JWU Gives Tim Higginson a Second Chance

Five years ago, if you told Tim Higginson he’d be living in the city of Providence — and loving it — he would have laughed right in your face. The New Jersey born-and-bred Higginson never wanted to leave his small farm town, especially not for city life.

This was a challenge for Johnson & Wales’ Wrestling coach, Lonnie Morris, who saw promise in Higginson as a high schooler and wanted to recruit him for the team. But Higginson had made his decision to attend a college close to home and pursue a wrestling career there.

Higginson cheering on his teammate

“My freshman year in college, I blew out two discs in my spine and I fractured a vertebra, so wrestling was done,” Higginson says. “I just wanted to be done with school. Without wrestling in my life, it was kind of like a hole. I didn't know what to do with myself.”

Two years later, Higginson was at a crossroads. He was unhappy at his school, his grades were slipping, and he saw himself heading down a bad path. He was close to graduation, but looked into transferring, remembering how Coach Morris had believed in him years before. For him, a transfer to JWU meant a second chance. “It was the best decision I made in my life,” Higginson says.

While he came here primarily to wrestle, Higginson soon found that the academics were much different — and even fun. “It’s such a different atmosphere here. It’s like family,” Higginson explains. “I'll never forget the things my professors have done for me. Associate Professor Kevin DeJesus has opened so many doors for me and just treated me with pure kindness — and so have all my other professors.”

Higginson striking a pose

This family atmosphere has made all the difference for the Criminal Justice major, who came to JWU with a low GPA and has since seen his grades skyrocket. “I can wake up and say, ‘wow, I want to go to class. I want to go learn something,’” he says. “I could sit through a two hour class and not get bored. I will listen to your PowerPoint. Give it to me, I'm ready for it.”

So, Higginson prepared for his senior year with anticipation and excitement. He had finally recovered from his slew of injuries and was ready to go out on top. The team arrived at the York tournament ready to win — and then the worst happened. During a tough match, Higginson was dropped straight on his head. He was knocked out for a few seconds and fractured a disc in his neck.

Higginson headshotFor Higginson, it seemed his second chance was gone. “There were so many times where I wanted to give up and move on with my life,” he says. “But because of Lonnie Morris, I was able to come back. Because of Brian Allen, I was able to come back. Because of James Gilbert, I was able to come back.”

The admiration and respect Higginson — and all JWU wrestlers — have for the coaching staff is second to none. They truly build a family, and when someone hits a stumbling block like an injury, they all swoop in to lift him up. “Every time I came into this room with a sour face on, thinking it’s over, they were there to say no,” Higginson recalls, looking over the empty wrestling room as if the men were standing right before him. “They checked in on me every single day and told me that it wasn’t over, that I was coming back to wrestle.”

Sure enough, Higginson made his return to the mat for Regionals. Unfortunately, he didn’t qualify to move on to Nationals, and once again he was faced with the end of his wrestling career. After all of the injuries and comebacks, it looked like it was over for Higginson. “It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life to sit there and realize that I didn't qualify, and I still had to wrestle another match for the team points,” he recalls. But he pulled himself out of it and wrestled his final match and recorded a pin fall, scoring the team vital points.

Higginson didn’t leave empty-handed; he received All-Region Honors and Academic All-American awards — something he didn’t think possible, given his academic struggles before JWU. “I don't regret anything at all,” he says. “I wouldn't redo it for the world. There's always a bigger plan; sooner or later, it'll all meld out.”

Higginson’s positive attitude, even in the face of true struggle, has set him apart as a leader and a man of character. Coach Morris saw it in him as a high schooler, and is glad to have been a part of his journey. “Tim Higginson bleeds blue and wanted more than ever to wrestle at the NCAA, but it just wasn’t in the cards with all of his injuries,” Morris says. “He will go down as one of the most talented that never got his shot. Sometimes life isn’t fair, but everything happens for a reason and he will be an amazing coach.”

Higginson in action

Coach Brian Allen echoes these sentiments, citing Higginson’s accomplishments as a leader: “Tim has been instrumental in helping our team stay connected as a group,” he says. “His leadership qualities in the wrestling room and in the classroom are something that the guys looked up to. His passion, commitment and pursuit of excellence will be something I and his teammates will remember for years to come.”

“I’m a farm boy from New Jersey and I found a family here. If someone is considering transferring, I would pay their tuition if I could.”

Higginson has plans to pursue a career in law enforcement, but even if those don’t pan out, he knows he’s staying right here in Providence. Apart from always being within reach to a lobster roll and a short drive away from the best fishing spots, Higginson knows he’ll never be able to walk away from the wrestling program. “Coach Morris and his wife are like a second set of parents,” he says. “I don't think I've gone a day in the past three years without talking to Lonnie and him asking me how I am.” He pauses, clearly struggling to convey how much the coaching staff has impacted his and his teammates lives. Finally, he settles on a simple sentence. “They create the men we are.”

Despite the setbacks, injuries, and an abrupt end to a short wrestling career, Higginson is adamant that he wouldn’t change a thing. Coming to JWU, he says, has been a second chance at life. From the academics to the family he found on the wrestling team — even as an older transfer student — he will tell anyone who will listen that JWU is the place for anyone. “I just think anyone who could come to JWU, it would be so hard to not feel like you fit here,” he says. “I’m a farm boy from New Jersey and I found a family here. If someone is considering transferring, I would pay their tuition if I could.”

Higginson wrestling

The connection Higginson feels to JWU and JWU Wrestling is lifelong; he plans to return to help out with the program like so many alumni before him. When asked if he could sum up the program in a few sentences, he pauses, but only for a second, before his eyes light up and he rolls out a response that has clearly been ingrained in him since walking through the doors of the JWU gym: “We win at everything,” he says. “We win at class, we win on the mat. And we win as people. And that's what coaches instilled us. It gives me goosebumps saying it. Everything you do, you learn to win. And not in a cocky sense — these coaches show you how to be a good man, and how to be a winner.”

“We win at class, we win on the mat. And we win as people.”

Higginson encourages everyone to aim for JWU, because he is so certain it will change anyone’s life the way it changed his. “We have people from all different walks of life. Everyone here treats you like family. No matter where you're from, no matter what your grades are. We've had guys struggle in so many different aspects and everyone's always there for you. Without question.”

Higginson goes on to explain that his experience here isn’t unique — all JWU professors truly care about all of their students and will spend hours working with them if necessary. And classmates and teammates become family. “If you're worried about being accepted as who you are as a person, if you're worried about how hard classes are — you don't have to worry about any of that,” he says. “Transfer here. Because someone's always got your back in every situation.”

Higginson with his parents, who he cites as his heroes