Commentary: Iowa senior grappler still among the best to ever do it

BY CODY GOODWIN | MARCH 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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DES MOINES — The man who likely knows exactly what went wrong is trying his best to make the situation sound all right. This, he must know, is a near-impossible task.

Tom Brands is a tough man. He became tough, in part, because he hates to lose — it stinks. He hates to lose more than he loves to win. By doing so, he’s built a kind of fearless persona, a man who’s ready to take on the world. But on March 22, when he approached Matt McDonough, his senior lightweight with a storied Hawkeye career — well, let’s just say it was not something he’ll want to remember.

“I told him I’d leave him alone if he’d look at me,” Brands said. “So he looked at me … and I walked away. Hard to do.”

It was hard on everybody. Nobody thought McDonough, Iowa’s two-time national champion, wouldn’t make it to the NCAA podium in his senior campaign. A season stitched together with big expectations and bigger struggles drew a flat line in the span of 20 seconds.

That’s how long it took North Dakota State’s Trent Sprenkle to take down McDonough in overtime during the round of 12. It was heartbreaking. It was confusing. It took a man that once held a spot on Iowa wrestling’s Mount Rushmore and turned him into, for some fans, a conflicted memory.

However, that shouldn’t be the case. The memory we keep of McDonough shouldn’t be of just one bad tournament that may or may not have been plagued by a nagging injury. We shouldn’t take his final five matches and use them to blow up a career for the ages.

The memory of McDonough should be one that includes his 122 wins, his two NCAA titles, and his .931 winning percentage, which ranks just outside the top 10 in Iowa wrestling history. He dominated a weight class for three straight years. He made it look effortless, and that’s hard to do in wrestling.

My first image of McDonough is just as great as my last. I remember watching him wrestle in his first NCAA Championship match against Iowa State’s Andrew Long. I watched him stalk Long across the mat for three periods, use stellar defense to halt anything the then-Cyclone threw at him, and raise his hands in jubilation as he clinched the gold by way of a 4-1 win.

His head was wrapped during that match as well as during his final one, too. It was almost an identical image. Maybe that’s what made it harder for me, personally, to stomach that loss.

That feeling went away though. That wasn’t my last image of a man who I’ve had more respect for than almost every other wrestler in college. McDonough is someone I once aspired to be like both on and off the mat. He was a true competitor if there ever was one; who never went down without first going into a war; who, without the watchful eyes and digging persistence of this writer, would’ve successfully tossed a silver medal into the garbage because that’s not something he accepts. I admire that to this day.

My last image, and perhaps my new favorite anecdote of McDonough, came March 23. The Iowa wrestling team came back into the Wells Fargo Arena tunnel after collecting their fourth-place team trophy. They displayed expressionless faces, and the ones that weren’t were looks of frustration and disappointment.

McDonough’s blank face was among them. For the first time in four years, there was no trophy in his hand to signal All-American — still unbelievable to these eyes even as he walked by.

Suddenly, McDonough broke from the crowd and found Penn State’s Nico Megaludis — the same Nico Megaludis he beat 4-1 for last year’s 125-pound NCAA championship — standing among the blue and white contingent. Megaludis took second again this year, and McDonough knew he felt terrible after losing again.

The Hawkeye shook his hand.

“Good luck,” he said.

You too, Matt.

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