Dustin Plott heard the pop.
He didn’t flinch. No one did.
As he walked back to the center of the orange and black mat with a giant portrait of Pistol Pete occupying the center, the Oklahoma State freshman jerked his left arm toward his head, popped his shoulder back in place and punched himself twice in the right cheek.
Plott is different; not necessarily from other wrestlers, but different from most other athletes. How many athletes would pop their own shoulder back in place? Plott is among nine Cowboys who will compete at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis this weekend.
Three days of constant whistles, blood and plenty of emotion.
In football, 11 guys on each side are on the field at a time. Basketball contains lineups of five. Nine occupy positions on a baseball diamond.
Wrestling is different.
Most say you have to be somewhat crazy to wrestle, stepping out on a mat one-on-one, with physical domination the goal in full focus and for all to see. No left guard to protect the quarterback. Nothing between the two wrestlers except thin air.
“I fell in love with the aspect of controlling my own destiny,” OSU legend Kenny Monday said.
This week, at least one Cowboy — Boo Lewallen will don the orange singlet for the final time. For seniors, the NCAA Tournament is the last shot to shine for most wrestlers.
When the tournament ends, there is no wrestling draft, no professional leagues or promises of lucrative contracts. Mainstream fame is nonexistent. And when you fail, there are no fingers to point.
The sacrifice and pain is what weeds out wrestlers from a young age.
But for those who wrestle, that's also the attraction of the sport.
“It’s not on TV and you just don’t see wrestling often,” Monday said. “Growing up, the guys in my neighborhood were playing football and basketball.”
At its core, it’s an individualistic sport with a close community.
“Sometimes you aren’t making enough sacrifices,” OSU manager Keenan Seymour said. “If you’re drilling hard six or seven times a week and getting beat, you aren’t sacrificing enough.”
In many cases, winning still isn’t enough. Cowboy 133-pounder Daton Fix exudes an extreme level of mental toughness and a persistence that borders on insanity, one reason he's the No. 1-ranked wrestler at his weight.
“When you’re a young wrestler, and they get scratched and they see their own blood and then it happens repeatedly, they know it’s OK,” Gary Calcagno, OSU's wrestling strength and conditioning coach said.
“They wipe it off and carry on. Wrestlers work through so much more pain than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
And Calcagno also coaches football players.
Kaid Brock embodies the wrestling mentality. The summer of 2019, after a second surgery to repair a damaged left knee, which revealed a torn ACL, MCL, LCL and meniscus, Brock returned to the mat.
“When I was coming back in practice, I hit a fake and my repaired meniscus dislodged,” Brock said in December of 2020. “I re-tore it.
"For about two weeks, it was jiggling around, and I could feel it in my leg.”
He continued to wrestle and eventually figured out how to maneuver his knee to put the meniscus back in place. It's a sight to make an ordinary human faint.
In his college debut for the Cowboys, Brock beat Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer, the defending national champion in a stunning upset that projected great things to come. Then injuries betrayed his career.
This season, after using a medical redshirt in the 2019-20 season, another injury crushed Brock's dreams of finishing strong. And a familiar injury, a mangled left knee. The two-time All-American finished his career on crutches.
"I’m now looking forward to the future, not back at the past,” said Brock in an Instagram post addressing his retirement. “I do know that I can thank this sport for teaching me how to endure and overcome adversity.”
Wrestlers are different.
In 2018, Cornell freshman Yianni Diakomihalis won the 141-pound national title with a torn ACL. Back during the 2010-11 season, Arizona State's Anthony Robles went undefeated in winning a national championship while wrestling with one leg.
Sacrifices are common for wrestlers. That’s just the warrior mentality.
At the beginning of this Cowboys season, freshman Trevor Mastrogiovanni was off the mat for two months after contracting mono and COVD-19. Now, Mastrogiovanni joins AJ Ferrari and Plott as OSU’s three true freshmen competing at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.
“This freshmen class is different because they’ve always won,” Calcagno said. “In their mind, they expect to win when they step out on the mat because that’s normal for them.”
Two weeks ago at the Big 12 Championships, Ferrari was responsible for OSU’s ninth-consecutive conference title. A loss against No. 10-ranked Stephen Buchanan of Wyoming would mean heartbreak for the Cowboys and their quest of a ninth straight conference crown. A bonus-point victory would give OSU an outright title.
A win as the underdog would force OSU to share the title with rival Oklahoma.
The outspoken freshman, with as much horsepower as his name suggests, delivered a legendary performance, upsetting Buchanan and nearly pulling off bonus points. With pistols in the air, Ferrari’s hand was raised and he walked off the mat as a Big 12 champ.
“Wrestlers have to be selfish and that’s OK, but seeing guys wrestle for their team is refreshing,” Calcagno said. “‘You had AJ telling coach (Chris) Perry, ‘Don’t worry coach, I’ll get these bonus points to win outright.’
"That’s what he believed and he damn near did it.”
Even off the mat, wrestlers live differently.
In elementary school, Monday recalls taking his own lunch to school, a meal consisting of a turkey sandwich and bananas, while other students were chowing pizza and hot dogs from the lunch ladies. His classmates likely didn’t appreciate his eating habits until a gold medal dangled from Monday’s neck at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Perhaps the mental toughness of wrestling is best displayed in this mask-filled life during COVID-19.
“The virus shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Lewallen said. “We train hard every day. We make sure we’re taking the best food and things in our body.”
Still, the wrestlers stride to the center of the mat and proceed to exchange sweat and blood over the course of a grueling seven minutes. In a wrestling career that often seems fleeting, there's no retreating, not even from the virus.
On a daily basis, wrestlers deal with cauliflower ear — a deformity of the outer ear caused by repeat trauma. Ringworm, staph infections and general bloody gashes are among the other obstacles, all rendered as mere irritants by these combatants.
Wrestlers are different.
Mental toughness isn’t the only trait possessed by wrestlers.
“Wrestlers' workout regimens top all others,” said Calcagno. “If you’re a wrestler at this level, you’re here for a reason. Their work ethic is damn near second to none.”
As unassuming lightweight wrestler can be average height and present no bulky muscles, yet conditioning like stadium steps and constant late-night runs that fuel their strength.
All these sacrifices are what makes wrestlers elite athletes.
As legendary coach Dan Gable once said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”