Belgian waffles are Jeff Marsh’s digestable release.
It’s not like he needs to eat one before every match, but for the fifth-year senior, the breakfast treat is a mental thing.
It’s a routine Marsh has followed during his years on the Michigan wrestling team. He wakes up five hours before weigh-ins and heads over to Benny’s Family Restaurant on South Industrial Avenue with some teammates.
On this afternoon, the opponent, Minnesota, has changed, but the habits remain the same. Marsh arrives promptly at 1 p.m., accompanied by sophomore Anthony Biondo and redshirt junior Tyrel Todd. None of the Benny’s employees recognize him, but you can tell that Marsh and his teammates are familiar with their surroundings.
As Marsh sits down for breakfast – eating what he calls Super Waffles, making sure to cover them with strawberries and whipped cream – the reality sets in: this is one of the few activities during the grueling season that allows him to feel at ease.
Comfort is the reason Benny’s has become a tradition for Marsh; he needs some weakness to indulge in or else he’ll go insane.
A wrestler’s insanity takes on various forms. It’s keeping your weight down, battling injuries, looking over your shoulder, losing confidence or simply dealing with school.
It’s a sport where mental deficiency is exploited and strength is rewarded.
After four days with the team and its coaches leading up to Michigan’s Big Ten-opening weekend against Purdue and Minnesota, it became clear that a wrestler’s mental strain never subsists – not in practice, and certainly not when match time comes.
WEDNESDAY, TWO DAYS BEFORE THE PURDUE MATCH:
This year’s team is a laid back bunch – maybe a bit too much depending on who you ask. It’s 3 p.m., and some on the team still haven’t yet climbed the stairs from the locker room to the cramped wrestling room in the back halls of Crisler Arena. Others are stretching out or schmoozing with coaches.
As Michigan coach Joe McFarland begins speaking to the group to signal the start of practice, everyone pays attention. Late wrestlers get lucky, scurrying into the room just in time.
McFarland is as down to earth as they come, literally and figuratively. Having wrestled in the 126-pound weight class during his days as a four-time All American wrestler at Michigan, McFarland is rarely taller or bigger than the person he’s speaking with.
It’s that combination of slight stature and lofty accomplishments that allow him to relate with anybody on the team, whether a walk-on or a 275-pound heavyweight.
Today’s practice, like most McFarland-run practices, starts with an hour of drills building toward two seven-minute simulated matches.
McFarland said each session is largely dependent on how hard each wrestler is willing to work.
“It can’t be something where you just walk into practice and flip a switch on,” he said.
And this practice has an awkward twist, one that stems from something McFarland decided before the session began. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Hynes had approached the coaching staff a few days before, asking for an opportunity to earn the starting position in the 157-pound weight class over Marsh.
Because Hynes did well at an open tournament – a set of matches that allow non-starters to gain experience – the week before, McFarland decides to grant an indicator match between the two to determine if a wrestle-off is warranted.
It’s a sticky situation and one Marsh is all too familiar with. Just last season, Marsh held the starting spot at the 157-pound weight class only to lose it right before the Big Ten Championships.
Unlike other sports at the University, where teammates are loyal to the end, the wrestling room can sometimes become an “every man for himself” environment. Of the 28 wrestlers on the roster, just 10 are able to start each match.
As a result, Marsh knew he had to go after Hynes as if he were an enemy. The strategy paid dividends, too. Marsh won 8-0, keeping his starting position for another day.
“I had the idea that this was my spot, you’re not going to take it away from me,” Marsh said. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you’re my teammate or not, I’m not giving you any respect.”
Come match time, though, Marsh and his teammates will have to switch gears and rely on each other if they are to beat Purdue or Minnesota.
THURSDAY, ONE DAY BEFORE THE PURDUE MATCH:
Injuries are an inevitable part of wrestling, and the Wolverines are no aberration.
Two heavyweights went down earlier in the season because of various ailments, forcing McFarland to bump up a 197-pounder for the team’s loss to Central Michigan. Todd, the team’s starting 184-pounder and vocal leader, was hospitalized with a staph infection earlier in the season.
Today, though, McFarland is more worried about the problems facing two of his star wrestlers: seniors Josh Churella and Steve Luke. Both of them are returning All-Americans, but very questionable heading into the weekend. Luke sprained his ankle against the Chippewas and Churella is battling a chest cold.
“Just staying healthy is a trick,” Todd said. “Hardly anyone gets through without something going wrong, but you have to maintain doing the right thing, trying to heal up after each week.”
Luke tweaks his ankle even more during the practice, almost stopping at one point because of the pain. But in wrestling, there isn’t much room for pain. Luke continues and finishes the practice.
His mind isn’t even on the injury, though. Luke has two chapters of biochemistry reading and Calculus 2 problems to do before going to a class. Then he has to prepare in the morning for tomorrow’s match against Purdue – if he doesn’t succumb to exhaustion.
“I’ll probably change my plans,” Luke said. “After my 11:30 a.m. class, I could come home and say, ‘I’m way too tired and fall asleep and don’t end up reading’.”
FRIDAY, THE DAY OF THE PURDUE MATCH:
No one on the team will say it directly, but tonight’s matchup against the Boilermakers is nothing more than a tune-up for the Minnesota dual meet tomorrow. Purdue has just one ranked wrestler in its lineup. The sixth-ranked Wolverines have six.
But there’s still some mental angst among the Michigan wrestlers as weigh-ins approach. Making weight is a part of wrestling that those outside the sport don’t understand and those involved in it detest talking about. Many harbor the memories of decades past when some wrestlers would be so weak after weighing in that they’d need to be hooked up to IVs.
The Michigan wrestling program knows all too well about the dangers of weight cutting. In 1997, then-junior Jeff Reese, a Michigan wrestler, died of kidney and heart failure after working out in a rubber suit. It’s something McFarland won’t talk about, but it’s also an event that sparked change in collegiate wrestling policies.
Back when weight cutting went mostly unsanctioned – before Reese’s death – weigh-ins occurred the day before a match, allowing wrestlers to cut as much weight as possible and replenish themselves overnight in order to have strength. Today, weigh-ins occur one hour before match time. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible for someone to starve himself and wrestle well.
And while some of this year’s Wolverines have worn sweatpants and sweatshirts during practice to lose weight quicker, McFarland does everything in his power to make sure his wrestlers are eating properly. He’s more concerned about his team wrestling at its best than having his wrestlers compete at the lowest weight.
To address the issue, McFarland has started scheduling mini-workouts before weigh ins. The workouts serve as a warm up for the match that night and allow wrestlers to eat normally without worrying about getting too heavy.
“In the morning, I want them eating,” McFarland said. “Then I want them eating a light lunch, come in, get a little drilling and then get ready for weigh-ins.”
Later that night, it appeared that the training paid off. Michigan has little trouble dispensing the Boilermakers, 24-12. But the win comes at a price. Sophomore Anthony Biondo, the team’s surprisingly solid 197-pounder, sprains an elbow ligament during a match against Purdue’s Logan Brown. It’s just another leak in the dam holding together this fragile team.
McFarland can’t help but worry about the ramifications.
“I’m worrying about is this going to be nagging? How long is this going to keep him out for? Is it something he can wrestle with?” McFarland said. “It’s a little frustrating. You don’t want your guys getting hurt.”
Especially when the No. 4 team in the country is coming to Ann Arbor the next day.
SATURDAY, THE DAY OF THE MINNESOTA MATCH:
The atmosphere tonight is decidedly different than the match against Purdue. Biondo has already been ruled out because of his injury, and Churella has been re-inserted into the lineup.
But losing just one person could prove costly for the Wolverines since Minnesota has five ranked wrestlers. Like all teams, though, the Golden Gophers are battling injuries themselves. Their 149-pounder, Dustin Schlatter, will miss tonight’s match. His match with Churella could have gone either way.
Just two weeks earlier, Michigan defeated Minnesota, 23-16. But tonight’s rematch starts out as poorly as it possibly can.
Jason Lara gets pinned in the 125-pound contest and so does sophomore Chris Diehl in the 133-pound match. Freshman Kellen Russell, ranked No. 3 in the 141-pound weight class, loses a close decision to Minnesota’s Manuel Rivera, giving the Gophers an insurmountable 15-0 lead. Minnesota holds on, cruising to a 24-15 win.
“A big part of wrestling is believing in yourself, guys,” McFarland said to a silent locker room afterwards. He’s not yelling. That’s not in his nature. But there is something different about the way he looks at the team. He’s no longer down to earth like he normally is.
“You have to carry that onto the mat,” he continues. “You have to believe in yourself first.”
Lara and Diehl are sitting in the corner, heads down, avoiding McFarland’s face at all costs. Todd stands in the back of the locker room, arms folded, listening intently. It’s clear he wants to add his own two cents to the conversation.
“You guys that didn’t wrestle well, remember how tired you were in the third period,” said Todd, who, like McFarland, isn’t yelling but speaking with conviction. “That pain should drive you. If it doesn’t, you don’t belong in this sport.”
As Todd’s last words sit in the air for a few seconds, the discomfort lingers like a morning’s fog. McFarland breaks the silence, addressing the entire room. He goes back to what he said about practice habits on Thursday.
“You guys have to start wrestling with a chip on your shoulder,” McFarland said. “Understand this, it has to be there every day in practice. It’s not something you just flip a gear on the night we’re going to wrestle.”
The team’s fractures begin to emerge immediately following the loss. There’s a certain tension between the Wolverines’ best wrestlers and those who are merely average.
“It’s hard to ratchet up the intensity with the starters, with five or six guys that are doing well,” a frustrated Todd said outside the locker room. “We need guys pushing us, making us work harder and making us feel uncomfortable in practice.”
The Wolverines are at a crossroads. The Minnesota loss could hurt the team in the weeks leading up to the National Championships. Or it could prove to be the defining moment that motivates the team to step things up.
Either way, the tension and stress never end for these wrestlers. Saturday’s loss will quickly turn into another Monday practice leading up to another Friday match. It’s how Michigan deals with this reality that will define the season.
A week later, Michigan gets back on track with a 22-16 win over Illinois. The same successful formula is followed: The stars carry the team, and the Wolverines capture six consecutive victories in the middle of the meet.
But again, the lower weights struggle with junior Michael Watts – taking over for the ineffective Lara – getting pinned and Diehl losing by major decision.
There is a surprise, though. After battling to keep his starting spot earlier, Marsh pulls off the upset of the year, defeating Illinois’s Mike Poeta, the nation’s top-ranked wrestler in the 157-pound weight class. The unlikely result is the deciding factor in the team’s win.
Those waffles have probably never tasted better.