Wrestling Mailbag: Final Soldier Salute thoughts, Spencer Lee, medical forfeits, Iowa wrestling, more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Last night’s Bills-Bengals game was of great interest to me, being a Chiefs fan and all. The result impacted the AFC playoff picture. Full disclosure, I was rooting for the Bengals at kickoff, but generally wanted to see a great game.

Seemed like we were on our way to getting one, too. Cincy opened with five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Buffalo countered with a field goal. Bengals started their second drive with a run, then a pass … then the whole world stopped.

Damar Hamlin, Buffalo’s second-year safety, collapsed following a tackle during the first quarter. He was given CPR on the field, then left in an ambulance. We learned early this morning that he suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. Incredibly scary stuff.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) pauses as Damar Hamlin is examined during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

This is a space we use to talk specifically about wrestling and the topics surrounding the sport that interests us. It’s a place to find a wrestling community, and to continue the ongoing online conversation. But we're all people, too, and things like this have an impact.

A lot of what makes sport magical is we see these people that look and walk and talk like us do amazing things, as a quarterback, shortstop, point guard or our favorite wrestler. We consume interviews and read the stories and go out of our way to watch and meet them in person. We cherish their triumphs and are crushed by their losses.

At the end of the day, they’re still human. They are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with bills to pay and homework to do and lives to live. Sometimes, as fans, we forget that. We get mad when they don’t perform well, or worse when they don’t compete at all.

We’ve all seen injuries in sports before, even gruesome ones — Kevin Ware, Joe Theismann and so many more. Not sure any of us have seen what we saw Monday night. Hamlin is 24 years old, by all accounts climbing toward his athletic peak at the highest level of the game he loves. Of all the things that would’ve taken him out of the game, cardiac arrest, something that has, directly and indirectly, impacted many of us, was likely not on any of our minds.

We’ll get back to sports — literally, with today’s mailbag, and soon after once more news about Hamlin is revealed. The seasons will roll on and we may soon get back to whatever normal felt like early in Monday’s first quarter.

But when you do, please don’t forget that these men and women are humans, and they’re doing their best — to entertain you, sure, but also for themselves. They're living out their dreams on the field and court and mat. Moments like Monday are a reminder that we are just lucky to watch.

MORE WRESTLING:22 memorable Iowa wrestling stories from 2022

OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag, the first one of 2023. Hopefully, I'm the last to tell you Happy New Year, but I hope we're all excited for the 2023 portion of the 22-23 season. It's going to be a blast.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and I’ll keep you up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

Spencer Lee and Drake Ayala at the Soldier Salute

I have a lot of thoughts on this after talking with people and knowing what I know about both athletes.

It is my understanding that Spencer Lee wasn't too keen on wrestling his own teammate in the finals. He is thinking bigger picture, mostly about his still-recovering knees. He probably didn't want to risk any unnecessary injury in a match that could be had in the practice room.

It is my understanding that Drake Ayala wanted the match. He looked great in his first three matches at the Soldier Salute, winning by a combined 48-16. He scored 20 takedowns and allowed none. He's a hyper-competitor and wanted to test himself against the nation's top-ranked 125-pounder.

I can't speak to what conversations were or weren't had before and/or after the match. I'm not sure any took place between Lee, Ayala and the Iowa coaching staff. But we all saw the result: Lee emphatically pinned Ayala in the first period.

The post-match stare that Lee gave afterward was, to me, more of a window into the hyper-competitor Lee morphs into when he's on the mat. That was the killer that won an NCAA title with two torn ACLs. Lee does a good job hiding that side of him from the public view with his interviews and public appearances.

I think that's why a lot of people reacted when they saw it, because they really haven't seen that from him before.

Iowa's Spencer Lee, top, wrestles Drake Ayala at 125 pounds in the finals during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

Iowa coach Tom Brands has told the story of an Iowa donor once confusing Lee for a bellhop. That's the Lee people are used to seeing. When he steps on the mat, he can be a real competitive jerk — and I say that in an endearing way, because you kind of have to be in order to become a successful Division I wrestler.

Now, are there tensions? I'd be surprised if there weren't, to be honest. Ayala and Lee's competitive careers weren't supposed to cross like this. Without the pandemic, Lee is done after the 2020-21 season, and Ayala is ready to go in 2021-22. Who knows what things look like in a normal timeline.

Ayala went from being the front-and-center guy last year to having to take a step back this year. That's a hard thing to ask of an athlete, especially one as high-level as Ayala, yet he seems to be doing it gracefully. He's now two tournaments in after significant time off from an injury last year and is 5-1 with four bonus-point wins.

I think it's a reasonable ask for Ayala to want to wrestle Lee. I also think it's a reasonable ask for Lee to want to save his knees and do everything possible to stay as healthy as he can. After talking with Lee afterward (I wanted to talk with Ayala too, but he left before I could find him), I don't believe there's true bad blood between them.

It was a wrestling match. Things get intense sometimes. Whatever goes on in the room should probably stay in the room and get worked out by them. Here's hoping that's ultimately what happens.

MORE:21 things we learned from Iowa wrestling’s team title performance at the Soldier Salute

Iowa wrestling fans and social media

Can't speak to the specifics of Ohio State football and Kentucky basketball fandom, but I would venture to guess they aren't all that different from the Iowa wrestling fanbase, just in terms of passion.

The reckless speculation and wild overreactions come with the territory, I guess. I'm a rabid Chiefs fan, and I see segments of the KC fanbase that do a lot of the same thing … and my response is to generally ignore those parts of the fanbase.

Take, for example, Friday morning at last year's NCAA Championships. If you checked Iowa wrestling Twitter that day, you would've thought the sky was falling and the program was in shambles. Then they bounced back on Friday night and finished with five All-Americans and took third — a successful weekend, all things considered.

Wrestling, as a sport, is as popular as it's ever been. Part of that is both the amount of wrestling media coverage as well as the growth of social media. Anybody with a Twitter account can chime into the conversation. Anybody with a YouTube channel can post a reaction and fuel their own weird theories.

Because of the sport's overall growth, the blue blood programs have a spotlight on them like never before. That obviously includes Iowa, which can be a polarizing brand. You either love them or you hate them, and that kind of position inspires reactions of all kinds.

owa associate head coach Terry Brands, left, and Iowa head coach Tom Brands in the finals during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

In recent years, I've noticed two distinct types of Iowa wrestling fans. There are diehards who are there all 12 months, every year. They wake up early to watch overseas tournaments, tune into offseason interviews and they're generally pretty smart and rational. Then there are casuals who root for Iowa solely because they love the school. They sometimes have unreasonable expectations without knowing more about the sport.

If you look at any elite-level program, their fanbases are made up of the same dynamic — diehards who follow the team to the ends of the Earth and know the players, coaches, support staff, everything; and the casuals who really just tune in for the big games. It's not good or bad if you're one or the other. This is just my observation.

I do want to remind you guys that there are levels of these games. Coaches at high-level college football and basketball programs get fired over missing on high-level recruits. We haven't seen that yet in wrestling. Hopefully we don't, since that seems a little ridiculous on its face.

Medical forfeits in college wrestling

I'm not going to claim to have all the answers here. I think this issue is layered and complicated. I'm not denying that wrestlers duck big matchups. It happens and it sucks. But I do have many thoughts — and full disclosure, most of my thoughts are through the athlete-first lens. That's an important note to distinguish at the top.

There are a lot of reasons we're seeing scratches and medical forfeits, but I don't think it's because teams and coaches are "acting like the college wrestling season only matters during March." If that were actually true, we'd see more guys show up at their conference tournaments with 0-0 records. That is incredibly rare.

The sport has changed significantly over the last 10-15 years. You could argue it's an entirely different sport from what we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s. We see this in many ways, most notably (and excitedly) when young guys come to college and are ready to compete right away.

High school athletes are better now than they've ever been. But that also means they get to college with more high-level miles on their bodies, which increases the likelihood of them breaking down and getting injured. Coaches have to manage that as best they can. Naturally, that means guys wrestle fewer matches.

A lot of this also stems from the way the sport is currently set up. The NCAA Championships are the end goal. Teams and wrestlers focus almost exclusively on positioning for the conference tournament and qualifying for the national tournament to give them the best chance to perform when it matters most. Can't blame them for that.

I find these conversations really odd. There are a lot of people who believe, in no uncertain terms, college wrestlers should still be logging 30-40 matches every single year. Some do, sure, but most do not. That seems like an unrealistic ask given today's environment.

Put it this way: Would you rather see your favorite wrestler wrestle 40 times between November and February only for him to be injured in March and fail to perform when it matters most? Or would you take 10-20 matches between November and February so he can have the best shot possible at winning the ultimate prize?

Seems like a no-brainer.

Michael Kemerer ended his 7-year Hawkeye wrestling career as a four-time All-American, but he dealt with injuries throughout his college career.

I wrote about this last year after the Big Ten Championships, and I'm going to copy it here again for emphasis:

We see this in other sports. NFL players on playoff-bound teams sit in the final week of the regular season to be ready for the playoffs. Once the postseason hits, they play no matter what. The Rams' Eric Weddle, for example, played through a ruptured pec in the Super Bowl. He ain't doing that in Week 15 against the Seahawks.

We get frustrated when it happens in those sports, but we understand and accept it. It should be simple to understand why wrestlers do it, too. We should want them to be as healthy as they can be for the most important parts of their seasons.

Adding to that, baseball and basketball players miss games all the time. There's even a term: load management. Why is it easy to accept it for those sports but so difficult for us to understand in wrestling, a sport that is arguably significantly harder on the body? (Arguably because football is incredibly violent, of course.)

A lot of this conversation centered, partially, on Iowa State sending an abbreviated lineup to the Southern Scuffle rather than their A-Team. Admittedly, I was excited to see their A-Team go to the Scuffle, too, but then Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser rattled off a lengthy list of injuries and it's easy to see why they called an audible:

  • Corey Cabanban tore two ligaments in his foot;
  • Kysen Terukina is recovering from a shoulder injury from the NWCA All-Star Classic;
  • Casey Swiderski suffered a small injury in practice and Dresser wanted to play it safe;
  • Paniro Johnson is also hurting (nothing major) and Dresser wanted him to rest;
  • David Carr and Marcus Coleman stayed home "because they're old," Dresser said;
  • Sam Schuyler strained his bicep at the Collegiate Wrestling Duals in New Orleans.

Does Dresser basically offering the equivalent of an NFL injury report change the way you view Iowa State's decision to send a different lineup to the Southern Scuffle? It changed mine. Seems weird to be outwardly and publicly upset because they didn't compete at another high-level competition, but that's just me.

Maybe if college coaches gave an injury report the same way professional teams do, people might relax. That's not a bad step to take. Another idea is to count medical forfeits as losses. Not saying it's the right answer, but it would make coaches think twice before making a guy default out of a competition.

I don't think making wrestling a single-semester sport completely solves this issue. You're basically taking the October-March timeframe and moving it to December-May — which I'm not opposed to because the NCAA Championships don't have to compete with March Madness. More eyeballs on wrestling are a good thing.

I think one answer is shortening the season. Six months is a long time for a hard sport. Is a four to five-month season better? Maybe. But there are always going to be guys that wrestle in the spring and summer, too, so the issues might still exist.

Iowa wrestler Jaydin Eierman dealt with injuries near the end of the 2021-22 season. He still qualified for the NCAA Championships, but finished 2-2 and was eliminated in the Round-of-16.

My final thought on this — for now, at least; you guys know I'm open to smart dialogue — is that it seems like a drastic overreaction to navigate a stretch that included the Midlands Championships, the Soldier Salute, and the Southern Scuffle, and claim the sport is dying because you didn't get to see the matches you wanted to see.

We don't see the Chiefs and Bills and Bengals play 17 times a year, as fun as that would be. Sometimes we have to watch the Chiefs win ugly against the Raiders and the Bills punk the Jets and the Bengals pummel the Browns. But those are still important games because it sets up an incredible AFC playoff picture.

The wrestling season isn't any different. The Cyclones and Panthers have to navigate the Big 12, the Hawkeyes have to wrestle the Big Ten, and then we'll all come together in March for the big dance and see what happens after three days.

MORE:Iowa State, Northern Iowa both go 2-1 at Collegiate Wrestling Duals in New Orleans

The future of the Soldier Salute

They want to grow the whole thing, but they really want to grow the women's side of the tournament. Outside of Missouri Valley and maybe a few others that I'm just forgetting right off hand, there really aren't that many big-time regular season women's tournaments. The folks behind the Soldier Salute would like to make this one.

I thought this year was a fine start. You had the Iowa women's program there, obviously, but also Life University, one of NAIA's top women's programs, as well as Iowa Wesleyan, which has done a fantastic job building its women's team. The Army WCAP, in the spirit of the tournament, sent a tough squad, too.

In all, there were 82 wrestlers from 11 teams in the Salute women's division. That wasn't quite the beast that the Missouri Valley Open was back in November — 495 wrestlers from 45 different teams — but it was more than the women's division at the Midlands Championships, which had 62 women from nine different teams.

Members of the Life University women's wrestling team pose for a photo with their championship banner in the finals during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

Wouldn't mind if the Soldier Salute tournament organizers asked some of the Midlands teams to come join. That would bring McKendree, North Central College and Grand View to Xtream Arena next season. They all didn't send their complete A-Teams to the Midlands, but their additions would beef up the competition.

On the men's side, yes, you probably have to get Air Force and even Coast Guard involved. Invite the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, too. I think it'd be really fun to get all of the service academy schools to send their best lineups each year. Bring them all and whoever else and make it a fun couple of days.

There's a lot of potential for this tournament to grow into something really cool.

RELATED:Iowa women’s wrestling wins three titles in second team performance at Soldier Salute

Who goes at 133 and 174 pounds for Iowa wrestling?

Until proven otherwise, I'm thinking it'll be Brody Teske at 133 and Nelson Brands at 174 once they're good and healthy.

Teske has wrestled just once this year due to health issues. That's given Cullan Schriever plenty of opportunity to seize the spot. He's posted a 12-3 record but has been up-and-down against some of the better guys. He lost three straight matches before Christmas but bounced back nicely to win the Soldier Salute. Good depth there.

Iowa's Cullan Schriever has his hand raised after scoring a decision at 133 pounds in the finals during the Soldier Salute college wrestling tournament.

At 174, Brands is clearly the guy once he returns, if only because Brennan Swafford competed at the Salute unattached at 174. He won twice, then medically forfeited out. It would've been fun to see him wrestle Army West Point's Ben Pasiuk in the finals, but alas, we didn't get that.

That's my educated guess on the situation, based on everything I've seen and know right now, but as always, these things can change.

MORE:23 things we learned after Osage and Cedar Falls won the 2022 Battle of Waterloo

More Iowa high school wrestling rankings

There's IAWrestle's rankings, which is what I use, but Ben Hupke at Hupke Wrestling Productions also releases wrestling rankings, which I look at each time he releases to make sure I don't miss anything. You can go to his website and click the Rankings tab to find team and individual polls for Class 3A, 2A and 1A. For those looking for exclusively dual-meet rankings, the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association does a set, too.

This week, I'm grateful for a new book I just read: "I Wouldn't Do That If I Were Me" by Jason Gay, the sports columnist at the Wall Street Journal. Had some downtime and traveled a lot through the last couple of weeks. Gay's book kept me entertained when I didn't have Internet and even when I did. Highly recommend reading it.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.