One of Johnstown’s greatest sports figures died Wednesday morning, authorities confirmed.
Carlton Haselrig, 54, collapsed at his Johnstown home at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday and was pronounced dead at 9:19 a.m., Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees said.
The coroner said the death is believed to be of natural causes; an autopsy will be conducted.
Haselrig, a Greater Johnstown High School graduate, achieved fame as a wrestler and professional football player in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
He won a PIAA wrestling title in 1984, even though Greater Johnstown High School didn’t have a varsity wrestling program at the time. Competing as a one-man team during his senior year, he went 10-0 and won the district, regional and state titles in the unlimited weight class.
He won six NCAA wrestling titles at Division II Pitt-Johnstown in the late 1980s, three each at the Division I and Division II levels. At the time, champions from the NCAA Division II and Division III tournaments earned chances to compete for the Division I championship – but Haselrig’s unprecedented run of success at the top level prompted the NCAA to create the so-called “Haselrig Rule,” which bars small-school champions from moving on to the Division I tournament. That means his six titles will likely never be matched.
“There were a lot of naysayers,” Haselrig once told The Tribune-Democrat. “They said I’d never be able to achieve the things I wanted to at UPJ. Being the first national champ on the wall, that was something that was very important to me to be able to give to Coach (Pat) Pecora.”
Even though Haselrig hadn’t played football in college, his athletic talent caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who picked him in the 12th round of the 1989 NFL draft. He played five seasons as an offensive lineman in the NFL – four with the Steelers and one with the New York Jets.
In 1992, he made the Pro Bowl and helped the Steelers to a division title. A little more than a year later, though, his struggles with drugs and alcohol knocked him out of the league.
A biography published last year – “Giant Killer: The Carlton Haselrig Story,” by Kevin Emily – detailed Haselrig’s rise to fame, his struggles with substance abuse and his recovery.
In recent years, Haselrig served as an assistant coach of the wrestling and football teams at Greater Johnstown High School.
“I’m at peace with all that,” he said recently. “I did what I did, both on the field and off the field. I’m proud of what I did on the field and not so proud of what I did off the field.”