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Wrestling coach recalls Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as ‘dedicated kid’

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev posed for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

Robin Young/AP

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev posed for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

Peter Payack, the assistant wrestling coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrestled on the team for three years and was captain for two years and a Greater Boston League all-star.

Though he had graduated from Rindge, Tsarnaev came back to wrestle with the team in February, he said.

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“He was a dedicated kid, and all the kids loved him,” Payack said. “We only name captains who are good, but who also gain respect from his fellow wrestlers. He had to be a leader, and he had all those qualities. He was one of my guys.”

Payack said the wrestling team thinks of itself as a family and there was nothing amiss about Dzhokhar, whose name is pronounced JA-har.

“Everybody loved him,” Payack said. “He wasn’t a loner, the complete opposite. … He seemed like one of the most well-adjusted kids on the team. He seemed like he didn’t have any problems. He did his work, came out and became a captain.”

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In a public high school that prides itself on its diversity, “he got along with all the different groups on the team,” Payack said.

“He never talked about being a Muslim. We’re in Cambridge. We have a completely diverse team. So nobody talked about religion,” Payack said. “He was just one of us.”

“We never saw his mother or father and never saw his brother,” Payack said. “He just came back to wrestle with us in February. I mean, he said, he went to UMass and he was studying some sort of engineering and he came back and wrestled, and he was joking with everyone.

“Never in a million years did [we] expect anything like this,” Payack said. “He never talked about violence or anything. Some of the kids say, ‘I’m going to beat you up or something like that.’ He just did his work and was a good student.”

Payack, who has run the Boston Marathon 24 times and often wears his blue-and-yellow Marathon jacket, said he was particularly saddened that Dzhokar would target the race.

“It was like a bomb going off in my heart this morning because he’s one of our wrestlers. I said ‘That guy looks like my guy.’ ”

Ashraful Rahman, a Rindge senior and friend of Dzhokhar, described the alleged bomber as “just a normal guy, very chillaxed, and very laid back.”

He and Dzhokhar wrestled on the Rindge team together, hung out together at Dana Park in Cambridge and attended the same mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, in Cambridge.

“We just chilled out man, just average teenagers,” Rahman said. “He never stated that he was against the government or for anarchy or anything.”

Rahman said Dzhokhar mentored him on the wrestling team.

“I looked up to Dzhokhar because he won states his second year. Seeing this, it’s like seeing one of your heroes and finding a flaw in one of them,” he said.

Dzhokhar did not have a girlfriend, he said.

Rahman said the last time he saw Dzhokhar was on Ramadan in 2012, at the Islamic Society. “He said ‘what’s up’ to me,” Rahman said. “He seemed peaceful, actually.”

Essah Chisholm, 17, a senior at Rindge and member of the wrestling team, said the coaches would tell funny stories about how people would mispronounce Dzhokhar name’s.

“He seemed pretty nice, pretty normal person; he was always smiling,” Chisholm said. “Everything is pretty shocking.”

John Allan, owner of Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Boston, said the older brother, Tamerlan, was an accomplished amateur boxer, competing in the national Golden Gloves competition.

“He was the best boxer in Boston,” said Allan, who remembers helping in a competition three years ago. “He smoked all the professionals.”

Allan said Tsarnaev was trained by his father, who was also a skilled boxer. And he was always respectful. “They were an incredible family....This was so shocking to me.”

But Tsarnaev hadn’t been to the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts center in years, instead going to another nearby boxing gym. Until this month. Allan, who is currently traveling in Thailand, got an e-mail within the past week saying Tsarnaev showed up at the gym acting rude and disrespectful, using other people’s equipment, walking on the mats with his shoes.

“It was a clear indication that something was up,” Allan said, noting that Tsarnaev hadn’t even been to his gym before the incident in years. “He was becoming a complete [expletive].

“It was completely out of place of place for him,” said Allan, who was also contacted by the FBI about Tamerlan.

He also said he thought that the older brother did so well in the Golden Gloves several years ago that he could have qualified for the US Olympic trials, but that he may not have been eligible because of a paperwork problem.

Allan said Tamerlan mainly boxed at the Cambridge-Somerville Boxing Club, which he thought used the YMCA facility in Central Square in Cambridge.

Tamerlan, who boxed at 196 pounds, studied at Bunker Hill Community College and wanted to become an engineer. He attended the school part time for three semesters, from 2006 to 2008, according to the school.

In the photo essay, called “Will Box for Passport,” Tamerlan stops to answer a phone call while walking from his Mercedes to the martial arts center. He has a long wool scarf wrapped fashionably around his neck and gleaming white leather slip-on shoes and is carrying an Oceanfly dufflebag.

He said in the essay that he quit smoking and drinking. “God said no alcohol.” A Muslim, he says, “There are no values any more,” and worries that “people can’t control themselves.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com
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