Leistikow: What's it like as wives of Tom and Terry Brands in March? 'These three weeks are intense'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — From her seat in Section 110 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Jeni Brands peers down to Mat 4 at the Big Ten Championships to see Max Murin in action.

She’s known Murin, a fifth-year senior in Iowa wrestling program, for years. He might as well be family at this point.

“Stay on him,” she says, noting that Murin is maintaining good top-position work against his Michigan State opponent in their 149-pound match Saturday morning. “OK, we’ve got riding time.”

This time of year, Jeni’s emotions are all over the map. But her life is in the same place: In Iowa wrestling's corner.

MORE: As his Iowa wrestling career ends, Austin DeSanto opens up in rare interview

She’s passionately rooting for all the competing Hawkeyes. She rejoices in the wins, aches for the defeats. And she’s got her phone in hand in case husband Tom, the Hawkeyes’ head coach, needs a change of clothes, a sandwich, a belt … anything.

“I’m on call, basically, during the tournament,” she says with a laugh.

Michelle Brands knows the drill, too.

She thinks back to one of her first dates with Terry Brands, when they watched "Braveheart" on separate couches.

But after she got married at age 23 to Terry, this is been her March life — being emotionally invested in an important wrestling tournament and being in her husband’s corner in any way she can.

“It’s definitely my life. I have a lot of friends who ask, ‘How do you do this?’” Michelle says. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know any different.’”

Being the wives of Tom and Terry Brands — two of the most iconic and recognizable figures in the sport — certainly can be demanding. Or “entertaining,” as Jeni puts it. And, “stressful,” as Michelle states.

Especially in March.

“You don’t start any new projects during this time of year,” Jeni says. “These three weeks are intense.”

Jeni Brands talks Hawkeye parents and friends before Session 2 of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships. “There’s such support from everyone, that you can’t forget that you’re not alone in this," she says.

Every Sunday before the Big Ten Championships, which began here Saturday and continue into Sunday evening’s finals, Tom and Jeni Brands host a team dinner at their East-side Iowa City home. They’ll do the same this coming Sunday before the March 17-19 NCAA Championships in Detroit.

(Take a guess who does all the prep work.)

Likewise, Michelle shares how she handles everything at home this time of year so that Terry’s focus can be centered around Iowa wrestling. Terry is in his 23rd season on the Iowa staff and has been the associate head coach (and twin brother Tom's right-hand man) since 2011.

“I’ve done everything from the very beginning. I just do. But I have that personality as well,” Michelle says. “I started thinking, if something ever happened to me, I need to write all of this stuff down. Because he doesn’t pay bills. He doesn’t mow the yard. There is nothing in the home that he does.”

The emotions in the tournaments have ramped up for both women in recent years.

For Jeni, her son-in-law is in his final year in the Hawkeyes’ lineup. Her heart broke for 157-pounder Kaleb Young after his quarterfinal loss Saturday.

Back when her husband was competing on the international stage (Tom won Olympic gold in 1996), Jeni would find herself too nervous to watch his matches and would walk around. She now sometimes does the same for Young, who is married to oldest daughter Madigan.

Michelle Brands, wife of Terry and mom to Hawkeye wrestler Nelson, chats with Hawkeye fans during the Big Ten Championships.

For Michelle, her son Nelson was in the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten and NCAA lineup in 2021 at 184 pounds. Because Tommy John surgery ended this season for Nelson, Michelle thought her emotions would be in a less-nervous place here in Lincoln.

She realized early Saturday that wasn’t the case. The shakes and butterflies returned.

“I don’t think it’ll ever pass,” Michelle says. “When you know the wrestlers that well and are with them so often, and you know so much about these guys and how hard they work … I think that’s where the nerves come from.”

Four Hawkeyes who have spent a combined 24 years in the Iowa program are out of eligibility after the NCAAs — Austin DeSanto, Alex Marinelli, Michael Kemerer and Young. That’s a lot of team dinners. Another senior, Missouri transfer Jaydin Eierman, is also in his final collegiate days. This March marks the end of a tightknit era with a lot of accomplished Hawkeyes.

As Jeni looks out again from Section 110, she sees all the black and gold around her — parents, former athletes, friends, family — and in front of her, on the mat. She’s an Iowa wrestling die-hard who has been to every NCAA Championships since 1986 except two — missing one when she was pregnant, another when she was sick.

She wouldn’t have March any other way.

“Look at all this,” she says. “ … This is what it’s all about, these guys right here. Because they’re just so awesome. Every single one of them when they come to the team meal gives me a hug. I’m like the mom.

“There’s such support from everyone, that you can’t forget that you’re not alone in this.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Madigan Young, the oldest daughter of Tom and Jeni Brands, cheers on the Hawkeyes. She is married to Hawkeye 157-pounder Kaleb Young.