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Three Days in Fargo with Brandon Kingsley

I thought it might be fun to follow a top-tier wrestler as he moves his way through the Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D. By follow, I mean words like shadow, tag along, pursue, and trail. I was purposely looking for a Junior freestyle wrestler with plenty of credentials that had a good shot at winning this thing. I also needed a grappler who was willing to allow me into his life for three days.

Brandon Kingsley gets his hand raised after victory (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Somehow I was steered to Brandon Kingsley from Apple Valley High School (Minn.). He was back in Fargo after missing out last summer because of a leg injury. (Brandon would have been one of the favorites in the Cadet freestyle competition at 140 pounds.) I was told Brandon likes to talk. That may have been the biggest understatement of the year.

We met at Concordia College, just outside Fargo, on Wednesday afternoon as Team Minnesota arrived for practice. I went to shake Brandon's hand. He smiled and hardly said a thing. I expected something right off the bat and got nothing, so I asked to meet him the next morning before his first match. On the way into the FARGODOME, his folks were in the lobby and it became clear to me he has parents who are deeply interested in his wrestling career. In fact, his dad, Roger, was along for the ride as his coach and helped feed me with information. I think I can all this Team Kingsley and get away with it. Lately I have heard plenty of parents use the word "we" while describing the wrestler's progress. It was refreshing to spend three days together without once hearing, "We have this wrestler next." It was always, "Brandon has (insert opponent's name) next."

Day 1: Thursday, July 21

This morning Brandon is all smiles and ready to go. As a fan, I expect great wrestlers to have a bit of an evil edge to them. After all, this is a grueling sport with the intent of physically dominating your opponent. I always assumed a great wrestler has to have some level of meanness. Kingsley does not. He is about as happy and cheerful as a kid on the last day of the school year. After a full day, all I got was happiness. So did his opponents. Brandon always smiles and says something positive to his opponent before the whistle blows. But, from then on, a transformation takes place. He wrestles mean.

Although he didn't know it, his first round opponent Adam Hendrickson was about to get schooled (fall at 1:16), like the next three victims would. Brandon claims to love rough competition. He simply wants the best. I asked him who he meant. "I want to wrestle Tsirtsis, Sueflohn, and Marsteller. Those guys are the best and I want to know where I stand." We may find out before this weekend is over. Jake Sueflohn is on the opposite bracket and the hope of this amateur writer is we see that match on Saturday.

The next opponent is Devin Bera from Wisconsin. Kingsley knew nothing about him and really didn't care to know anything about his accomplishments. He would prefer to experience it, rather than hear about him. Bera made it into the second period, but was pinned at the 15-second mark. After this bout, one of Brandon's coaches, Jared Lawrence, an NCAA champion and four-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, came over to show him a move called the "West Point." He told BK he wants to see him use it today.

Brandon has been part of the Apple Valley system since he started elementary school. He has been on the receiving side of many boos and catcalls from the crowds in Minnesota. I asked how it feels to know people want to see you lose. He said, "I kind of like it. I mean, if you're getting booed, you're probably the best, and I understand why fans want to see me lose. It is all part of the game."

Brandon Kingsley stands with his father, Roger Kingsley (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
By this time it becomes clear to me Brandon and his dad, Roger, have a special relationship. Unlike most teenagers and adults, these two truly like each other. When Roger talks, Brandon is completely zeroed in on what is being dispensed. When Brandon talks, Roger is completely dialed in on his son. It was refreshing to watch these two men, 30 years apart acting like a couple of schoolyard buddies. There is nothing fake or contrived going on here. They love one another. Very special.

This pattern continues through the third round. Brandon listens to music before every match, like most wrestlers seem to do these days. I asked what artist he is listening today. He tells me, "Chris Webby." But he has many types of music he likes and he uses it for inspiration. Next it was time for Grant Steen (Washington) to receive the smile and friendly words only to get taken apart 6-0, 7-0.

In Fargo every participant wears either blue or red for each match. I asked Kingsley if it mattered which one. He revealed he likes wrestling in the blue singlet over the red. I thought maybe this was an opening and asked whether he had superstitions. "Nah, I just look better in blue. But I can't wear a blue shirt with blue jeans. That would be just too much." He gave me a giant smile and looked at me like I surely must understand what he means. I do ... or at least I want to.

Here is some scary information. Brandon Kingsley HAS NOT LOST IN FREESTYLE IN TWO YEARS. It gets better. HE HAS NOT GIVEN UP A TAKEDOWN IN TWO YEARS EITHER! OK ... Those are two crazy statistics and I am becoming a believer. We talked about Jake Sueflohn again. Jake is the last wrestler to give Brandon a loss in folkstyle. Brandon wants the revenge only a wrestler dreams of. He mentioned that he heard Jake had to cut some deep weight to make 145 pounds and Brandon thought he would have liked to get him on Day 1. "But I'll gladly see him on Saturday." He flashes that big grin with the double braces and keeps moving.

Brandon Kingsley can tell a lot by eyes and a handshake (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
The last match today is a complete screw-up. Kingsley and Eric Hoffman (Maryland) are scheduled to be on Mat 15. Just before they are ready to go, it becomes clear we have problems. The workers do not have bout sheets for these two guys and we are in for a delay. BK takes this time to talk to Hoffman and use that Kingsley snake charm. Still, more delays. Now we are being told to go to Mat 3. When we arrive, the computer at the scoring table is not working and the long delay is on. Brandon tells me he can tell his opponent is already beaten. I ask him how he could possibly know. "His eyes look afraid and his handshake gave it away. I can always tell when I reach that point with an opponent. I usually know it before the whistle blows." We finally get moved back to the opposite side of the FARGODOME only to wait a few more minutes. Finally, we start. It is over as fast as all the rest 6-0, 7-0. That is it for Day 1. Tomorrow it gets considerably more challenging. Kingsley will start with 2011 Junior National Greco champion Jacob Falk from Utah.

Day 2: Friday, July 22

Brandon Kingsley greets me with a handshake and a toothy grin. I ask him if he can tell anything from shaking hands. He just laughs. He says he feels awesome today and the two-pound weight allowance is making him feel much stronger. I ask if he still would like to wrestle Jake Sueflohn. He answers with an emphatic, "Yes, that's the plan!" We make our way to greet the Minnesota coaches and the first match with Falk is on. Except, I look down and Kingsley's arm is raised. Another first-period pin. So far, this is looking way too easy. Brandon says he feels ready to take on the best before the day is out. He mentions Gabriel Moreno from Iowa and Brian Murphy from Illinois as the two toughest kids he expects to see today.

Brandon Kingsley is serious on the mat, not so serious off it (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
The next match is with Tony Parks from Iowa. No one has heard of him and Brandon is all smiles and joking around going into this match. The first period goes like most of the others and ends in a quick 6-0 technical fall. The second period starts and something happens that shocks and rattles the crowd. Kinsgley gets taken down and a quick back exposure finds him staring at an 0-3 score. This is the first takedown BK has given up in a long time. Brandon quickly goes to work and avenges the takedown with one of his own and ends up winning the second period, 6-3. But Brandon is clearly rattled by Parks' move. He thought the ref made the wrong call, but quickly let it go. This the first opponent Kingsley has wrestled that did not seem to fear him.

Round 3 on Day 2 finds Mark Pinero from Louisiana as his challenger. Again, Brandon and Roger know nothing about him. Brandon says he is much more focused now and is not going to make any mistakes. "My other rivals will be looking for any similar slipups." Pinero never gets a chance. He gets taken down and is pinned at 34 seconds of the first period. We stop after to watch Jake Sueflohn cruise through his match. Brandon looks at him with respect.

We make our way over to another match to scout out his next two opponents. Brian Murphy is in a good battle with Gabriel Moreno. Murphy ends up winning a close one and he will face Kinsgley next. It is evident to me Brian Murphy from Illinois will finally give Brandon Kingsley a tough match. Murphy was the Cadet National freestyle champion at 140 pounds last summer.

Brandon Kingsley battles Brian Murphy, a junior from Illinois (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
This match is to be contested on Mat 1, which has the elevated stage. I was wondering if he would get a chance to do battle on that championship mat. The time between matches have narrowed and before I am ready, these two warriors are shaking hands. Murphy is not going to going to be taken down easily. In fact, he seems to know exactly what Kingsley's moves are and he blocks each one. After a rough and physical two minutes, the first period ends 0-0 and Murphy wins the coin toss. The clinch is over in less than five seconds and Kingsley has lost his first period of the tournament. I look at his dad, Roger, and wonder if he is concerned. I see nothing. I do hear an "uh oh" from the Minnesota team pairing official. The second period starts with a much stronger sense of urgency and Brandon gets the first takedown and comes close to a tilt. It is 1-0 until the last 20 seconds and they are both up. Murphy tries a takedown that works and ties the score and suddenly, and without warning ... Brandon Kingsley has just lost.

He comes off the mat and is furious with himself. He cannot believe how rotten he just wrestled. He has the look of a young man with a dream suddenly shattered. I have no idea what to say or even if I should talk to him. I choose to just watch. Brandon mumbles something and wants some time alone. It appears his best possible finish will be third place.

I meet up with Team Kingsley before the final session of Day 2, following the Cadet freestyle finals. Team Minnesota won four Cadet freestyle titles and it is fun to talk about two of his Apple Valley teammates, Gannon Volk and Seth Gross, raising stop signs. I ask BK how he feels and he says, "I'm good. I wrestled like crap and I deserved what I got. It is not going to happen again."

Brandon Kingsley gut wrenches Gabriel Moreno of Iowa (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Soon we are starting and right away BK is taken down and is behind 0-1 against Gabriel Moreno. It stays that way until the 1:50 mark when Kingsley scores a slick takedown to even the score at 1-1 and wins the period. I can almost feel the sigh of relief from the Minnesota contingent behind us. In the second period, Brandon gets the first takedown and cruises to a 7-3 win of the period and match. It is over for today.

Now we find out who will be the antagonist for the third-place match. We hear Sueflohn has to wrestle twice tonight and we watch him coast to another easy win in his first match. A half hour later, Sueflohn is in the match of his life and inexplicably loses. Who would have guessed? Tomorrow morning Brandon Kinsgley will wrestle his adversary, Jake Sueflohn, like he hoped all along. The only difference being that it is for third place, not first place.

Day 3: Saturday, July 23

The Minnesota wrestlers are all hanging out in the same area. I ask Brandon what above everything else, inspires him. "No question, my brother Jordan. I owe everything to him. He works harder and is more focused than I could ever be. He believes in me more than himself and sometimes I win for him."

OK, it is time for the parade of All-Americans. These are the top 112 wrestlers in the nation, or at least had the courage to put it on the line way up here in Fargo, N.D. First the wrestlers in the seventh-place matches get introduced. Then comes wrestlers in the fifth-place matches. They are followed by the warriors battling for third place. I'm standing next to Roger and we both look at each other. Brandon is not lined up anywhere. We both do a double take and confirm. He is not there. A minute later, he walks up to us with that goofy grin and says, "What's up?" Roger lets him know he is supposed to be on the third-place mat for the ceremony. Brandon replies, "Oh, I was in the can." We burst out laughing and out he runs to join the others.

Brandon Kingsley meets Wisconsin's Jake Sueflohn (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
It is time for the match Brandon Kingsley has been looking forward to ever since he watched Jake Sueflohn's arm get raised instead of his at the Cheesehead eight months ago. It is five minutes before show time and surprisingly Brandon is all business. He is more focused and intense than any time I have noticed all week. He is not cracking jokes and trying to mix it up with Sueflohn. He simply wants to win. I ask him how much he weighs today. He tells me 162. That is 15 pounds more than yesterday. He runs to the center and shakes hands with Sueflohn, minus the smile. Brandon is in his favorite blue singlet and gets the first takedown, 1-0. JS comes back with one of his own to tie it, 1-1. Sueflohn gets another and quickly rolls BK three times and wins the first period 7-1.

Sueflohn is the most talented and strongest opponent Brandon has wrestled this week. His moves are as fluid as water moving down a stream. It is time for Period 2. It is do or die time for Kingsley.

Brandon Kingsley and Wisconsin's Jake Sueflohn battle (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Again, Brandon muscles Sueflohn for the first takedown, 1-0. And again, Sueflohn comes back with one of his own, 1-1. So much happens in the next minute, it is very difficult to describe. Brandon gets a two-point back exposure move to jump ahead, 3-1. Sueflohn roars right back with another takedown to close the gap to 3-2. With 30 seconds left, Sueflohn manages another takedown to tie it at 3-3. But since Kingsley had a two-point move, he will win the period if the match remains tied. The two wrestlers two bang into each other again and Sueflohn has Brandon's legs only to get caught in a whizzer. There is only 10 seconds on the clock and the Minnesota crowd is screaming for Brandon to hang on. With three seconds remaining on the clock, Sueflohn limp arms out of the whizzer and secures the one-point takedown. It is over. Kingsley will finish fourth.

I follow Brandon down to the tunnel. Like all great wrestlers, losing does not come easy to this young man. He does not want anyone to see the severe pain he is suffering. He screams like a panther and cries out. My heart hurts for him. I do not know what to do. I want to help, but I just stand there. It is hard watching a dream die. I walk back up and softly ask Roger how he feels. Mr. Kingsley's voice is crackled and he is fighting back tears. "Brandon wanted this so badly." I touch his shoulder and recognize how brutal this sport is on everyone. There is no hiding in wrestling and you either win or lose. There is no one out there to make it happen for you ... but you. It is so personal and it cuts to the bone. The fans in the stands cannot truly see it. I never knew it in all my years as a fan, until I got this close. I had no idea how much this event would kick up dirt from my childhood. I cannot remember wanting a win as badly as I did that morning for Brandon. I told myself going in I was not going to let this become personal, but I did.

Thanks for the ride, Brandon.

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