Cody Gardner was Ohio State's 197-pounder during the 2008-09 season (Photo/Jim Davidson)
A memorial service was held Tuesday for Cody Gardner, former Virginia Tech and Ohio State wrestler, whose body was discovered Friday morning, Dec. 2 at a home in southwest Virginia, the Roanoke Times reported Tuesday. He was 28.
The home where Gardner was found is in Shawsville, between Blacksburg -- home to the Virginia Tech campus -- and Roanoke. The Montgomery County sheriff's office told the Roanoke Times that Gardner's death appeared to have been caused by a drug overdose. Foul play is not suspected. The body was transported to the Medical Examiner's Office in Roanoke; the autopsy report had not yet been completed as of Tuesday evening.
Gardner, a native of New Jersey who moved with his family to Christianburg, Va. in eighth grade, had been living in his home state in recent years, but returned to Virginia a couple weeks ago for a visit.
Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times described Gardner as "one of the greatest high school wrestlers in Timesland history," going on to describe the wrestler as "someone who was as soft-spoken off the mat as he was ferocious on it."
"He was truly a gentle giant," Virginia Tech wrestling coach Kevin Dresser, who coached Gardner at Christiansburg High School and in college, told the Times. "He was a pretty special guy."
The stats would back that up. At Christianburg, Gardner built a 182-6 overall record, with a perfect record in his final two seasons. He was a Virginia Group AA state champ at 215 pounds in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Gardner was ranked as the No. 1 wrestler in the nation in his weight class as junior and senior, and, in fact, was the top-ranked overall recruit in the nation in any weight class as a senior. He earned the Junior Hodge Trophy as nation's best high school wrestler in 2007. For all these reasons, the Roanoke Times named him Timesland Wrestler of the Year three times.
"Cody was probably the best wrestler/athlete combination I ever coached in 18 years of high school coaching at either Grundy or Christiansburg," said Dresser, who coached Gardner for his first three years of high school before becoming the Hokies' coach. "He was very athletic for a big guy. He really worked in the weight room, so he made himself very strong.
"He beat guys in holds that big guys aren't supposed to hit, which made him such a rock star. … I spent a lot of time with him one-on-one in the offseason because … pinning is an art and he really wanted to master that art. He was a pinner."
Gardner was 6-1 at Virginia Tech before leaving the Hokies in Dec. 2007. He then transferred to Ohio State, where he compiled a 14-11 record during the 2008-09 season. After one year with the Buckeyes, Gardner headed east to Delaware Valley University, an NCAA Division III school in Pennsylvania, where he wrestled in six matches in the 2010-11 school year, his only year with that program.
Dresser told the Roanoke Times that Gardner "started to struggle with" drugs in college.
"He did all the things you have to do to try to beat a disease," Dresser said. "He went to the rehabs, he took the classes. He just had a disease."
Dresser said Gardner had been "struggling a little bit with life" in recent years.
"Growing up's hard sometimes. And growing up was probably a little bit harder for Cody than the average guy," Dresser said.
Former Virginia Tech teammate Matt Epperly said he spoke to Gardner on the phone last week.
"He seemed excited about life," Epperly said. "He told me, 'Through the good and the bad times, you've always been here for me. He said, 'I love you, man.'"
Award-winning wrestling journalist Jason Bryant weighed in with his thoughts on Cody Gardner on Facebook Friday.
"Hard to fathom hearing about the loss of Cody Gardner," Bryant wrote. "When this kid burst on to the scene in Virginia, I was amazed. He battled some of the best early then became one of the best upper weights high school wrestling had ever seen. Three Beast of the East titles, four VA HS state championships, a Fargo title."
"In 2006, Cody won his third Beast of the East title. He accidentally left his medal and bracket at the event. Organizers figured since I was from VA, I'd see him before any of them. I've had it ever since. About a month ago, he added me on Facebook and I got his address. That bracket and medal is sitting in my office, ready to be sent. Only wish I'd have sent it out sooner.
"Rest in peace bud, you were one of the best big guys I've ever gotten the pleasure of watching. Now you and Jared Platt can resume your rivalry up there." (Platt, a Blair Academy and Penn State wrestler, lost his battle with Stage 4 cancer earlier this year. He was 26.)