My Tribute to Dean Heileman
By Curtis Yergensen
I met Dean at a Junior High School wrestling practice in late Nov. 1996. At the time I was an assistant wrestling coach at both the Junior High and the High School. He was wearing a red sweater that said “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” on it. I’d heard of Gracie
Jiu-Jitsu from watching a UFC tape from a friend at my other job. I introduced myself to him and inquired of the sweater. He shook my hand firmly with about the widest smile imaginable. I’m not sure if this smile was simply because he knew we would
become good friends or the fact that I was inquiring about the sweater (a chance for him to share jiu-jitsu). It was probably both.
He told me that he and a small group of friends had just started a club determined to learn the art of jiu-jitsu. The sweater had been bought in Salt Lake City at Pedro Sauer’s academy. At the time I knew nothing about Pedro Sauer, but was
completely taken in by the zeal at which he described to me his perspective on jiu-jitsu, life, etc. etc. It was amazing! We had become friends almost instantly. Dean was incredibly good at making friends. To this day I still think of him as an example to model when meeting someone for the first time. We talked for a long time that day, and he even told me of his cancer and his determination to beat it. He shared with me how jiu-jitsu was giving him the strength to do what he needed to do on a daily basis to deal with cancer (both the treatments and the mental of it).
He invited me to come and train with his club and I did. In Jan. 1997, I joined the club being among the first members. I feel privileged to have been a member at this early stage. I witnessed many changes in Dean – from a tall, skinny, somewhat
awkward grappler into a submission wizard. He could catch you with triangle chokes from anywhere. And about the time you thought you were avoiding the triangle, he would catch you with something else. I learned an incredible amount of BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) from him.
I also witnessed some of his struggles with cancer and its treatments. He would get sick (too sick to train), then get healthy again, over and over. He would always bounce back with enough vigor to inspire everyone who knew him. His strength made my little aches and problems seem small. He’ll always be an inspiration to me
for strength and persistence!
One time (only a short time after he had a tumor removed from his head) he grabbed me demanding that I roll (grapple) with him. I was attempting to refuse because he still had a hole in his head about the size of a quarter. My refusals were ignored as he obtained position and was applying submission after submission. I finally realized I might as well give some resistance because he was not going to stop. His desire to train and get better was unbelievable!
Another good quality of Dean’s was his bluntness and directness. He always
said what he thought, and you knew where you stood with him. He had hurt my feelings more than once because of something said to me (I am an over-sensitive person). There were times I thought he was a jerk, and that maybe I didn’t like him so
much. But later on (after the feelings had smoothed away), I would realize that what he said was correct - or at least parts of it were. I’d then be grateful because it would
help me to realize some things about myself and become a better person, etc. Some of these things (that had originally hurt my feelings) were things that others might not have had the courage to say. I admire him for that! -And do acknowledge that I am a better person because of him.
I’ve got many good memories with Dean. I’d like to share some. There were a
few trips I made with him up to Lowell Anderson’s school (at the time in Fairfield, ID). A couple of these trips it was just Dean and me. We were able to discuss so many topics: from jiu-jitsu to life to religion to relationships to money back to jiu-jitsu and so on (you get the point). One of the best things I received from Dean was his philosophy on Jiu-Jitsu and life (I later came to realize that it was not just his philosophy, but basically the philosophy of the whole Gracie family and those affected through them).
Jiu-Jitsu is so much more that just a martial art that deals with submissions, grappling, and fighting. It is a way of life and a way of thinking. One that trains Jiu-Jitsu must learn to become completely honest with oneself and learn to have a healthy (not bloated) ego. One must learn to become friendly and share with others – in order
to be shared with. (No one wants to train with someone who is only in it for themselves). One must become in tune with their physical, mental, and spiritual being in order to make the system (or art form) work effectively. In other words, the mind and the body must work together to continue to improve. This is so true in many other areas of life. The lessons learned in jiu-jitsu carry over into life making a better person.
–This philosophy I originally learned from Dean, and then eventually through my own experiences. I’ll forever be thankful to him for getting me involved in jiu-
jitsu and sharing some his passion for it with me!
Dean once had the privilege to take a private lesson from Rickson Gracie. (Rickson is like the Michael Jordan of Jiu-Jitsu – considered to be the best of all time).
He could barely control himself with excitement as he was showing us what he had learned in this private. He told me that I was no longer going to be able to pass his guard (obtaining a better position). I must admit (after that) it was seldom that I managed to pass successfully! He continually got better and better!
Another real good memory for me was the time I got him to go and lift weights with me. (I had access to the High School weight room through my coaching job). He went over to the stereo in the room - after degrading my choice of a song - and
began to search for a better choice. He eventually got it tuned to a Metallica song and blasted the stereo (I did not realize it would go so loud). He turned to me with his shirt off flexing his muscles, a huge grin on his face, and yelled (barely heard under the music) “Now we can REALLY pump it up!!”. It is something I’ll never forget!
Another memory was the time He, Keith Owens, and I were at Pedro Sauer’s in
SLC for a private and some guys from Walt Bayless Jiu-Jitsu walked in. They wanted to resolve some issues regarding something put on the internet that Pedro (or his school) had nothing to do with. Pedro apologized for any misunderstanding and explained that his school had nothing to do with what was said. After the confrontation was resolved, Pedro asked them if they’d be interested in rolling (or grappling) with us. I was really nervous. I was used to being the bigger guy, and this time I was not – these guys were big! Needless to say, we all tapped out our
opponents. Both Pedro and Dean were proud, and we all went out to eat. It was a great day! And I was further convinced as to the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Another time was when we went down to Pedro’s for belt testing and training
(1998). There were three or four of us who were promoted that day. I received my blue belt, and Dean was so proud of us. He sent us all congrats cards with miniature blue belts tied inside of them. It was awesome! At the time, I believe he was happier about me receiving my blue belt than I was myself.
In Dec. 2004, I was privileged to be at Prof. Sauer’s academy to witness Dean receiving his Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I barely managed to keep the tears from falling as I saw the tears stream down his face. He had sacrificed so much to get to that point and had given so much to others along the way! It was at that time that I realized that I too must continue in BJJ until I also receive a Black Belt!
About a week before Dean passed, he called me at home to tell me that hospice was coming to help him. He told me that he loved me and I was shocked (guys don’t say that kind of thing to each other). I am now thankful that he did that! It, again, is something I’ll never forget.
Once again, I would like to extend a Thank You to his wife, Erin, and his family for allowing me to spend much of his last day here on earth with him (among his many friends). Although I only got to speak with him briefly, just knowing that he knew I was there - among his friends by his side till the end - meant the world to me, as I’m sure it did to him likewise. He fought a long hard battle that everyone should be proud of. The cancer did take his body, but it never broke his indomitable spirit! I’m proud to say that I am - and always will be - among his many good friends!!!!!
Good bye, Dean, and I love you too,