midnight, Harris’ phone rang. It was Hugo. It was another one of those nights when he couldn’t sleep.

“Coach, I figured out what I want to do with my life.”

He explained he wanted to be a professional wrestler. Hurricane Hugo would be his name. A phone call like that isn’t abnormal. Hugo will call at any hour. The two talk every day, even now during the pandemic when they’ve been forced to be apart for a while. 

Harris was there this spring when Hugo slipped on an Iowa Central Community College shirt and had a little signing ceremony outside Smyrna football coach Mike Judy's house. Hugo’s grades didn’t allow for a Division I scholarship, but hopes some time away from Delaware with proper tutoring will help. 

He’ll have some familiarity, too. Smyrna’s Amir Pierce is also slated to attend Iowa Central.

“I get to start a whole new life and get away from Delaware. It ended really good, but the past is going to haunt me,” he said. “I did some messed up s--- in my life, stuff that keeps me up at night. I’ll be up … ask coach Harris … I’ll call him at 3 in the morning. It’s bad. My mind is just all over the place.”

If professional wrestling doesn’t work out, he wants to work with Harris and open up a strength and conditioning gym in Smyrna and Dover with the “Hurricane” name. There is also talk of training to be a mixed martial arts fighter.

Harris had said he wanted Hugo to be close to Delaware, but he’ll remain a big part of Hugo’s life.

“I’m worried like a parent would be worried. But there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be successful, just from what he’s been through in life,” Harris said. “And then if you can go through what I put you through in this sport and come out on the other end a champion or come out on the other end period, you’re going to be successful in life.''

Long, Hugo's mother, said Hugo and Harris are "tight like glue."

"God sent Hugo an angel in his life, and it was coach Harris."

For Hugo, Harris became more than an angel.

“If I had to choose any person in this world to legit be my dad, that would be the one,” Hugo said. “Coach Harris would be my dad.”

His new family

It’s three days before the state championships, Hugo’s last high school wrestling tournament, and Hugo is armed with a nerf gun.

Somewhere inside the Gil residence, 7-year-old Joey is hiding. Hugo has to fend off Haka, the German shepherd, and Frankie, the Gils’ 2-year-old daughter, to find Joey.

“Frankie used to hate him; now she rides him around like a horse,” Jess Gil says of her daughter and Hugo.

Hugo is closer in age to Jess and Gabe, but the Gils never thought twice about bringing in a kid with a checkered past. 

“I knew through my past experiences that different mentors and coaches make an impact on your life,” Gabe Gil said. “I’ve also seen how negative that can be when you lose that influence and structure.

Top: Hugo Harp plays with nerf guns with Joey and Francesa Gil at the Gil's home in Smyrna. Harp lived with the Gil family during the final months of his senior year. Bottom: Francesa Gil, left, Hugo Harp, center, and Joey Gil hangout in the living room of the Gil's home. Left: Hugo Harp plays with nerf guns with Joey and Francesa Gil at the Gil's home in Smyrna. Harp lived with the Gil family during the final months of his senior year. Right: Francesa Gil, left, Hugo Harp, center, and Joey Gil hangout in the living room of the Gil's home. Left: Hugo Harp plays with nerf guns with Joey and Francesa Gil at the Gil's home in Smyrna. Harp lived with the Gil family during the final months of his senior year. Right: Francesa Gil, left, Hugo Harp, center, and Joey Gil hangout in the living room of the Gil's home. JERRY HABRAKEN, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

“It really can make or break someone’s life, essentially.”

At the Gils, Hugo didn’t have many rules to follow, mainly just to clean up after himself. 

His eating habits? Jess happily describes them as “sophisticated adult to well-funded fifth-grader.”

Say what?

“That’s when you take a box of cookies and put it in a bowl of milk and eat it with a spoon,” she clarified. 

Some nights, Gabe and Jess would be upstairs in bed and would wake up to the sound of Hugo’s laugh coming from the living room, where he slept on the couch with Haka by his side. They'd listen closely sometimes to decipher what he was laughing at, usually either Step Brothers or Bad Boys 2.

Hugo has this way of letting adults know that he’s in their corner. He calls Jess “Mama Jess.” 

“I feel like he’s one of my kids,” she said.

At the Wooleyhands, a family he lives with sometimes in Dover near his mother’s house, there’s “Pops Charles.” Harris is “pops,” too. 

About three months into his time at Smyrna, Cook, the principal, became “Mama Cook.”

“To hear him say that and to give me that big, toothy grin that he has, it’s just heartwarming every time I see him,” she said. 

Hugo Harp plays with Francesa Gil and Joey Gil at their home in Smyrna Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Ivar the Boneless

Hugo Harp’s back is up against a wall inside the gym at Cape Henlopen High School. He’s wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones and pacing next to the podium. His eyes close for a bit and he drifts off. The match before the 220-pound individual state final in February goes into overtime, so the wait continues.

There was a Viking leader named Ivar the Boneless who invaded Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century. Ivar didn’t have any legs, so the story goes, but he led the Great Heathen Army into battle.

“That proves he can do a lot of things. I don’t know why that made me like him so much, but I just have a mindset like that,” Hugo said.

Hugo Harp paces and listens to music as he prepares for his semifinal match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Hugo Harp paces and listens to music as he prepares for his semifinal match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Ivar was portrayed in "Vikings," a television series on the History Channel, and video from that show was used in a music video mashup with rappers 2Pac and Eminem. Hugo watches and listens to that before he goes onto the mat.

His match is called and a whistle sounds. It’s the last time Hugo and Harris will wrestle together. 

Hugo scores a takedown and a three-point near fall in the first period and takes a commanding 5-1 lead. He goes on to coast to an 8-3 victory, his third consecutive 220-pound title.

Hugo Harp has his hand raised after defeating Lake Forest's Kristopher Thompson to win the 220-pound 2020 DIAA Individual State Title Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Hugo Harp has his hand raised after defeating Lake Forest's Kristopher Thompson to win the 220-pound 2020 DIAA Individual State Title Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Harris hands Hugo a red Smyrna flag and Hugo drapes it over his shoulders like a cape and does a victory lap on the mat.

Harris’ eyes fill with tears.

“It’s the first time I’ve cried since the ‘80s,” he said.

Hugo Harp, left, hugs coach Aaron Harris after winning the 2020 220-pound state wrestling title Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Hugo Harp, left, hugs coach Aaron Harris after winning the 2020 220-pound state wrestling title Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Asked why a few days later, Harris said: “My life’s come full circle. I’m back home and affecting a kid who was just like me from the same type of situation and from the same area. I actually thought about that.”

Once the well-wishers disperse, Hugo sits next to the podium on a chair, clutching his gold medal. He keeps staring at it and smiling.

Hugo Harp looks at his winner’s medal after being crowned the 220-pound 2020 DIAA Individual State Champion Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

“I never really had the taste of success until now,” he said. “It’s about ending my high school career where it first began. This is where my road to success started. It’s going through my head right now.”

He thought about Harris, and the finality that the medal represented.

“I won this for him. This is his. It’s going to be on my name, but this is for him."

At the end of that Ivar the Boneless music mashup, a man stands over Ivar and says to him: “You are unpredictable, and that will serve you well. Use your anger intelligently, and I promise you, my son, that one day the whole world will know and fear Ivar the Boneless.”

Hugo Harp
I won this for him. This is his. It’s going to be on my name, but this is for him.

Hugo Harp was angry. Aaron Harris taught him to use it intelligently, and it saved Hugo’s life.

Two men, from different generations, with different but similar circumstances, found each other, and their lives changed because of it. 

“It’s fate, right?” Harris said.

Contact Jeff Neiburg at jneiburg@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.

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