By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
Nathaniel Brown's long road back to the wrestling mat made him realize how much he loved the sport.
The former state champion from Lewisburg, a red-shirt sophomore at Lehigh University, is heading to Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA Division I wrestling championships this week.
He should have been in the tournament a year ago. When he is asked about it, Brown does not dwell on what happened.
Bizarre would be one way to describe it.
Agonizing would be another.
It happened in the consolation finals at 174 pounds in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships at Princeton University. He had just won 2-1 over Cornell University's Billy George to clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament.
But an odd thing happened on his way to St. Louis.
Just after Brown lunged forward to avoid a stalling point that would have tied the match in the final seconds, and before he could exit the Resilite, George drove his knee into Brown's chin, knocking him unconscious to the mat.
The action, which got George disqualified, resulted in a concussion for Brown. He was not only forced to miss NCAAs, he was out of action for four months.
With a win over Navy's Matt Miller in the EIWA final earlier this month, Brown punched his second ticket to nationals. This time, he is going.
He will open Thursday as the No. 9 seed at 174 against Hunter Gamble of Gardner-Webb. Brown is 20-5 and Gamble is 22-12.
"It really made me realize how much I love wrestling and enjoy doing it," Brown said this week of his forced hiatus. "I was off the mats for four and a half months and I was itching and dying to get back on the mat and compete.
"It really made me more appreciative of how great it is to have the opportunity and to be blessed to be able to do what I do, and I am thankful to be healthy enough to wrestle," he said.
After a barrage of tests, including MRIs and CAT scans, Brown was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. He began seeing a sports psychologist, the noted Dr. Jarrod Spencer, of Easton, a former wrestler and college football player.
He said Spencer helped him break down everything that happened and once he identified the issues he had, mostly anger, he was able to reconcile and look forward to being able to train again.
"I love training almost to the point where I love (it) more than competing. I can work for hours and hours.
"I went through a whole range of emotions and feelings toward the situation," Brown said.
"I worked through the anger and the disappointment and I just wanted a shot ... to be healthy and not have those symptoms, a shot to wrestle and compete," he said.
He said that after giving the sport the biggest part of his life, by the end of last season he was beginning, not to burn out, but to begin to tire of the competition.
"Then you get it taken away and you realize how much you really love it," he added.
He said there is no data on how long post-concussion syndrome will last, so there was a lot of doubt in his mind.
Facing the worst
Then he received a jolt. A nurse told him, "You may have wrestled your last match ever."
He said, "When he told me that, then it really hit home."
Nevertheless, Brown was cleared to return to the mat in June.
"I wasn't even able to jog. I wasn't allowed to break a sweat," he said, noting that the recovery is a slow process. "You go from working out 10 times a week to not being able to do anything. It took me to a dark place."
Brown said he got through it with the help of his religious faith and the support of coach Pat Santoro, Dr. Spencer, and, especially, his family.
The double major (behavioral neuroscience and environmental studies) said he sat through a class, taking 10 pages of notes, and later didn't remember anything he had written.
"How grateful I am just to be able to wrestle for 20 years," said Brown, who grew up in the Lewisburg program where his father, Dr. Michael Brown, is a long-time assistant coach.
Help all around
Despite that background, a young Nathaniel Brown was not sure which sport or sports he would pursue.
But he began working with former Lewisburg state champion Derek Reber and his father, Frank, and began going to the Bucknell Bison Club to wrestle.
He has a lot of people to thank, but he said, "My mom (Jan Reichard-Brown) and dad have been the constant ever since I was a little kid."
Among the others who have helped him has been teammate Kevin Bailey, his workout partner.
"He is an unsung hero," Brown said.
While Bailey and Brown drilled one morning this week, the former told him he should realize how lucky he is to have met so many people and make so many friends in the sport.
"It is all coming together; it is something special," he said.
Brown is hungry to win a medal this week.
And, if both keep winning, Brown will get a chance to wrestle a friend with whom he has worked out, Line Mountain graduate and fellow state champion Jon Fausey, who is 29-8 for Virginia.
The two have never met in a match.
"I want to be an All-American, and it would be one cool thing if both of us could stand on the same podium. That would be something really good for District 4," Brown said.
What Brown has accomplished to this point is already pretty cool.