Nobody could beat Joe Henning on a wrestling mat. Not at Chippewa Falls Senior High School. Not at three state tournaments.
The three-time state wrestling champion died Friday night in DeKalb, Ill., while trying to cross railroad tracks on foot.
DeKalb Police Lt. Gary Spangler said Henning tried to beat an oncoming train that was headed east shortly after 11 p.m.
He tried to cross from the north to the south side of tracks at Second Street in DeKalb, reported the Daily Chronicle of DeKalb. Henning was pronounced dead at the scene.
Both DeKalb police and the DeKalb County Coroner’s Office are investigating the fatality, according to Associated Press.
In the long and storied history of Chi-Hi wrestling, Henning had as much success as anyone to ever step foot onto a wrestling mat at Chi-Hi.
One look at his resume and you can see why. Henning was a three-time state wrestling champion, winning top honors during his freshman, sophomore and senior years.
“He was the most successful wrestler in Chi-Hi history,” Chi-Hi coach Tom Pomietlo said. “Underneath Joe’s tough exterior there was a compassionate and caring person.”
The only year that Henning did not win a state title was as a junior, when he placed third at the state tournament. Pomietlo recalls how Henning came back for his senior season with the drive and resolve of a champion to win a third state title. And that’s exactly what he did.
Henning capped off a perfect 39-0 season by defeating Hartford Union’s Kyle Becker 11-1 at the 2002 state tournament.
A photograph in the Herald captured Henning as he walked off the mat that day handing his head gear to Charlie Wanty, a young child from Waupaca. Wanty would later become a state wrestling champion.
For his career, Henning sported an impressive 156-6 record. He was also a three-time all-Chippewa County Wrestler of the Year.
A few weeks after winning his third state title, Henning did what nobody thought was possible: defeat Andy Simmons.
Simmons, Wrestling USA Magazine’s top-ranked wrestler in the nation, went 219-0 throughout his high school career and was a four-time Michigan state champion when he met Henning at the Wrestling USA Magazine / Cliff Keen Dream Team Classic at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield.
Tied 5-5 entering overtime, Henning scored two points on a takedown to pick up the victory.
“He reminded me of Achilles in The Iliad,” Pomietlo said. “He was might tempered by mercy because he could destroy kids, but he never embarrassed any kids.”
In the spring of 2002, Henning signed a letter of intent to wrestle at Northern Illinois University of the Mid American Conference.
After redshirting his first year at NIU, Henning wrestled the next two seasons for the Huskies. He posted a 13-14 record as a freshman during the 2003-04 season, winning MAC Wrestler of the Week honors in February 2004.
"He was the kind of guy that would do anything for the team," former NIU wrestling coach Dave Grant said. "He was just well loved.
In his sophomore season at NIU, Henning went 6-5 for the Huskies.
“He was the epitome of a champion,” Pomietlo said.
Rod Stetzer contributed to this story.