Matt Brown (Photo/Penn State Sports Information)
To travel between Luanda, Angola, and Salt Lake City takes two full days, covers 10,000 air miles (across three continents), requires three connections (Johannesburg, London, Chicago), and an untold number of inconsiderate passengers, delays, and minor bothers. It's the type of flight itinerary that nudges marriages into an abyss, gives toddlers laryngitis, and incites businessmen to berate their assistant. Most can agree that it's an unpleasant way to spend 48 hours.
Not Penn State redshirt freshman Matt Brown. His time in transit was just another thing to be endured, and possibly even enjoyed.
Matt Brown is 23-2 this season (Photo/Bill Ennis)"Oh, yeah, it was was definitely a long couple of days, but I was excited to be coming home," says Brown. "I'd been away from my family and wrestling for two years and I was just thinking about how it was all about to start up again."
For Brown, the newest star to emerge from head coach Cael Sanderson's ever-deepening roster of talent, "it" has definitely started.
Originally recruited to wrestle for Cael at Iowa State, Brown left Ames after his freshman year to complete his mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints in Mozambique and Angola. When he returned after two years he decided to transfer to Penn State to continue his career under the guidance of Cael, Cody Sanderson, and Casey Cunningham.
Over the past two months Brown has captivated wrestling fans by proving to be the most serviceable backup in the nation. Fans have watched in amazement as the 21-year-old Utah native has battled to improbable wins even as he seems hopelessly log-jammed behind Happy Valley's inordinate amount of upperweight talent. Brown, who wrestles at 174 pounds, is currently doing the backup work for Ed Ruth, the second-ranked wrestler at the weight class, and Quentin Wright, the returning NCAA champion at 184 pounds. It's a crevice with little sunlight.
But according to Coach Cody Sanderson, the months it took Brown to position himself to even challenge for a starting spot was a slow process, only gaining momentum when Brown's positive attitude and hard work were rewarded by his body's long-dormant wrestling memory.
Matt Brown rides teammate Ed Ruth (Photo/Bill Ennis)"He was a little impatient when it came to getting back on the mats in August," says Cody. "I tried to keep him from getting too frustrated. But you could see in his face that he was frustrated that his timing wasn't right, or that he wasn't flowing between moves well. But since then he just stays longer and works harder every day to get himself better and we're starting to see the results."
Brown was working hard in relative obscurity until he entered unattached into the Southern Scuffle. It was in Chattanooga that he enjoyed the first rewards of his hard work, beating Missouri's 15th-ranked Dorian Henderson and Minnesota's 5th-ranked Logan Storley on his way to a showdown with teammate Ed Ruth in the finals. Brown lost a 6-3 decision. It's still the closest match of Ruth's season.
"I was glad I could wrestle him, but of course I wanted to win," says Brown. "I was disappointed I couldn't finish my shots in the finals."
It wouldn't be Brown's last chance for acclaim, as he'd soon be asked to enter the Nittany Lions' starting lineup. Brown's legend became Lin-sane in February when an injury to 197-pound starter Morgan McIntosh forced Brown (who'd weighed in at 174 pounds) into the starting lineup for two duals against Nebraska and Michigan. Brown beat the Nebraska wrestler with solid hand fighting and aggression, winning on a last-second stalling point. To ensure his place in Nittany Lion lore, he then knocked off 14th-ranked Max Huntley of Michigan.
Coach Cody Sanderson has high hopes for Matt Brown (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)"The fans here just really respond to a guy who works hard and wrestles aggressively," says Cody. "He's inspiring guys on the team with his work ethic and outlook on the season. He's an incredible athlete and has the potential, I think, to be an NCAA champion."
The wins and attention are nice, but all wrestlers want to test themselves against the best competition -- to see their names along the other greats from their school. Could Brown leave? Surrounded by all that talent, nobody would blame him if he transferred to become the starter at any other big-time program.
Brown acknowledges the blockade of talent through the Penn State upperweights, but says he doesn't see himself wrestling for anyone but Cael and the Nittany Lions.
"I don't plan on transferring," says Brown, who is also on an Army ROTC scholarship. "I think something will open in the future. And I believe I can accomplish my goals in three years that I might be able to do in four years somewhere else."
Brown admits moments of disappointment in thinking about the hard work of the season, coupled with the idea of not being able to compete in next month's Big Ten and NCAA tournaments -- the tournaments where Brown, and his fans, would love to see him compete.
"It would be frustrating to not wrestle at Big Tens or the NCAAs," says Brown. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had, and I'm not really worried about losing focus, but like every wrestler, I want to compete in the best tournaments."
Matt Brown puts his Lock Haven opponent in danger (Photo/Penn State Sports Information)Even as the desire to compete builds and the options for this season seem to be fading away, Brown thinks that he's on track to do something important with his college wrestling career if remembers to value the optimism that the coaches preach.
"Coach Cael paints a picture that it's not the result, but if you're trying your best. Doesn't matter if you get beat, just that you're trying your hardest, fighting for points.
"So in some ways the goal has become pretty simple: Just do your best."
And wait, which is something Brown is prepared to endure, and possibly even enjoy.