4x NCAA All-American Hayden Hidlay (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Hayden Hidlay battled to the very last whistle of his decorated career at NC State, where he was the school's first-ever five-time All-American, and was interviewed on national television the moment that lengthy career ended at the 2022 NCAA Championships. What followed was honest, raw and emotional, and the message managed to transcend the bubble of college wrestling and meander into the mainstream with nearly 300,000 views to date.
That two-minute interview captured the hardships and the blood and sweat that went into Hidlay's impact on a Wolfpack program that grew right along with him. He shared his love for his brother, Trent, and modestly said he was never "the best" or "the worst" guy at his weight. While that may be true, Hidlay was damn close to being the best.
Hidlay finished his NC State career with a 110-11 record, one appearance in the NCAA finals, finishes of third, fourth and fifth, and four ACC individual titles. He went 19-3 and placed third at 174 pounds in his final season, which included a loss to Penn State national champ Carter Starocci in the championship semifinals and a pair of wins over fellow Pennsylvania native Michael Kemerer of Iowa.
Hidlay sought no pity with his self-deprecation following a 12-4 major decision over Kemerer in the third-place match, but rather inspired with the sentiment that he did all he could and was proud of that fact, even if he came up short of where he ultimately wanted to go.
The magic of that interview was that Hidlay was processing his entire career, both the pride and the disappointment, in real-time and he took thousands of others along for the ride.
"In the moment, during those things, you're so tired, and you sort of start talking and you feel like, 'Man, I could be talking complete gibberish right now,' but maybe it's in those moments that your true self kind of comes out and your true thoughts are able to come out," Hidlay said.
"And at that point, there is a weird mixture of relief that I was done and a little bit of sadness that I hadn't completed or accomplished the goals that I had hoped for. But a lot of it was just I was pretty thankful for how far I've gone and pretty thankful for the support that I've had. I guess whenever you combine all those things, you say some things that will inspire people. It's one of those things that I didn't realize at the time, how impactful it could be."
Hayden Hidlay (left) in the 2022 NCAA 3rd Place bout (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Coach Pat Popolizio and the NC State program are hoping Hidlay can continue making the same kind of impact on every wrestler who walks through their doors. The idea throughout Hidlay's sixth and final season of competition was to observe everything around him with a future transition into coaching in mind. The next step in that process was for Hidlay to stay with the program in a newly created role as student-athlete development coordinator.
That role will include bringing new Wolfpack wrestlers up to speed on the program, how things are done, and how to be successful there. He will also have a hands-on role by working with them in the practice room. In announcing the position, Popolizio called Hidlay "one of the most impactful student-athletes that I have ever seen."
"All along, we knew he was going to get into coaching, it was just getting things figured out here, and how we can make that work to where he's able to get his needs met, learn our system, learn behind the scenes, what coaching really is," Popolizio said. "As an athlete, you're consumed with your own career, and now you've got to flip that switch to be a coach.
"I just think he has all the natural ability to lead and connect with people and athletes on the team, recruits, other coaches, administration. He's got a great skill set. So, we knew we needed to keep him here, and he's gaining valuable experiences as we speak."
Popolizio had seen Hidlay working with his teammates and had communicated with him enough to know that he had the ability to reach just about anyone. Popolizio had also watched that interview and caught the sting of disappointment in Hidlay's voice as he worked through his emotions with a microphone in his face.
None of it sounded to Popolizio like gibberish, as Hidlay suggested, but he connected with the fact that Hidlay hung up his shoes with a void he knew he couldn't fill. Popolizio thinks that's only going to help Hidlay make a successful transition onto an NCAA coaching staff, which he surely hopes is on his own at NC State.
"I think things like that make you a better coach down the road, someone that's still hungry and is processing why things didn't play out the way they did," Popolizio said. "I think that makes you think about what you can do to help people and I think you saw that in that interview. He's more willing to sacrifice things for other people, and I think that's what makes a great coach."
For Hidlay, the learning process began last season with the knowledge that his career as a competitor was coming to an end. He looked at the sport differently and had the luxury of thinking outside his own wrestling journey, thanks in part to the decision to move up to 174 pounds and cut less weight.
And as the end did come into focus, Hidlay started to realize more and more that all he wants is to stay close to the sport. Now, instead of speaking from his heart on an ESPN broadcast, he takes on the responsibility of lighting fires under athletes and pushing them beyond what they think their own limits are.
If all goes to plan, maybe Hidlay can even help a few win the NCAA title that eluded him.
"It's definitely a shift and definitely a change, but one that I'm really, I'm really happy that I've made," Hidlay said. "I don't really have to concentrate on the ramifications of what I eat and how I sleep. There's a lot of pressure off my shoulders, but I still really enjoy being in the mix with guys. That's something that I'm going to have a hard time getting away from, just being in the room.
"I just really like the sport and I like to be able to wrestle, and that's something I hope I can do for a long time."