In 2009, Troy Heilmann decided he wanted to be an All-American. He was in eighth grade.
After nine years of chasing that dream, the North Carolina wrestler made it happen. In March, Heilmann advanced to the semifinals of the 149-pound weight class at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, Ohio.
He lost his next match, but that didn’t change anything. By virtue of his fourth-place finish, he secured an All-American honor — the first of his career, in the last competition of his career.
Afterwards, he thanked the North Carolina coaching staff that had been with him the whole time. during his 1-8 start last season and during his biggest moment as a Tar Heel. They had seen the redshirt senior at his highs and lows.
However, he also couldn’t help but look back to where it all started, when the eighth-grader that chose his destiny. He looked back to his mom, dad, two brothers and sister, friends and teammates. He looked back to the Eye of the Tiger and Murderer’s Row — to the times he left and returned home.
He looked back to South Plainfield, N.J. — the place that made him the wrestler and the man that he is today.
‘An honor to be a wrestler’
Nick and Pam Heilmann moved to South Plainfield right after they got married. To connect themselves and their children with the community, Nick Sr. signed up his oldest, Nick Jr., for all the recreational sports programs in the town: football, baseball and basketball.
The Heilmanns immediately found what they were looking for in wrestling. Both parents and children gained friends through the program and quickly realized how much wrestling meant to the small, working class town of South Plainfield.
“It's a really tight-knit community,” Nick Jr. said. “It’s where, if you wrestle, kind of everybody in town knows you a little bit, you know? It’s an honor to be a wrestler, and kids look up to be a wrestler one day.”
After seeing his brother thrive early on, Troy was one of those kids. But while success came quickly for his older brother, Troy’s path to becoming a varsity wrestler was mostly spent watching Nick Jr. dominate. Regardless, Troy's dream remained.
“Ever since you were a little kid,” Troy said, “you were like, ‘Damn, I want to wrestle.’”
His future high school fostered that growth even more. At South Plainfield, home varsity wrestling meets are an experience and, according to Nick Jr., a cheap date. The entire town piles onto the old metal bleachers that line the gym to watch the Tigers.
Following a full dance routine from the cheerleaders, wrestlers emerge from the darkness into the Eye of the Tiger, a spotlight hanging above the mat, as Ozzy Osbourne’s "Centre of Eternity"blasts. The crowd bangs on the bleachers. The atmosphere, in Troy’s words, is electric.
In the span of a few years, Troy went from a struggling kid in the rec program, to an eighth-grade state champion, to one of those wrestlers basking in the glory and the noise of that dusty gym. Now in high school, Troy and his closest friends were ready to make their mark on Tigers wrestling.
‘Love us or hate us’
In a town that prides itself on its independence and community, the South Plainfield wrestling team did the same. In their first year with the program, Troy and his childhood friends in the class of 2013 took the team to No. 1 ranking in the state.
“During Troy’s freshman year, I think it took on a whole different face,” his mother Pam said. “Because they were No. 1 in the state while still a small little public school with all home-grown kids. That's what we really pride ourselves on: that it's a home-grown team. We’re not recruiting people from two towns over.”
That ending remark was a not-so-subtle shot at South Plainfield’s private school equivalent: Bergen Catholic, the Tigers’ longtime rival and the current No. 1 wrestling team in the state. Even during Troy’s time in high school, Bergen Catholic was recruiting wrestlers from as far as Romania. But South Plainfield had its own answer to the ringers that the Crusaders were bringing in — Murderer's Row.
The nickname described a stretch of five consecutive South Plainfield wrestlers (Troy, Dylan Painton, Corey Stasenko, Anthony Ashnault and Scott DelVecchio) that dominated their respective weight classes. It was coined by a man named Robert Graf, better known to the town as ‘The Tuna,’ who was one of the locals that had been banging on those old metal bleachers for almost 30 years.
These wrestlers turned into more than a couple weight classes teams would rather forfeit than fight against — they became lore, legend, a complete representation of the town of South Plainfield. They were born and bred Tigers. It was them against the world — and everybody knew it.
“It was like we were the Yankees,” Nick Sr. said. “You either love us or hate us, you know? Everybody wants to be like us. All the other sports towns and teams wanted to emulate us and have success like our program.”
The Murderer's Row did a lot in their time at South Plainfield — three team and six individual state championships over the span of four years. The group was even featured in a six-part documentary series by The New Jersey Star-Ledger. But it was what the group (as well as other South Plainfield wrestlers) did after high school that speaks the most toward their talent.
In the past five years, Heilmann’s class has produced four All-American wrestlers — him at UNC, Ashnault and DelVecchio at Rutgers and Ray Jazikoff at Division III NYU. Most of the boys are close to their hometown fan base, with three ‘Murderers’ attending Rutgers, a 30-minute drive from home.
This is where Troy differs from the typical Tiger, making home in a town in which he wasn’t born and finding brothers in guys from different blood. Well, mostly different blood.
‘Why you do it’
Troy’s decision to go to UNC wasn’t completely arbitrary.
His brother Nick Jr. had been there from 2010 to 2014 and opted to be a graduate assistant for Troy’s first year (something Troy hopes to do for his younger brother Joe who is wrestling at UNC next year).
Despite this, Heilmann said that his recruiting process was open. He had a good relationship with Rutgers’ coaching staff, but realized it would be almost an extension of high school, with the same friends around him.
At UNC, Heilmann wasn’t a part of Murderer’s Row. He had to make a name for himself in a place where he didn’t know everyone, and wrestling wasn’t everything.
“It's kind of hard not coming into a big wrestling culture,” he said. “But, having a light on you all the time, that's not why you do it. You do it because you train hard. And I think, once I realized that, it helped me.”
Heilmann struggled early on at UNC, just like during those early rec years. His record hovered around .500 for two years under head coach C.D. Mock, before Mock was relieved of his position and replaced by Coleman Scott. Under Scott, a young coach just three years removed from a 2012 Olympic bronze medal, Heilmann found his place at UNC.
“A lot of times when there's a coaching transition,” Heilmann said, “a lot of guys in the team fall by the wayside. I'm grateful that it didn't happen to me. I was able to be a part of the team and be someone that he saw as being valuable.”
After a two more years of competition — one as a junior and another as a redshirt junior — Heilmann became the standout and leader he was back in South Plainfield.
He finished his final season 32-6 in the 149-pound class and was a 2018 ACC Tournament individual champion. He led UNC to 20th-place finish in NCAAs — its best since 1995.
UNC became his team and his family. But that doesn’t mean he forgot about the Tigers, or that they forgot about him.
“Whenever I'm doing well,” Heilmann said, “I'm getting people that text me that I haven't seen in a long time, people I didn’t think would ever be following me. I’ve gotten texts from people saying they’ve been following my whole career.”
At Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena in March, Scott DelVecchio watched from the tunnel as Heilmann won the match that secured his All-American honor. The two friends embraced afterward.
And when DelVecchio won his All-American clinching match that same weekend, Heilmann was waiting too. He spent the biggest moment of his career with one of the same guys he started it with. Because he will always be a Tiger. He will always be part of Murderer’s Row.