By John Nalan
Sometimes wrestling surprises us.
It is like walking through the woods and seeing deer tracks in the snow. Unnaturally large tracks. Then the buck appears – for just a second – before disappearing off into the brush to the left, forever. The story will last a lifetime – the biggest buck you have ever seen. But, the moment passed in the blink of an eye. You could have easily missed it, this moment of a lifetime. Distracted by the path ahead.
As I mentioned at the beginning, wrestling can also surprise us.
It turns out that one of those surprises is Seth Gross. He is passing quickly in front of us. Let this be my effort to get you to look up and enjoy this moment before it is gone.
He is not just another successful wrestler from our state. Seth Gross is the defending NCAA champion. Another championship this year, in his senior season, will put him on a very short list of Minnesota natives that have won two NCAA titles. It is a list you could currently count with the fingers of just one hand. The kind of talent Seth has is special. It does not come around very often.
But there is more to it than just talent. Wrestling changes people. Stepping on the mat – winning or losing – forces a person to re-evaluate themselves. Throughout Seth’s story is a willingness to listen to what the sport is telling him. At its best, wrestling can do that. The experience on the mat can transform wrestlers, making them better people. Once someone learns what wrestling can teach us, we become open to learning lessons from other experiences in life. That happened for Seth Gross, and that alone makes him a success story.
There is not anything simple about Seth Gross. He is a contradiction in a lot of ways, but his story is a reason why people love wrestling. There are explanations for why wrestling fans may overlook Seth Gross. For one thing, Brookings, South Dakota, the home of South Dakota State University where Seth wrestles, is far from being the center of the wrestling world. He would certainly be attracting a lot more attention at Minnesota, Iowa, or Penn State.
Another thing is his high school pedigree at Apple Valley. If we are being honest with ourselves, we would admit we do not easily like the wrestlers from Apple Valley. Polite respect perhaps, but even after they move on to college, it can be hard. Add into the mix the police record Seth picked up along the way, and it is easy to see how he can get overlooked by the good people of Minnesota.
Any wrestler’s journey is going to be filled with ups and downs. In Seth’s journey, the highs have certainly been a bit higher, and lows have been a bit lower. His wrestling career got off to a quick start in high school. He won three state titles for Apple Valley competing in three different weight classes. Winning state titles at three different weights is not something that just happened to him because he was growing. It was about team. In a roster filled with talented wrestlers, Seth had the skills to move wherever he was needed because team was important. So was self-discipline. He worked hard in the wrestling room and stayed away from things like alcohol that he knew could keep him from his goals. Seth finished up his high school career and headed to the University of Iowa to wrestle for one of the most successful programs in the country. Following a pretty successful redshirt season, the plan was for Seth to earn a spot in the Hawkeyes starting lineup at 141 pounds.
Then, on the eve of the NCAA tournament that redshirt season, things stopped going according to plan. With his season over, Seth decided to go out with friends. They had some drinks. By the time the night was over, he had been arrested, charged with burglary and fleeing from the police, and spent the night in jail. Before long, his mugshot was all over the media in Iowa. By May, Iowa Coach Tom Brands had dismissed him from the team, and Seth Gross was a wrestler without a team, or it seemed, a future in wrestling.
He contacted a number of schools about letting him on to their teams, but his legal issues and NCAA restrictions kept any school from offering him space. He had hit a low point – frustrated and ready to quit wrestling altogether.
Then the sport offered him a lifeline. Chris Bono entered the picture. A hard worker, Bono had built up the South Dakota State program from one of the laughing stocks of college wrestling to respectability. He knew the type of people he needed to bring the wrestling team to a higher level. So, when Seth Gross emailed Bono about possibly wrestling for the Jackrabbits, Bono hit the reply button almost immediately. He was willing to listen to Seth and hoped to find out the type of person he was.
The two ended up talking things over in Brookings. When Seth accepted personal responsibility for what had happened to him – without making excuses – Bono listened. He was willing to give Seth a second chance as long as he was willing to prove himself and follow the rules. And not just the rules the rest of the team followed. There were special rules for Seth. Being late for a single practice would cross the line. Bono had worked too hard to develop the culture he wanted at South Dakota State, and he could not afford to compromise that.
Bono understood wrestling had the power to transform a person if they were willing to reach beyond themselves and trust that dedication and hard work would be rewarded. Seth would soon learn that as well. As a devout Christian, Seth had the framework for believing he could be transformed and emerge from the other side of his efforts as a better person. His faith led him forward.
Sometimes second chances do not work out, but this time they did. His redshirt freshman year was a struggle. He was inconsistent. Seth had some nice wins, but also some embarrassing loses. However, he was not looking for excuses. He dropped a weight class and hit the freestyle circuit hard that summer, earning the chance to wrestle at the Junior World Championship. The trip to France began to restore his confidence. By the end of his sophomore year, his confidence had been fully restored. He finished second at the NCAA tournament, only losing two matches all season.
Confidence can be elusive and believing in yourself is not something that comes easy for people. Wrestling and faith had helped get Seth back in the game. However, the journey was not over for Seth. During his junior year, he gave us another glimpse at what makes him a special wrestler. He spent most of the year ranked number one in the country at 133 pounds. An upcoming dual meet his team was having with Wyoming looked to be just another match on the schedule. That changed when Seth made an unlikely decision. He decided to wrestle a match that should have never happened and showed why Seth Gross is the type of wrestler the fans love.
Wyoming also had a number one ranked wrestler, Bryce Meredith, who was just one weight class up at 141 pounds. Talk started on social media about how great for wrestling it would be if the two top-ranked wrestlers went at it on the mat. Of course, it was just talk. College wrestlers do not move up a weight class and certainly not against a top-ranked opponent. In fact, it had been well over twenty years since a number one ranked wrestler at a lower weight class challenged the top wrestler one weight higher. Every wrestling fan in the country would understand if the match did not happen. It was asking too much of Seth Gross. But, with his confidence back in full swing, he accepted the challenge that almost no other college wrestler would have accepted.
For Seth, the match would be a step back into the abyss. The 141-pound class was where the problems had been. Win or lose, returning to 141 pounds, even for one night, was a redemption – and a celebration of the sport. The wrestling world loved the match Seth gave them. It was a classic.
Not surprisingly, Seth struggled to score points on his bigger opponent, but his desire and effort were evident throughout the match. People throughout the country watched excitedly on the internet as the match culminated in an incredible third-period scramble in which Seth came up just short and lost the match 4-2. Despite the loss, he gave wrestling fans everywhere a thrill and a reminder of why we love this sport.
For me, Seth Gross pretty much sums up the things I love about wrestling. Seeing it transform his life. But, in the end, wrestling was just the framework. Perseverance and drive is something he was born with – a second chance came from Chris Bono – forgiveness came from God – achievement was found on the mat – and, in the end, redemption came from within. But wrestling was there all along the journey.
The Seth Gross story will not last forever, so enjoy the moment while it is here.
Sometimes wrestling surprises us.
This article first appeared in the December 7, 2018 issue of The Guillotine Newsmagazine. Find out how to subscribe to The Guillotine Newsmagazine.