‘If anybody can handle this, you can’: Pat Lugo looks ahead after his Iowa wrestling career was cut short

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a rhythmic cacophony inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex when practice is in session. Bodies land on the mat with a thud. Wrestlers grunt through exhaustion. Terry Brands’ voice booms out coaching tips.

“Feet, hands, working,” he often says.

On Thursday, March 12, somewhere in the organized chaos is Pat Lugo, the 5-foot-5 senior from south Florida. He works on his inside ties, on his underhooks, on his head-and-hands defense. He moves his practice partner, steps into a shot. Back up. He clears ties, his partner shoots, but Lugo defends, turns it into his takedown. Back up.

Lugo seamlessly moved from one sequence to the next all season. He went 21-1 and won titles at both the Midlands and Big Ten Championships, which helped him earn the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds for the 2020 NCAA Championships. He was the favorite to win a national title, and so, too, was the Iowa wrestling team.

But his mind raced that Thursday. The night before, the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus. An uneasy feeling hung in the air even as the 22-year-old and his teammates tried to focus.

Midway through practice, Moriah Marinelli, Iowa wrestling’s director of operations, walked in holding a piece of paper. She handed it to head coach Tom Brands, who walked to the middle of the room and told his team to gather 'round.

Everybody knew.

“The energy just dropped,” Lugo said recently, remembering the moment in a phone conversation. “You could feel it in the room.”

Pat Lugo was the only senior in Iowa wrestling's 2019-20 postseason lineup. He went 21-1 and was the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds for the 2020 NCAA Championships.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all remaining NCAA winter sports championships and spring sport seasons. Thousands of athletes were left in limbo, and many, like Lugo, saw their careers end. He was one of 97 seniors who qualified for this year’s Division I national wrestling tournament, and one of five seeded first.

Brands told his wrestlers they could finish their workouts or leave and “mourn the loss.” Lugo tried to keep going, but couldn’t. He walked to the locker room and sat by himself.

“It sucks,” Brands would say later. “This team was robbed of history. Pat Lugo was robbed of history. They were robbed of history and they were robbed of an opportunity.”

Lugo had blossomed into a star. His hard-nosed style on the mat and hilarious quips off it made him stand out on the best Iowa team in a decade. This national tournament was going to be the largest wrestling celebration ever, the perfect stage for the Hawkeyes’ long-awaited coronation, and for his story to reach a national audience.

Instead of celebrating inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Lugo is now mentally wrestling with having the biggest stage of his career stolen from him — the NCAA later decided that winter sports athletes wouldn’t regain the lost postseason.

The rest of Iowa’s postseason lineup will return for 2020-21. He won’t, and in that moment, his thoughts were in full throttle.

What do I do now?

Was the Big Ten finals my last match?

Am I done with wrestling?

“Bad things happen to good people,” Brands says. “The best way we can move forward is to just take the next step. Take it head on, and do the best you can with it.

“Pat Lugo, if anybody can handle this, you can.”

’Let’s do it’

It is hard to miss Pat Lugo’s tattoos.

There are three total: a sleeve on his left arm, a back piece that spells out his last name, a third on his chest. They all feature various patterns, including parts of the Aztec calendar and an eagle, which symbolizes intelligence, strength and honor.

“We have a lot of pride in where we’re from,” Lugo says. “That’s our culture.”

There’s a story, too.

His dad, Patricio Lugo II, had “Lugo” tattooed across his traps when he was younger, and his son wanted one to match. In high school, he asked his mom, Julie, who said no. He went to Patricio, who hatched an idea.

“He had to earn it,” Patricio says now. “I told him, ‘You have to win something big.'"

This challenge came at a pivotal time in Lugo’s wrestling career.

He came up through the Gladiator Wrestling Club in Homestead, Florida, smack between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. Patricio and longtime friend Humberto Reyna started the club in the early 2000s in warehouse big enough for a single mat. Both were high-school wrestlers — Reyna wrestled for South Dade, Patricio for rival Homestead just five miles away.

The sport helped them protect themselves.

Both graduated high school in the mid-1990s, the same time Florida crime was at its peak. The state ranked No. 1 in violent crime from 1991-97, according to statistics provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. In 1993, a violent crime occurred every three minutes, 14 seconds, per the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“Everything was divided in our area,” Patricio says. “There were gangs, drugs, and it was very easy to go that route. If you go right, you get into trouble. If you go left, more trouble. You had to go straight.

“That’s why we started this wrestling program, to help these kids stay on that straight path.”

Pat Lugo stands for a portrait during Iowa wrestling media day Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.

Reyna was a state medalist as a senior in 1996, then wrestled in college — first at Kemper Military CC in Missouri, then at Cumberland College in Kentucky, where he was a two-time NAIA national qualifier. Patricio, the son of migrant farm workers, stayed home, but always hoped to teach his children the same lessons wrestling taught him.

Lugo was 5 when he won his first youth tournament. The following Monday, Patricio says, Lugo was at the front door, shoes in hand, ready to go back to practice. By the time he was 9, when Gladiator first opened, he fully hooked because of the hard work required to win.

“He was always feisty and competitive,” says Patricio, who went by "Coach Pat" while Lugo went by "Baby Pat." “Wrestling was kind of hard for him at first, but he loved it.”

The switch flipped during his sophomore year at South Dade — thanks to a pair of losses, actually.

Lugo dropped a 5-3 overtime decision in the state quarterfinals to Shiquan Hall, a future Grand View wrestler. He battled back for third while Hall reached the finals. Patricio says his son was on the wrong end of a judgment call.

A couple of months later, Lugo reached the finals of the Cadet Greco-Roman national championships. Against Illinois native Larry Early, an eventual Division I All-American, Lugo led 2-0 after the first period, but Early scored six in a row in the second to win.

Both results forced Lugo to looked inward.

“I didn’t win either, but I tasted it, and I knew I was close,” Lugo says now. “I started asking myself, man, what if I start really training hard? What if I had the right mindset?

“I started training different, living different, hanging out with different people. A switch flipped in my head. I changed my route.”

That drive fueled everything that followed: 132 consecutive wins and two state titles to cap his high school career; a Junior freestyle national runner-up finish; 107 career Division I victories; an Eastern Wrestling League conference title; a Big Ten tournament title; and an All-American finish at the 2019 NCAA Championships.

After losing to Early, Lugo approached Patricio again.

“He said, ‘Dad, I know I didn’t win, but can I still get a tattoo?’” Patricio says with a laugh. “I told him, ‘You know what, f--- yeah, let’s do it.’”

‘Those guys eat, sleep, breathe wrestling’

Tom Brands has a picture of an alligator on his phone from the summer of 2017. He’s standing on a dock in the Everglades and a good-sized gator is sitting in his shadow. He smiles as he tells the story.

“The guide would call him and feed him, almost like a pet,” he says.

Brands and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar went to Florida to put the finishing touches on the recruiting job that netted Lugo. That they made the trip at all stuck with Lugo.

He enjoyed two fruitful years at Edinboro — two trips to the national tournament, 63 wins, a finals appearance at the 2017 Junior men's freestyle world team trials — but explored transfer options after coach Tim Flynn’s name surfaced in various coaching searches. (Flynn left for West Virginia after 2017-18, capping 21 years at Edinboro.)

Patricio called the top schools — Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State — but others reached out, too, like Iowa State, Missouri, Arizona State, Nebraska and more. The Hawkeyes offered a unique fit, with four-time All-American Brandon Sorensen entering his senior year in 2017-18. Lugo could redshirt, then take over.

Iowa's Pat Lugo is introduced during a NCAA wrestling dual on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

The idea intrigued Lugo, so much that Iowa took a strong lead in the race. Still, he had a couple more visits scheduled — including one to Ames — and when Brands caught wind, he got Patricio on the phone.

“He said, ‘We’re ready to wrap this up,’” Patricio recalls. “Then he asked, ‘What are you guys doing this Friday night?’

“All of a sudden, they were here.”

Brands and Morningstar spent a few days in Homestead. They toured Gladiator’s now-upgraded facilities, went to South Dade, took an airboat through the Everglades. The Lugo family prepared “five-star breakfasts, lunches and dinners,” Brands says.

On their last night in town, Brands and Morningstar sat down with Lugo in his family living room to officially extend the offer. Lugo accepted and immediately began the enrollment process.

The next morning, Brands and Morningstar flew back to Iowa City. Lugo bought his own ticket and joined them.

“Those guys eat, sleep, breathe wrestling,” Lugo says. “You hear the stories, driving 20 hours to get (Michael Kemerer), or flying to Florida for me. That just shows how much dedication they have, how much love they have, how much they really want to win.”

'Did you come here to be borderline?'

The Sunday before the NCAA’s cancellation, Lugo beat Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso, 2-1, in the Big Ten finals. Before the match, he stood in the corner, snapped his headgear on, then looked toward Brands and held out two fingers.

Brands, offering a final pre-match word of encouragement, leaned in and tapped his two fingers on Lugo’s, like a miniature high-five.

“It’s just a handshake we started doing,” Lugo says. “Tom gave me one finger one day, but I thought that was too weak, so the next time, I gave him two. It caught on.”

They did this all year — before and after matches, between practices and workouts, or whenever they felt like it, really. One would extend two fingers, the other matched.

Lugo has something similar with the entire coaching staff.

With volunteer assistant Bobby Telford: two claps, then finger guns slashing downward.

With Terry Brands, Iowa’s associate head coach: they raised up the shaka sign — the hang-loose hand gesture — and say, “Call God,” mimicking a catchphrase made famous by the infamous NFL receiver Antonio Brown.

With Morningstar: they slapped hands and told each other to “keep it one hunnit,” a nod to the Nipsey Hussle track about always being honest with yourself.

The handshakes were a small window into how comfortable he felt in Iowa City. But it did not manifest without struggle. He was quiet at first. He was “borderline academically” that first semester, Tom Brands says. His practices were inconsistent.

“That first semester, it took a while,” Brands continues. “We had a very candid talk about expectations. ‘Why did you come here? Did you come here to be borderline?’ Then he picked it up. There was 100% backup.”

And with it came some of the best wrestling of Lugo’s career.

He went 44-10 the last two years, and that’s after losing three of his first four matches in Iowa’s all-black singlet. This past season, Lugo went 21-1 and outscored his opponents 141-45. He recorded 15 wins over NCAA qualifiers, including seven over wrestlers seeded 10th or better, and allowed three takedowns all season. (He also beat Tres Leon, a 2020 NAIA champ from the University of the Cumberlands.)

In Iowa City, Lugo found a team that provided him with the same fuel as those two high-school losses. He followed Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer and Alex Marinelli. He talked about being the best in the country, then about being the best in the world.

“That’s why I love being here,” Lugo says. “It’s so easy to stay on that road because all of these guys have the same goals as me. They know the deal, they know the plan and they know what we have to do.”

Over time, Lugo dropped any personal barrier he may have held when he first arrived. His shyness gave way to a conviction that showed up in various ways — friendly trash talk with teammates, turning workouts into competitions, the handshakes, blaring rap music.

His walk-out song for home duals was Kodak Black's "Tunnel Vision." It's a song about dream chasing, and his favorite part is the chorus.

My mama told me, 'Boy make good decisions!'

Right now I gotta keep a tunnel vision.

They sendin' all my homies on a mission.

And I ain't tryna miss out.

From left: Alex Marinelli, Spencer Lee and Pat Lugo celebrate after winning individual titles at the Big 10 Wrestling Championships March 8, 2020; Piscataway, NJ, USA.

And, of course, the quotes.

After pinning Oklahoma State’s Boo Lewallen on senior night: “I was loose and calm. Some people might feel pressure, but I love pressure. Pressure makes diamonds. I want to shine bright like a diamond.”

When he won the Big Ten tournament: “Being around guys like Spencer Lee, Alex Marinelli, Michael Kemerer, that winning is contagious, that confidence is contagious. It’s like catching the flu. If you hang out with guys that have the flu, you’re going to catch the flu. If you hang out with guys that are winning, you’ll start winning.”

On how he continues to improve: “I like to tell myself, I would beat me yesterday, but I would lose to myself tomorrow. I’m just always trying to get better.”

He even produced a recruiting pitch to high-schoolers: “If you’re a high school wrestler and you want to be part of something that’s more than just wrestling, you should text the coach you committed to be like, ‘Hey man, I’m going to Iowa.’

“I don’t meant to throw shade on other organizations, but it’s not just a wrestling team. It’s more of a family, for real. This is love.”

'I have people who look up to me'

About 15 minutes passed before Lugo stood up from the locker room that Thursday, March 12. He showered and slipped out. Some teammates planned a gathering at Kaleb Young’s house. Lugo needed to be alone.

The walk to his apartment from Carver-Hawkeye Arena takes 15 minutes.

He thought about the season, how the Hawkeyes barreled through everything and everyone. About his overall improvement, from two-time qualifier to All-American to title favorite. How only four Floridians have ever won NCAA wrestling titles. He wanted so badly to be next.

“A lot of emotions on that walk,” Lugo says. “There were tears."

Days later, Lugo and some teammates went to Florida to unwind. Somewhere in those few days, he found peace. He returned to Iowa City refreshed. His days are now filled with online classes and creative workouts. Brands sometimes calls to check in. Each day has been a little better than the last.

“We talk about being close to bulletproof,” Brands says, “and we talk about it more with their demeanor as a competitor. But really, it equips you to deal with things like this, in real life. That you can handle these things as they come your way.”

Iowa's Pat Lugo has his hand raised after a match at 149 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual against Penn State, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Lugo thinks about home often. When he started at Gladiator, the mats boiled from the Florida heat, so he learned to pin opponents quickly. Now the club produces Division I talent. Bretli Reyna, Humberto’s son, signed with Iowa as part of its high-powered 2020 recruiting class.

This is not the ending Lugo envisioned. But then, it’s not really the end at all.

A career with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club is up next, where he'll chase world teams and international medals. Maybe coaching after that. He’s measured the distance between that warehouse and the top of the Big Ten podium. He smiles.

He knows that not getting a crack at the 2020 NCAA Championships will, in some ways, gnaw at him forever. But perhaps it’ll fuel everything that comes next.

“I have people who look up to me,” Lugo says. “I’m this guy that made it out of Florida. Not a lot of people do that. I can’t feel sorry for myself and have kids see that. I want to be the example. I want to show them they can do it, too.

“A lot of good things happened this year — not just on the mat, but I grew as a person, too. That's going to make me better for the rest of my life.”

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

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