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Inside the evolution of Iowa wrestler Nelson Brands

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time Nelson Brands wrestled his dad, Terry, was in high school. The way Nelson remembers, it was a full three-period match, and Terry, Iowa’s associate head wrestling coach, won 11-8. 

“It was not fun,” Nelson says, laughing. “Terry jokes with me a lot now. He’ll go, ‘You want to go a match?’ I’m like, you do not want to go a match.

“I don’t think it’d be very fun for him if we wrestled right now.”

His last two performances have provided sufficient evidence, but the juxtaposition is still funny. Terry and Tom Brands, Nelson’s uncle and Iowa’s head coach, were both lightweight stars. Terry won two NCAA titles at 126 pounds and Olympic bronze at 58 kilograms (127). Tom won three national titles at 134 pounds, then Olympic gold at 62 kilos (136).

And then here’s Nelson, Iowa’s starter at 184 pounds, a full 50 pounds bigger than where his coaches previously wrestled — and perhaps that’s part of the point.

“He’s not me, and he’s not Tom,” Terry Brands says, “but he is a handful.”

More than three decades after Tom and Terry Brands tortured their opponents on the mat, Nelson Brands is showing signs of doing the same. The sophomore is 2-0 so far this season with plans to keep the starting spot for the foreseeable future.

“I’m just enjoying wrestling,” Nelson said earlier this season, “and I’m looking forward to enjoying wrestling this year.”

Iowa’s Nelson Brands, left, opened the 2021 season with a 13-5 major decision over Nebraska’s Taylor Venz.

Nelson Brands gave that answer to every question asked after he beat Nebraska All-American Taylor Venz, 13-5, in the Hawkeyes’ season-opener. He was a little more open this past week when he met with reporters, but that consistent “enjoying wrestling” message provides a window into his evolution as a wrestler.

Terry and his wife, Michelle, didn’t groom Nelson to be a wrestling machine. They focused instead on larger life lessons: loyalty, attitude control, always giving your best effort. They didn’t let Nelson wrestle competitively until he was in sixth grade — in 2008, eight years after Terry won bronze at the Sydney Olympics.

“The teaching wasn’t about wrestling,” Terry says. “It was about becoming a great person and a great son, brother, friend. Those attributes are all the same as they would be in the wrestling room.”

That laid the foundation for what Nelson Brands is continuing to become. Both Terry and Michelle — and, by extension, Tom — wanted Nelson to chose wrestling on his own. That way, they figured, they’d know that he truly loved it.

“Nelson’s his own man,” Tom says. “He wasn’t raised to be a champion on the mat. He was raised to be a champion in life. He chose wrestling.”

Once Nelson Brands decided to wrestle, he was all-in: three state titles for Iowa City West; All-American honors at the Junior freestyle national championships; a top-100 recruit in the 2018 class. He was fueled, in part, by his dad and uncle’s success — Tom won one state title and Terry won two for Sheldon in the 1980’s.

“It’s going to feel good to one-up my dad,” Nelson told reporters with a smile after winning his second title in 2017.

That journey has continued since he joined the Iowa wrestling program. The last three years have been a learning process for both teacher and pupil. Both Tom and Terry were both hands off during Nelson’s youth and high-school careers, so they had a lot to learn about their newest athlete.

“'Raw commodity' is probably a good way to phrase it,” Tom Brands says, “and you say that he enjoys wrestling. For me, that’s an essential ingredient. That doesn’t surprise me.”

Nelson Brands’ development was powered by that love of wrestling. The more he cared, Tom and Terry figured, the more he would continue when things got hard — and things were definitely hard at first, especially with practice partners like Kaleb Young, Alex Marinelli, Michael Kemerer and others all around his weight.

“Sometimes I get the crap kicked out of me,” Nelson said back in 2018, his freshman season, “but that’s part of wrestling and I love wrestling with all those guys.”

But those daily beatings made Nelson Brands tougher. His buy-in was so complete that he refers to his dad and uncle solely as Tom and Terry when inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena — “but as soon as I leave here,” he added, “it’s back to dad and Tom.” He became stingier defensively, and is now wrestling through positions more.

That, Terry says, is where he’s made the biggest strides since becoming a Hawkeye.

“He stays in there better,” Terry continues. “He’s always been a really physical kid, very strong, very rambunctious, but when you go from high school to college, you have to realize that there’s things you have to learn to get that man strength.

“There’s only one way to learn it, and it’s staying in there and fighting every single day.”

Nelson Brands, bottom, grew tougher thanks to daily bearings from teammates like Alex Marinelli, top, in the practice room.

Because of Iowa’s loaded middleweight situation, Nelson decided his best path into the starting lineup was to bulk up. Terry says he was a big 165-pounder last year when he wrestled 184. This year, he’s stronger, more of a true 174-pounder that happens to be wrestling up a weight. His technique and motor make up for any size difference.

“He’s probably one of the strongest guys on our team,” Young says. “When he gets ahold of my leg, it feels like he might tear it off sometimes.”

Nelson Brands certainly isn’t the first successful child of a wrestling superstar, and he’s not the first to pair a family background, natural athleticism and a relentless work ethic. But the latest product of his progress has been on display over the last few months, and Tom and Terry both have been impressed by what they’ve seen.

In November, at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open, Nelson beat Abe Assad, Iowa’s starter last year at 184, in a lopsided 9-0 match. Two weeks later, Nelson reached the finals of the U23 men’s freestyle national championships at 79 kilos (174 pounds), going 4-1 and losing only to Virginia Tech All-American David McFadden.

Now, he’s earned a starring role on the best Iowa wrestling team in a decade, and his results this season will be crucial in the Hawkeyes’ pursuit of their first NCAA team title since 2010. Nelson Brands was just 11 then. He turns 22 next month.

“Consistency — the highs aren’t so high maybe, and definitely the lows aren’t so low. ” Tom says of what’s made the biggest difference in Nelson’s wrestling this season. “We all have days where we don’t perform well in the practice room, or in competition. But you find a way to persevere and find a way to get your hand raised when it counts.

“When those things happen and they start to become a habit, the gap is going to widen on the scoreboard. That’s what you’re seeing.”

Nelson Brands started a handful of duals during the 2019-20 season. He’s now solidified his spot at 184 pounds this season.

Both Tom and Terry had to learn that lesson, too. It is almost a reflex to see the last name Brands and make comparisons, but all three insist that there are only a few things they have in common.

There’s the will to win, of course: “I’m very, very competitive,” Nelson says. “If they said, ‘Who’s going to talk first on this Zoom call?’ I want to be first. I want to be first in pretty much everything that I do.”

There’s the high-motor. Tom and Terry were often known for mentally and physically breaking their opponents as matches wore on. Nelson racked up more than 1,000 total takedowns during his high school career. He has scored nine takedowns in two matches this season, and six have come in the second- and third-periods.

There’s similar tastes in music. Nelson’s walk-out song for home duals has been “We R Who We R” by Kesha. “He likes Kesha,” Tom says. “What more can you say? I’m a Kesha fan myself.”

And there’s the natural toughness. Tom and Terry grew up putting each other’s heads through their basement walls. A few years back, Tom remembers a time when both families got together. He heard a ruckus in the backyard. Nelson had a bloody nose.

“He got thumped pretty good,” Tom says. “But he was laughing and giggling. That’s a pretty good sign that you’ve got somebody who can deal with an owie or some discomfort or pain for whatever.”

There’s one more, too.

Terry Brands spent much of his redshirt freshman season, 1988-89, in and out of the starting lineup, but lost a late-season wrestle-off to Steve Martin and wasn't ultimately chosen for the postseason lineup. Martin went on to become an All-American.

Fast forward to last season, 2019-20, where Nelson Brands spent much of his redshirt freshman season in and out of the starting lineup, but he, too, was not ultimately in Iowa’s postseason lineup.

Terry went on to win two NCAA titles, two world championships and Olympic bronze.

No pressure, Nelson.

“He has come a considerable ways,” Terry says, “but he has a ways to go still.”

Terry is sure about another thing, too: He’s up for a rematch with Nelson anytime.

“One-hundred percent,” Terry says. “I have a lifetime psychological advantage. There’s a lot of kidding that goes back and forth, but once that whistle blows, he knows he’d have a sonofabitch on his hands.”

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