Seth Gross (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Seth Gross thought he might be done.
A prized prospect who captured three state championships while also winning titles at Junior and Cadet Nationals, Gross stepped away from wrestling in 2015.
He was off the mat for nearly six months.
His weight had ballooned to almost 170 pounds.
During that time, he took a job selling cell phones at Target.
"I didn't know if I would ever wrestle again," Gross said matter-of-factly. "I was pretty close to quitting -- I really was. I was not in a good place in my life."
Gross eventually did return, and it's been a long road back for the Minnesota native who wrestled for prep powerhouse Apple Valley.
Gross received a second chance at South Dakota State and he has more than made the most of it.
He missed being an All-American by one match at 141 pounds as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
He followed with a superb sophomore season where he lost just two matches. He stormed into the NCAA finals this past March in St. Louis, outscoring his first four opponents by a 43-4 margin before finishing second at 133 pounds.
Gross started this season ranked No. 1 in the country and he's won all five of his matches to start his junior campaign.
To truly appreciate what Gross is doing now is to take a look back at the huge obstacles he has overcome.
Seth Gross won multiple Fargo freestyle titles (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
He virtually hit rock bottom after a string of events near the end of his freshman year at the University of Iowa in 2015.
Gross had a superb redshirt season for the Hawkeyes and was expected to contend for a starting spot for perennial power Iowa during the 2015-16 collegiate season.
Near the end of the 2014-15 season, Gross and some teammates were involved in a tumultuous evening that altered the course of his life. He was hanging out with some friends and teammates when everything went awry.
"I was underage, and we started drinking and I got intoxicated," he said. "Everything kind of got out of hand and it really snowballed after that."
Gross and two of his teammates were eventually charged with a number of burglary and alcohol offenses.
He spent the night in jail. On St. Patrick's Day.
"I don't blame anybody but myself for what happened," he said. "I hadn't drank at all that year at Iowa, and then I made a bad choice on one night that really cost me. I drank too much and did some real stupid stuff. I feel bad for what I did and I'm very sorry for what I did.
"I've moved on from it and learned from it. It's in the past now. It was a big wake-up call for me."
Gross was initially suspended and then dismissed from the Iowa team.
Two weeks later, Gross lost one of his best friends. Paul Cheney, a state champion wrestler and Apple Valley teammate, committed suicide.
"My whole world was falling apart," Gross said. "It was horrible."
Seth Gross coaching with his father Troy at MN/USA Wrestling's state freestyle tournament in 2015 (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Gross took time away from wrestling to ponder his future.
He said it was during a family vacation in the summer of 2015 when he started talking about wrestling again.
"I was really missing it," he said. "I decided I was going to give it one more shot."
Gross was interested in wrestling programs at Minnesota and Northern Iowa, but likely would have had to sit out a year if he joined either program.
He didn't go to Northern Iowa, but Panthers coach and 2008 Olympian Doug Schwab did deliver a message that resonated with Gross.
"Coach Schwab gave me great advice," Gross said. "He said, 'You've got two choices. You can let this situation ruin you and never come back from it. Or you can use it as motivation and it will be the best thing that ever happened to you.'"
Gross said he e-mailed a number of Division I coaches and expressed an interest in returning to wrestling.
Five minutes after sending one e-mail, Gross received a reply from South Dakota State coach Chris Bono.
The message read: Come visit.
Gross visited the South Dakota State campus in Brookings the next day.
"Seth's chances were close to being done," Bono said. "I told him that for him to make a comeback that we demand a lot from our athletes in terms of discipline and accountability. And that it wouldn't easy."
Gross looked Bono in the eyes and replied immediately.
"You'll never have a problem with me," he said. "Take a chance on me."
Bono took a chance on Gross and it's paid huge dividends for his up-and-coming Jackrabbits program.
Gross went 26-14 as a freshman for South Dakota State and finished 3-2 in his first NCAA meet at 141 pounds. He fell one win short of the medal podium, but followed the collegiate season by making the Junior World Team in freestyle wrestling.
He dropped down a weight class to 133 pounds last season and became a national title contender for South Dakota State.
Seth Gross embraces with his coach Chris Bono after his semifinal victory (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Gross entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed and had just one loss. He advanced to the finals where he would meet a familiar foe -- former Iowa teammate and training partner Cory Clark.
A senior wrestling in his final collegiate match, Clark pulled out a hard-fought 4-3 victory over Gross, whose 22-match winning streak came to an end.
"I knew Cory was a real tough wrestler and he was able to ride me and slow me down a little bit," Gross said. "Obviously, it was disappointing. It motivates me to want to finish on top this season. It was a great experience to wrestle in the finals and now I need to use it as a learning experience moving forward."
As you might expect, Bono credited Clark for winning but he also felt like it was a match Gross could have won.
"It was a tough match -- it was all just kind of a blur," Bono said. "Seth had a great season and a great tournament."
Gross, who finished the season 34-2, also spent considerable time talking about his past at the NCAA meet.
"Seth had to keep answering all those questions about when he got in trouble," Bono said. "I think that took a toll on him emotionally."
Bono said he will use a different approach with Gross during this year's national tournament.
"We will just talk about wrestling," Bono said. "And that's it."
Seth Gross during the NCAA finals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Gross has been the leader on a South Dakota State team that has made huge strides with Bono building a top-flight program.
"I love it here -- it's awesome," Gross said. "We have great coaches -- they're the best thing that happened to me. I love Bono -- he's always fired up and he's intense all the time. I love the energy he brings to our program.
"We have a tough team. We're hoping to crack the top 10 this year."
Gross faces some of his toughest battles every day in the wrestling room while scrapping with his 43-year-old head coach, an NCAA champion and past U.S. World Team member.
"Bono's getting a little older," Gross said. "And I'm beating him finally."
The ultra-competitive Bono said he still wins his share of battles with his star wrestler.
"It's a war when we wrestle -- it's very competitive," Bono said. "I want to make sure he gets that kind of competition in practice he needs to become an NCAA champion. We definitely have some good scraps in the room."
"Seth is an unbelievable competitor. He doesn't like to lose at anything. When we play any kind of game in practice it's always a fight because he doesn't like to lose. He's the most competitive guy I've ever been around in my life other than Cael Sanderson."
Seth Gross placed fifth at the U.S. Open in freestyle (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The 5-foot-9 Gross, who is taller and has more leverage than nearly everyone he faces, is a nightmare matchup. He's tough on his feet and he's lethal in the top position.
"He is very tough to match up against," Bono said. "He can wrestle from every single position and that makes it hard to figure out how to beat him. He wrestles hard and he has an arsenal of where he can do so many different things. He's always been good on his feet -- he has very good attacks. He can score when he shoots and he can score when you shoot. And his conditioning is very good.
"He's looking great and he's as confident as ever. He just has to stick to what he does -- great attacks on his feet, ride people and get off the bottom. Just let it fly and put points on the board."
Gross is also a top international prospect in freestyle wrestling.
"Winning an NCAA title is a steppingstone," he said. "on the way to winning an Olympic title."
Bono believes those goals are within reach for Gross.
"Seth has a huge upside internationally," Bono said. "No doubt, he can make a World Team or an Olympic Team. He already made a World Team at the Junior level. He has the skill and the ability and the drive to be a force on the Senior level."
Through it all, Gross has maintained a strong faith. His Twitter handle is @GodsWrestler133. He has more than 25,000 followers on the social media site.
"I can't brag about my love for God because I fail Him daily," Gross wrote on Twitter in 2015. "But I can brag about His love for me because it never fails."
I can't brag about my love for God because I fail Him daily. But I can brag about His love for me because it never fails.�" Seth Gross (@GodsWrestler133) August 18, 2015
Gross said that faith has helped him excel on and off the mat.
"I'm a Christian," he said. "I wouldn't be where I'm at without my strong faith. One of the things that's really kept me going is God and the belief I have in Him. I'm really thankful and blessed for the life I have now."
Bono said Gross has lived up to his guarantee that he wouldn't cause any problems at South Dakota State.
"Seth has followed through 100 percent on what he told me," Bono said. "All the charges are off his record now. And he's done everything we've asked him to do. It was definitely the right thing to do when we gave him a second chance. We've had no issues with him -- zero.
"Seth has a great personality and he's fit in great with our program. It's been a joy having him here. We love the guy and we love what he's doing for our program and for our university. The problems are behind him."
Seth Gross defeated Michigan's Stevan Micic at the NWCA All-Star Classic (Photo/Juan Garcia)
Gross said he's definitely found a home at South Dakota State.
"They gave me a second opportunity and I've tried to make the best of it," he said. "I'm having so much fun wrestling again -- I'm having a blast. I'm so happy to be where I'm at. I'm loving where my life is right now."
This story also appears in the Dec. 8 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.