In sports, but especially in wrestling, it is not unusual to see siblings competing for the same program. The Hofstra Wrestling program has been blessed to have a number of brothers go through the Pride program. In 2010-11, Lou and Cody Ruggirello graced the Pride roster. Three Patrovich brothers, Joe, Michael and Ryan wrestled for the Pride a decade ago with Michael, currently an assistant coach on the Hofstra staff, on the squad for just one semester with both his older and younger brother. The 1980s had the Downey brothers, Joe and Ray, as well as the Arena brothers, Anthony and Michael. The list goes on throughout the 70-year history of the program.
The 2016-17 season is a little bit different as the Pride not only have brothers on the roster, they have TWO sets of brothers competing for the blue and gold. Sophomore Ryan Burkert and red-shirt freshman Connor Burkert and sophomore Omar Haddad and red-shirt sophomore Nezar Haddad are not only on the roster, all four are starters.
Double-sets of brothers on the same roster are not a rarity in wrestling but they are also not commonplace. Hofstra’s Burkert and Haddad brothers share the same motivation, drive and goals of being the best they can be. Both sets of brothers come from athletic families and both started in wrestling before they began grade school. But one thing is for sure, the Pride’s two sets of brothers are almost as different as night and day.
“The Burkerts and the Haddads are very different,” Hofstra Head Wrestling Coach Dennis Papadatosstates with a chuckle. “The Haddads are way more reserved than Ryan and Connor. I don’t want to say that Nezar and Omar are quiet but the Burkerts are louder. The Burkerts are more vocal and intense but Nezar and Omar can also be when they get riled up or when needed. We would like to tone the Burkerts intensity level down a bit and the Haddads level up some and we would be in a nice spot.”
The Burkert brothers’ introduction to wrestling began at four-years old after Ryan and Connor watched a boxing match on television and told their father, Kenneth, a now-retired corrections officer as well as a one-time volunteer recreation program coach in Union, New Jersey, that they wanted to box. “I remember when I told him that, he smiled and said great, great,” Ryan recalls. “A couple of weeks later he brought us to a recreation program wrestling practice and I was surprised that it wasn’t boxing. He said, it’s OK. I promise you are going to love it.”
By the seventh grade the brothers, who were moving from being trained by dad to a wrestling club, decided that wrestling was the sport to focus on. “We tried other sports but by the time we were 11 or 12, we were pretty positive that we just wanted to wrestle,” Ryan said. “We were also kind of small to play other sports,” Connor added.
The brothers competed on every team together, from recreation leagues, through middle school, to the Team New Jersey travel squad, through high school at St. Peter’s Prep and now even at Hofstra. All throughout, they were also each other’s training partner, which to outsiders may have seemed tedious. “In elementary school, we never really took wrestling each other, seriously,” Ryan said. I never really wanted to wrestle my own brother. I didn’t really care about beating my own blood.”
But the brothers saw a benefit as training partners as their dedication to wrestling intensified. “In general, it is not hard wrestling each other,” Ryan says. “But when he or I are having a bad day, it is hard to be motivated to want to push him and get under his skin. We don’t want to have to beat up on each other, but we have to do it because it will make us better. It’s tough to do because it is your family and because you don’t want to hurt your brother or teammate. But we look at it as we are making each other better.”
“We get into the wrestling room and we are going to work as hard as we can,” Connor says. “Even though he is my brother, every day I go to practice I am going to try to break him. Because it’s not only going to benefit me, it’s going to help him, too. We learned that from being drill partners all this time.”
The formula worked as both had solid scholastic success as both were runners-up in the New Jersey State High School Championships in addition to other state placements. As seniors, Connor placed second in the state championship after finishing fourth as a junior and Ryan, who was a favorite as a senior after a runner-up finish as a junior, did not place. Our senior season may have been the low point in our high school careers,” Connor says. “Seeing Ryan not get back to where he was as a junior, hurt. But there was a photo of me crying in my coach’s arms after my semifinal win and he had a look that he couldn’t be more proud of me. There has never been any jealousy.”
“When we talked about college, we knew we wanted to go to the same school,” Ryan stated. I have never been not on a team without Connor. I don’t know what it would be like wrestling without him.” Connor echoed the same sentiment. “I could not ever imagine not being on the same team as Ryan.”
So here they are now at Hofstra, working hard-maybe harder than anyone else-to make each other better through their special family bond. As freshmen in 2015-16, Connor suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason and was red-shirted while Ryan posted an 8-12 record and was a starter at 149 pounds for part of the season. This season, the Burkerts are starters, Ryan at 149 and Connor taking over at 141. They are both wrestlers and they are both accounting majors. But above all else they are family, something that is important to both.
“I think we have a great relationship in every aspect,” Ryan says. “We take all the same classes. We do everything together. We always know what each other is doing. We have been so close all our lives that it provides a sense of security. I don’t know what I would do without him.”
While some brothers do, we do not have a sibling rivalry,” Connor states. “We are closer than you can possibly imagine. When we were in high school, we got these tattoos on our hips of our initials. It symbolizes that we are attached at the hip. I know that no matter what, Ryan has my back and I have his as well. The relationship we have is a bond that you can’t find anywhere else.”
The Haddad brothers, who are not twins, also come from an athletic family led by the patriarch, Tarik, a standout scholastic football player who went on to become a four-year football letterman at The Citadel and later a high school teacher and football coach. Nezar, who is 22 and a red-shirt sophomore transfer from Drexel, and Omar, who is 20 and in his second year as a Hofstra Wrestling starter, are the youngest of five athletic siblings. The oldest, Ziad, 26, was a two-time NCAA qualifier, a Pennsylvania State High School champion and a two-time state finalist. Brother Tarik, 23, was a regional scholastic wrestling champ and played football at East Stroudsburg. To round out the family, the four brothers have a sister Zayna, who is 24.
While both the Burkert and Haddad brothers started wrestling at a young age, Omar and Nezar were following the path their older brothers created. “I started wrestling at five years old because my father put me in it and my older brothers were doing it,” Nezar says. “I have this ingrained memory of my first day of practice, of my mother tying my shoes because I didn’t know how to tie my shoes yet.” Nezar recalls. “So I was wrestling before I could tie my shoes.”
While Nezar and Omar played other sports, including football right through high school, wrestling was one of those sports that the family played. “We all enjoyed every single sport that we played,” Nezar says. “I played baseball for two years in elementary school and loved it. I just loved football and wrestling more.”
Omar was a little more candid about wrestling. “To be honest, I didn’t like wrestling when I was young. I loved football. I was on the junior varsity teams and I wasn’t very good. In wrestling, when you don’t win, it’s horrible. But I started to like wrestling when I got to high school.”
But Nezar and Omar, for most of their youth, had at least one brother and sometimes two on the same team with them. They watched their older siblings and they wanted to follow their footsteps. “We got to watch our older brothers have success and win awards growing up,” Nezar recalls. “So we wanted to do it, too.”
While success was coming easy for some of the brothers, envy was never a family issue. “My oldest brother started it by winning the state title,” Omar says. “He paved the way. My brother, Tarik, was a regional wrestling champion in high school and played football in college. Then my brother Nezar continued it. It was something that motivated me to say if my brothers did it I want to do it, too. The competitiveness that we were brought up with motivated us.”
While each brother looked up to his elder siblings, Nezar and Omar forged closeness, partly because of age. Nezar gravitated toward Tarik and looked up to Ziad, but was closest with Omar. From kindergarten through high school, there were only two years when they two weren’t on the same team. In football in high school, Nezar was a linebacker and Omar was a defensive end. In wrestling, they were one weight class apart.
“I always looked up to my brother, Nezar because he was winning those youth, middle school and junior high tournaments,” Omar says. “Some of the stuff that I never achieved, I saw my brother achieve. It makes you strive for it.”
At Parkland High School, the winning continued and Omar joined the family tradition While Nezar was both a three-time district champion and Pennsylvania State Championship qualifier and placed second as a senior, Omar also earned three state championship invitations after three top two district finishes and a district and regional title as a senior. He also placed seventh in the state as a junior and third as a senior. But something was missing that senior season and that something was Nezar, who went on to Drexel University to wrestle.
“Wrestling without Nezar as a senior and last year was tough,” Omar said. “He’s my brother and he was always teaching me. It seemed that he always invested more and had more to offer to me than I could to him being more successful and ahead of me. I had to adapt to being on my own.”
“Honestly, I thought that my senior year was my last season of wrestling in my life,” Omar stated. “The thought of wrestling in college wasn’t there. My brothers were constantly encouraging me and telling me that I had the ability to get it done.”
“Football wasn’t done for me until the spring of my senior year,” Omar said. “My Division I football goal and dream did not happen. I got some looks and some interest but no offers. After my senior season, my parents sat me down and talked to me about considering the opportunities that I might have in wrestling. I had some wrestling coaches contact me but I didn’t really show interest because I wasn’t planning on wrestling.”
Then, Coach Papadatos entered the picture with a call to his coach. “My coach told me he was a good guy, straight forward and I should give him some time and listen to what he has to say,” Omar said. A visit to the University and an offer followed. “I liked him and loved the University,” Omar said. “He also seemed like a guy who could help me achieve the individual goals that I had. So I made my decision.”
Nezar called it one of his proudest moments for his younger brother. “When he told me was going to sign with Hofstra, I was surprised but very happy,” Nezar said. “I think he turned the corner on wrestling during his senior year. I truly believe that everyone who wrestles in Division I wants to win a national championship. I was happy that he had the same mindset that I have and wants to be a national champion.”
With Omar off to Hofstra and Nezar at Drexel, the real possibility existed that the 197-pound brothers could meet on the mat. But despite a 15-14 record during his red-shirt freshman season, things went sour for Nezar at Drexel. There was a conflict with the coaching staff last year with the staff losing some confidence in him and Nezar losing some confidence in himself to an extent. “Omar was the guy pushing me to come to Hofstra,” Omar said. “We talked, brother-to-brother, about transferring. I thought it was in my best interest to get a change of scenery.”
“When he told me that he wasn’t happy and that he was thinking about transferring, I pushed him to come to Hofstra as much as I could,” Omar said. “With the weight class changes that we were anticipating this year, it was a prime time move for him. I never would have thought that I would wrestle with my brother again. When the opportunity presented itself, I was ecstatic.”
Now, Nezar and Omar Haddad are back together again, completing the Hofstra starting line-up at 197 and 285 pounds, respectively.
“One of the main things that pushed me to Hofstra was being with my brother again,” Nezar said. “Omar was my drill and lifting partner in high school. So we did everything together.” The younger brother echoes his sentiments. “It is really helpful to have Nezar around,” Omar said. “When I do wrestle with him, he is always pointing out the little things.”
Both brothers see the many benefits of being together again and each even mentioned a drawback. “We’re brothers and we love each other to death,” Omar says. “In my family, we were taught to respect your elders. I know there are times that Nezar gets upset with me. But I do my best to respect him and do what he wants, even if it means sitting in the passenger seat for the drive home.”
Nezar countered, “It is enjoyable being with him. He is the same person that I fun with in high school.
The only drawback I can see is now I have to pay for some of his meals. Instead of feeding one mouth, I am feeding two. ”
“We are very thankful for the family we have,” Omar says. “They are very supportive, taught us everything, and brought us up in the right way. We have very supportive loving parents, brothers and sister. They would do anything for us. We all want each other to succeed. I am thankful that my brother is here and that everything is working out.”