Posted: Sun April 21, 2013 4:28PM; Updated: Sun April 21, 2013 9:27PM
Pete Thamel
Pete Thamel>VIEWPOINT

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's shocking change from role model to monster

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Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (right) and his brother Tamerlan didn't arouse the suspicions of peers or neighbors.
AP

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Just three months before police chased down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a bloody manhunt that paralyzed Boston and entranced a nation, he returned to Cambridge Rindge & Latin to attend wrestling practice.

Tsarnaev served as team captain during his senior year in 2011, an athlete known for his instincts, unorthodox moves and was described by a coach as "a gentleman on the mat."

Tsarnaev laced up his old high-top wrestling shoes in January. He sparred on the mat with some of his old teammates, laughed with his coaches and everyone teased Tsarnaev for his bushy hair, now long enough for dreadlocks.

"He seemed like the same guy," said Peter Payack, an assistant wrestling coach who was close to Dzhokhar.

Few who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, as they thrived athletically in and around Boston, saw any tangible signs that they'd end up the central figures in a mass murder case. Both brothers are the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 180 last week.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev emerged as a top amateur boxer, fighting in a Golden Gloves Tournament in Salt Lake City and sparring in local gyms around the Boston area.

"I'm extremely and totally besides myself that they did this," said Troy Aiguier, a barber who cut the brothers' hair and once went to watch Tamerlan box in nearby Lowell. "It doesn't make sense to what we know them as. That's just (as) kids in the community, never showing any kind of anger or frustration."

The transformation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is particularly baffling here in Cambridge. He went from a high school team captain, eager leader who'd motivate teammates to push through conditioning drills and a dedicated enough athlete to wrestle in college to an alleged mass murder.

"He was a nice guy, he seemed really normal," said Asa Benjamin, a former teammate. "He didn't have any weird personality issues. He was a friendly kid."

Payack has been an assistant wrestling coach at Cambridge Rindge & Latin for 18 seasons. His background -- poet, inventor, marathon runner and author of 25 books -- gives a window into the eclectic nature of Cambridge itself. Payack said there are 57 flags outside the high school to represent all of the different countries from where the students hail. "It's probably like 87 countries now," he said. "We're proud of it."

A popular joke around Boston has been that the past week came straight out of a script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck are arguably the most famous modern graduates of Cambridge Rindge & Latin, where both Tsarnaev brothers attended. (Patrick Ewing is the most famous athlete to attend school there).

Locally, the school is known as one of Boston's great melting pots, as Payack said if the team had 24 wrestlers on a team there would normally have 12 to 14 countries represented. There were kids with backgrounds from China, South Korea and Dominican Republic, who were all just Americans to their teammates and coaches. "There are no minorities," he said.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev dressed like a typical teenager -- baggy pants, plaid shirt and a winter hat with floppy ears and long strings. At all-day wrestling tournaments, Dzhokhar would hang out with teammates doing inane teenage things like fiddle with a Rubik's Cube. He showed no signs of being a loner.

"Obviously he's a monster," Payack said, "but he did not appear to be that way."

Payack said he felt "betrayed" by Dzhokhar because his attack came on the Boston Marathon. At wrestling practice, Payack said that he wore long-sleeved T-Shirts under his wrestling garb from the 12 Boston Marathons he's run. "He knew I loved the marathon," he said.

Payack added that Dzhokhar took the training he received in wrestling and used it in ways no one could have imagined.

"He used a lot of the things we taught him in what happened on Monday and Thursday night," he said. "We taught people to run through pain and focus on the goal. A lot of those things he did when he carried out this crazy stuff. We never thought they would use it for something negative and harmful. We thought they would use it for something helpful."

Dzhokhar never had family attend any of his matches, Payack said. On senior night, Dzhokhar walked out with one of the coaches when most of his teammates did so with a parent or relative.

He also never spoke of his brother, Payack said, which is unusual considering that his brother had emerged as one of the area's top amateur boxers.

"I never heard of him having a brother and never thought of him having one," he said. "It's weird, I have someone who's the brother of a good athlete. I never heard about this guy."

Dzhokhar earned the role of team captain, which isn't necessarily given to the best wrestler on the team, but usually the best leader and hardest worker. Some years, if no one is deserving, the coaches don't designate a captain.

Benjamin recalled Dzhokhar being engaging and thoughtful enough to teach him different moves and positions. When they ran stairs for long stretches to condition, Dzhokhar would circle back to help motivate and push other wrestlers through the pain. Benjamin remembered an instinctual wrestler who once pulled off a move in a match were he grabbed an opponent's ankle soon after the match began and flipped him completely over.

In his senior year, Dzhokhar finished third in the Central Division I Section, reached the state tournament in the 126-pound weight class and could have received college interest if he hadn't decided against wrestling after high school.

"He was an amazing wrestler and athlete in general," Benjamin said.

On Norfolk Street off Inman Square in Cambridge on Saturday evening, a pair of flags at half-mast -- American and Portuguese -- hovered over the entrance to the Tsarnaev family's block.

They lived on the third floor of a drab, brown three-story house set back off the street. It looks like a typical three-family unit in Cambridge, one of Boston's most diverse areas. There were two bikes unlocked outside, a blue recycling bin out front and a Camel cigarette butt wedged in the worn welcome mat. The only sign of unrest came from the broken and mangled window and frame on the third floor. Reporters from France, Russia and obscure websites peppered neighbors for information.

Alexander, a neighbor who declined to give his last name, is a fourth-year linguistics student at MIT. He's from Moscow and his only significant interaction with Tamerlan Tsarnaev came during one of the blizzards in February when they were on the sidewalk together shoveling now. They chatted in Russian and Alexander met Tamerlan's wife, who wore a black scarf covering her head.

"I asked him what he's doing there," Alexander said. "He said that he's some kind of athlete."

The conversation was short, and Alexander expressed the same level of disbelief as the rest of Cambridge, Boston and the country.

Payack has been fielding calls from former teammates and the same tone keeps arising.

"Everyone is completely bewildered," Payack said. "Not one person -- not one -- said, 'Oh yeah, I knew this. I knew he used to shoot puppies in the backyard.'"

His voice trailed off. "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."

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