Penn State's English emerges as feel-good story of NCAA wrestling
OKLAHOMA CITY — David Taylor wanted to talk about it and told the country while ESPN's cameras were rolling.
Cael Sanderson did, too. Penn State's wrestling coach answered a question about envisioning success and then launched, unprompted, into a 532-word monologue on the topic.
The subject that had the attention of two Penn State wrestling legends? Sixth-year senior James English.
“I want to talk about James English for a second,” Sanderson said. “I don't think people really understand kind of what he's gone through.”
While Taylor and Ed Ruth became national champions — for Taylor his second, Ruth his third — and Penn State won a four consecutive team title, the feel-good story of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Chesapeake Energy Arena was English.
Not only was he making his first NCAA Tournament appearance, but English shook off a rash of injuries to end his career as an All-American and defeat defending national champion Kendric Maple of Oklahoma in the seventh-place bout.
“It was great to go out with a win in my last match ever,” English said. “I'm just glad I never stopped fighting. After six years I was able to make it here, go out and score some points for my team.”
Penn State trailed Minnesota entering the last of six sessions, but Gophers heavyweight Tony Nelson and 157-pounder Dylan Ness both lost.
That opened the door for Penn State, which got dominant finals performances from Taylor and Ruth.
English, of course, isn't anywhere close to those two; while they finished their careers with a combined 269 wins, the Central York graduate and York native had 60, with one more in the Big Ten Tournament (three) than seasons missed due to injury (two).
“I feed off those guys,” English said. “They hammer guys and pin guys. I wish just one time in my life I could go out there and pin a guy in 25 seconds like them, especially with my body how it is. That doesn't happen, so you have to make the best of it and keep fighting.”
The medical side of English's story is enough to make pretty much any physical therapist cringe.
Multiple bulging discs in his neck. Constant lower-back pain. The need for offseason shoulder surgery. A pulled hamstring.
So beat up was English that he didn't even wrestle live in the 11 days between the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
“This is a kid who shouldn't wrestle,” Sanderson said. “He's going to have neck and back problems for the rest of his life. Probably didn't wrestle somebody live all year outside of a coach. As the season went along, I'd kind of written him off.”
Yet English preserved. He'd weigh-in, Sanderson said, and then continue to prepare as if he was wrestling.
English kept bugging Sanderson to give him a shot, which finally came at the Edinboro Open Feb. 8. English went 4-1, then continued his late-season run by going 3-2 at the Big Ten Tournament, finishing fifth.
“I step out on the mat, get the adrenaline going, and none of that matters,” English said. “It's all about out-wrestling the other guy.”
That mentally struck a chord with the normally stoic Sanderson. After English's win over Maple, Sanderson bear-hugged English. In the hallway as English was fielding questions, Sanderson walked by, smiled and pumped his fist.
“The kid looks like a two-by-four he's so stiff,” Sanderson said. “He can't move, and he just gutted out some wins. That's bigger than wrestling. That's bigger than winning championships and all that good stuff. That's a cool story.”
Edinboro coach Tim Flynn was named the NCAA Coach of the Year after leading the Fighting Scots to fifth place in the team race. … Attendance for Saturday night's finals was 16,221. Total for six sessions over three days: 93.334. … Taylor was named the 2014 NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Wrestler … Pennsylvania finished with 17 All-Americans, most of any state. Ohio was second with nine. … The NCAA finals will be held in St. Louis in 2015.