Nathaniel Behnke was a young boy who loved the outdoors and dreamed of someday being in law enforcement when he met a youth wrestling coach in his hometown of Bruce.
He had no idea then how much his new coach or the sport of wrestling would influence his life’s journey.
Jeremy Peery, who coached Behnke from kindergarten through 12th grade, helped guide him as he grew from a young boy into a high school wrestling champion.
This fall, Behnke became UW-Eau Claire’s all-time wins leader, capping a successful collegiate wrestling career. His longtime youth coach had a front-row seat; he now serves as a volunteer assistant wrestling coach at UW-Eau Claire.
While Peery influenced Behnke’s athletic career, he also helped shape how the senior Blugold sees his future.
“I’ve always enjoyed fishing, hunting and everything outdoors,” Behnke says. “And I knew since I was 5 years old that I wanted to do something in law enforcement. I was on the fire department in high school and I enjoyed helping people. My wrestling coach for 12 years, Jeremy Peery, is a DNR warden. I began asking him questions about his job, which sparked my interest in the DNR. He’s a great role model and great person so I want to follow in his footsteps and work for the DNR.”
Behnke came to UW-Eau Claire knowing he wanted to be on the wrestling team but he was uncertain about what academic path would help him achieve his goal of working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
With a nudge from Peery, Behnke became a biology major and political science minor.
As he prepares to graduate in May after four years, Behnke says biology was the perfect academic fit for him.
His time as a Blugold has been more rewarding than he’d ever imagined.
Behnke claimed All-American honors in his freshman season with a fifth-place finish at the national wrestling tournament. As a senior, he earned his 112th career victory, making him the winningest wrestler in Blugold history.
While he credits the Blugold wrestling coaching team with helping him excel in his sport, he gives biology professor Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff much credit for helping him succeed as a biology student.
“Paula is the most enthusiastic, caring and enjoyable professor that I’ve had here,” Behnke says, noting that he was in one of her conservation classes that did restoration work in northern Wisconsin. “She truly cares about what she teaches and cares about building relationships with her students.”
He’s also grateful for the opportunities he found through student organizations, such as the Student Support Service Advisory Committee, Student Athlete Advisory Committee and Athletes in Action.
“Joining organizations has been one of the best experiences I’ve had here,” Behnke says. “It’s a way you can learn and grow, and a great way to make friends.”
Among the highlights was serving as a leader in the Athletes in Action organization, a Christian ministry for athletes.
The organization forced him to step out of his comfort zone and do something new, Behnke says.
“It’s about athletes volunteering their time to help out the community,” he says. “It was a great way to do community service and to help out people in need.”
In addition to his sport and his studies, Behnke also works at a group home, Make a Difference Homes, where he spends time with people with mental disabilities.
The experiences he’s had in the Eau Claire community through his job, classes and service work have motivated him to be active in his community wherever he lives after graduation.
“One thing I know is that I will continue to stay involved with the community and help people who are in need,” Behnke says. “I’ll always be willing to volunteer my time. It really backs what I want to do in the future in law enforcement, which really is all about helping the community.”
Being a student-athlete was rewarding but also had its challenges, Behnke says, noting that learning to deal with those challenges helped prepare him for the future.
“It gives you the opportunity to travel around the United States and to see new places,” Behnke says of being on the wrestling team. “But there were days we had to travel eight hours to wrestle on a weeknight and we still had to do homework. We had to balance our time; it really helped me to crack down and use my time wisely.”
While the accolades that come with winning are nice, he’s most proud that as a Blugold athlete he had the chance to represent UW-Eau Claire.
“In competitions it was my job to show sportsmanship and represent UWEC in a way that would make them proud,” says Behnke, who was his team’s captain. “Representing the university while competing, and also by doing my job as a student by attending class every day and getting good grades, was important to me.”
As his collegiate career winds down, Behnke is looking forward to his future.
“I envision using my biology and political science degree to become a DNR warden here in Wisconsin,” Behnke says. “I plan to go to the police academy this summer and then apply to be a DNR warden.”
If the DNR doesn’t work out, he will look for other opportunities in law enforcement, hoping to one day be paired with a K-9 dog.
Wherever life takes him next, Behnke’s confident the lessons he’s learned as a Blugold in the classroom, in the gym and in the community have prepared him well for personal and professional success.
Photo caption: Blugold Nathaniel Behnke (in blue) during a wrestling match.