It was December 2015, and Hartland’s Joey Livingston was entering his sophomore season with an opportunity to contribute to the top-ranked wrestling team in Division 1. It came down to Livingston versus then-senior Kyle Cavanaugh in a wrestle-off to determine who got the varsity spot at 145 pounds.
Livingston won the match, yet he never made an impact on the team that year.
It was Cavanaugh, not Livingston, who wound up being one of the unheralded contributors of Hartland’s run to its first team state championship in school history. And it was Cavanaugh, not Livingston, who Hartland coach Todd Cheney praised as an unsung, yet integral piece to Hartland’s title.
Perhaps it should have been Livingston. He won the do-or-die match, after all.
But amid devastating circumstances, it couldn’t be.
“Most of last season was affected by my dad,” said Livingston, who competed in just 15 varsity matches. “I was the only one living alone with him. Even though I beat Cavanaugh in the wrestle-off and I would have been on varsity, I wasn’t able to show up to any practices. So I was completely OK with losing the seat.”
His dad’s well-being meant more to him than any athletic accolades.
For 25 years, Craig Livingston battled Loeffler endocarditis, a rare, incurable, rapidly fatal disease that attacks the walls of the heart. That Craig Livingston lived to 51, and got to watch his three kids — Joey, 17, Caylin, 19, and Taylor, 20 — grow up is something Joey describes as “a miracle.”
“Most of the time when people get (Loeffler endocarditis), they die in the first five years,” Joey said.
Craig Livingston passed away on Jan. 30, just days after Joey won his first varsity wrestling tournament.
‘He has gone through so much more than most of us’
Craig Livingston was in and out of the hospital frequently, and his condition worsened during Joey’s sophomore year. With his mom not part of his life and Taylor attending college at Bowling Green, the responsibility fell solely on Joey’s shoulder to look after his dad.
“He just got infection after infection,” Joey said. “They had to remove portions of his leg, then the whole leg, and then his other leg. Some days, he would feel decent. Other days, he would feel horrible.
“One time, I had to stay home because my dad was having hallucinations, and telling me he could see Heaven’s gates and he was knocking on the doors. I said, ‘Let’s not go toward Heaven’s gates, Dad.’ When he hallucinated, I had to stay with him. I felt bad going to wrestling tournaments. (Coach) Cheney understood and the team understood also.”
Joey took his dad to countless doctor’s appointments at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital — so many that the majority of the staff know him by name.
“He had no one (to help),” Cheney said. “And he’s not the type to open up and ask.”
Sacrifices had to be made — starting with wrestling.
“He has gone through so much more than most of us, even as adults,” Cheney said.
His sister, Taylor, understood the burden, and the sacrifices.
“When I was home, I did a lot of things, like grocery shopping, getting Caylin and Joey to places just because dad was, slowly, not being able to,” Taylor said. “But Joey, once I left for school, he had to take over all of that stuff.
“And it was a challenge, because you have all the stuff of a normal kid, except everything of an adult, too. It’s almost, like, I would never say that we had to raise my dad or anything like that — we didn’t — but we had a lot to do.”
As Joey describes it, “I wouldn’t have made it without Taylor.”
“Taylor was always my person, she’s my rock in my family,” Joey said. “Me and her just kind of always connected. There’s not really many people I have relationships with in this world, just because I don’t really care to form them. But Taylor was just somebody there in the beginning, and there’s nobody left.”
‘Wrestling, for him, is his relief’
Taylor is a gymnast at Bowling Green, a Division I athlete who Joey watched use gymnastics as something like a getaway growing up.
“I kind of used it as my escape,” Taylor said.
With his dad worsening by the day, Joey said he realized he needed an outlet. Although he had been wrestling since third grade, he said he never actually enjoyed the sport. Taylor said he “despised it.”
However, it was, “the only familiar thing I’ve had in my life from childhood that carried over until now.”
Entering his junior year last fall, his dad now bedridden in the hospital since May after undergoing another surgery that took his second leg, Joey chose to completely commit to wrestling. It’s a sport, he said, that his dad loved more than any other.
He attacked his training with a relentless fury, staying up into the wee hours of the morning despite having to rise with the sun for school, just to get in an extra session. He would even, on occasion, ask Cheney if he could come to school on Sundays for a workout.
Like his sister with gymnastics, wrestling became his distraction.
“Wrestling, for him, is his relief,” Cheney said. “It’s his time to get away from all of his problems — he’ll be the first one to tell you that. It’s pretty amazing for him to do the things he’s done on the mat.”
And it has since become even more than that.
“Wrestling has kind of become the main thing that I want in life,” Joey said.
A different mindset
Joey doesn’t feel pain on the mat, he says. Just anger. Intense anger.
Anger about all of the things that have transpired with his family in his childhood. Anger that he, basically, didn’t get to have a childhood. And anger that his dad, the person who was always the most proud of him, who believed he was the best wrestler in the state, even when Joey said he “sucked,” is gone.
“I get really mad before my matches now, just thinking about how I was kind of unlucky throughout my childhood,” Joey said. “Now, I take it out on them (my opponents). It’s just completely different when I’m on the mat this year, my mental mindset.”
“With everything going on in his life,” said Andrew Spisz, a teammate and close friend of Joey’s. “I couldn’t even imagine. … That kid has had the roughest go of any kid I’ve ever met. And every day he’s in practice with a smile on his face. Everything he’s accomplished, even with all the hardships, he just keeps coming.”
The anger and the drive to honor his father is what’s made Joey continue to show up.
With Craig Livingston in the hospital — just two days before he died — Joey won his first varsity wrestling tournament at the Portage Central Invite in late January. The following week, in the wake of Craig’s death, Joey fought through the wave of emotions to win his first Kensington Lakes Athletic Association title. After that, he won districts, his third consecutive tournament.
He ripped off a 27-match win streak between Jan. 14 and Feb. 18, and has won 29 of his last 30 matches at 160 pounds. If not for injuring his mouth so badly in the individual regional semifinals on Feb. 18 that he needed immediate emergency dental surgery — which ultimately caused him to take an injury loss in the finals — that streak might still be intact as he enters states at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday.
“I’m not surprised,” said Cheney of Joey’s sudden success, “because of his maturity. He just comes in every day and works. And if things don’t go his way, it’s not a big deal to him. He’s always been hit with adversity worse than losing a wrestling match. The scariest thing is a kid not afraid to lose.”
“I’m really proud of him,” Taylor said. “He’s changed his mindset completely. He has so many different emotions, it’s an outlet for him. And he’s using every emotion he has in the best possible way. He could use it for bad things, but he’s using it to help him be good at something.”
‘I know he was looking down on me’
On Feb. 11, Joey had just wrapped up his first career district title at Birmingham Groves High School, putting bows on consecutive wins numbers 20 through 23. He and teammates Reece Hughes, Hayden Culver and Corey Cavanaugh were celebrating like any wrestlers who just starved themselves for days to make weight would: Eating.
They were gathered a local spot nearby called Shield’s Pizza.
As Joey was eating, he said it weighed on his mind that his dad never watched him win a tournament. For years, wrestling was all Craig Livingston wanted Joey to do, and now Joey wasn’t just thriving in the sport with three straight tournament wins, but he loved it the same way as Craig did.
“He’d be so proud,” Taylor said, “because (Joey) doing wrestling was always a big deal for him. He always wanted Joey to enjoy it, and Joey never really enjoyed. But he was slowly starting to as dad was getting worse, and dad was super happy. He was proud Joey finally thought of (the sport) as his own.”
“His dad absolutely cherished his children and their activities,” said Scott VanEpps, a close friend of the Livingston family and assistant superintendent of Hartland Consolidated Schools.
VanEpps, with his wife Sandy and two twin boys, Shane and Spencer, have taken in Joey and welcomed him to their family following his dad’s passing.
“Any time you were in Craig’s company, if you weren’t talking about gymnastics with the girls, then you were talking about wrestling for Joey,” he said.
After his triumph at the KLAA individual championship meet, Joey insisted his dad watched from afar.
So he surely believed it this Saturday, too.
“I believe in heaven,” he said after KLAAs, “and I know he was looking down on me, watching me win it.”