Travis Johnson | Penn State’s Taylor is future of wrestling

March 26, 2013 

— David Taylor is the future of wrestling.

In more ways than one.

He’s the near future. The Penn State junior will have one more year to wow college wrestling fans and dominate opponents before he’ll head out of Happy Valley with freestyle glory and Olympic aspirations in his sights.

And he’s the distant future. As volunteer workers labored furiously for back-to-back days on Thursday and Friday to reconfigure the Wells Fargo Arena for the latter sessions of last week’s NCAA Wrestling Championships, two little kids — one on each day — jumped around, rolled across the mats and shot in for takedown attempts on those same workers.

Each little boy — neither could’ve been older than six — on each day paid homage to his idol.

Think of yourself when you were little, pretending to be your favorite baseball player in the backyard or favorite footballer in a neighborhood game of two-hand touch. For me, I was always Marty Straka or Jaromir Jagr blasting home a one-timer from Le Magnifique for the overtime game-winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Those little squirts inside Wells Fargo Center — they were David Taylor.

“I’m the Magic Man!” they exclaimed.

I bet they’d still play Taylor in backyard battles despite the Penn State star’s loss to Kyle Dake in the 165-pound championship match.

Taylor, maybe he’s still stewing over the loss. I’d be willing to bet he is.

“It hurts,” Taylor said with glazed eyes afterward. “I don’t lose. It’s something that’s going to eat at me for a while.”

I say Taylor didn’t lose. He just didn’t win. Wrestling fans did, however.

The buildup to Dake/Taylor III was unreal. It was the chatter of every restaurant crowd, the buzz inside every corner bar that hung “Save Olympic Wrestling!” banners from their windows. It was speculated on, bet on, argued over by every person in that city for four straight days.

On Sunday, it was still the talk of the town and for good reason. It was an epic match. When Taylor got the opening takedown just 17 seconds in and Dake nearly reversed him into a cradle — a move Taylor slid out of with ease — the arena was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think.

There were similar reactions to each of Taylor’s four falls leading up to his showdown with Dake.

Nothing against Dake, but the building never thundered like it did after Taylor’s first four bouts for the Cornell senior’s methodical wins. Taylor meanwhile, breathed life into the capacity crowd on each day with jaw-dropping displays of his ultra-aggressive, take-no-prisoners style.

“He’s made me a better wrestler,” Dake said shortly after their championship bout.

I’ve never seen Taylor with as much electricity coursing through his veins after he pinned Illinois’ Conrad Polz in a ridiculous 24 seconds in the quarterfinals. And I’ve never seen him so stunned after he failed to get out from under Dake until it was too late, and lost on a riding time point.

Afterward, Cael Sanderson — Taylor’s idol growing up — collapsed in the tunnel with his head between his knees, clearly devastated his pupil had been beaten on the scoreboard.

It was a touching moment seeing Sanderson weep for Taylor, a true testament to what these modern-day gladiators put into their craft and sacrifice to reach the highest level.

Sanderson would know.

And although both had become national champions for the third straight season as part of the most dominant wrestling team in decades, it was hard to celebrate fully. Not everyone had won.

Minutes later, Sanderson had collected himself and talked about how tough it was winning as a team, but seeing individuals lose.

And while Taylor lost individually, he put the rest of the Nittany Lions on his back and carried them to the goal line. He’s done it before, too.

“He led Penn State to three national championships,” Sanderson said. “Through his great leadership, his hustle, his love of competing, leading with a passion and bonus points, he’s made this sport a better sport and I couldn’t be more proud of the kid.”

And he’s exactly right. While Ed Ruth is the flashy, showman — dominant in his own right — and Quentin Wright is the hometown favorite and a star that’s come full circle, there’s no doubting — Taylor is the MVP.

A week before the NCAA tournament, Taylor and I shared a candid moment in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.

To end a long one-on-one interview, I looked right into his eyes and asked what was probably one of the more bizarre questions he’s ever had to field. He definitely wasn’t expecting it.

“David, you’ve earned bonus points in all but 10 of your college matches,” I said. “What happened in those other 10? Where were the bonus points?”

Obviously, I was kidding. For a second, Taylor’s eyes got wide, considering that very question ‘What happened in those…’

Then he grinned and laughed. That split second where he wondered — that’s why David Taylor is the championship-caliber wrestler he is. Already, he’s one of the greatest of all time. This is the mindset of the greats, always wondering, always trying to tweak things, improve, relying on past mistakes to better themselves.

Taylor prophesized to me that it didn’t matter that he lost to Dake in a preseason exhibition match — that one at the NWCA All-Star Classic billed as ‘The Match of the Century’ by Flo Wrestling. It didn’t matter that he suffered a controversial defeat at Dake’s hands in the Southern Scuffle finals.

The only match people would remember would be this one. Maybe he was right?

But it’s not the last one that will count. And David Taylor will never be remembered a loser. Before you know it, the Magic Man will be back with a vengeance.

What a scary prospect for his future foes and what a delight it will be for all those kids who will try to follow in his footsteps, just as he’s done so with Sanderson before him.

Travis Johnson covers Penn State wrestling for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached by email at tjohnson@centredaily.com.

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