Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” will echo off the walls of Penn State’s Rec Hall on Sunday as the “Zain Train” rolls onto the mat in front of his home arena for the last time.
Retherford’s bout against Buffalo’s Nick Palumbo will cap off one of the most dominating careers in Penn State and collegiate wrestling history.
The senior said he doesn’t like to think about his last home match, deflecting questions about it Tuesday at practice, reminding reporters that he still has another month left in his college career.
But he did take some time to reflect, recalling his very first match at Rec Hall in 2013, when he took on Lock Haven’s Dan Neff, wrestling him to a 6-1 decision.
“I just remember being excited for it, and I think I’m still excited for it,” he said. “That’s why I’m kinda like thinking ‘Oh, shoot, it’s almost over.’ ”
Penn State wrestling fans are likely thinking the same thing, having witnessed some incredible moments from the Benton High School grad over the years — including his sudden victory win that shook the Rec Hall rafters, just a few weeks after that first match, over Ohio State’s eventual four-time national champ Logan Stieber.
But to Retherford, it’s not his upsets, his 84-match winning streak, his two Big Ten and NCAA championships or the Penn State pin record he’s close to breaking that he’ll remember most once he’s graduated and moved on.
“The relationships I’ve made with the team, with my teammates, my coaches here, and outside of that, too, with the student body, and just the time I’ve had here, the experiences, places we’ve gotten to travel. I’ll remember all those experiences; I think that will be the biggest thing,” Retherford said when asked what will matter to him most from his time at Penn State.
Even though he said he’s not focusing on his accomplishments until the season is complete, what Retherford has achieved in college wrestling can’t be ignored.
Since Retherford lost his last match as a freshman in the 2014 NCAA consolation semifinals to Edinboro’s Mitchell Port, a Bellefonte native, he’s not only won every match but dominated. Of his 84 wins since then, only nine have not picked up bonus points, and he’s averaging 5.5 out of 6 points per match this season.
He was named the NCAA’s Most Dominating Wrestler in 2016 and 2017, and also was last year’s Hodge Trophy winner. He’s the favorite to win both honors again this year.
Early signs of greatness
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said he knew Retherford was special from the beginning.
“I remember recruiting him, just the look in his eye was definitely unique,” he said. “And you know, you hope, and you guess, and you try to get the right kids, and I think we kinda got lucky with him.
“You wanna think all these guys can do all those things but they have to stay motivated, they have to be committed, they have to work hard when they leave their parents’ home — I mean a lot of things. And he hasn’t changed and he wants to be the best and he’s continuing to try to improve every day and that’s why he is who he is.”
Retherford’s former training camp coach, Penn State and Olympic wrestler Ken Chertow, echoed the evaluation.
Chertow watched Retherford blossom from a skinny, undersized leg wrestler in middle school into a diverse attacker who was hitting from all three positions in high school. Chertow said he knew Retherford would go on to accomplish big things.
“I knew he’d be something special,” he said. “I didn’t realize he’d be quite as dominating as he has been. But what he’s done is historical.”
Chertow recalled Retherford as an elementary schooler, whose parents drove him more than 70 miles every summer to Chertow’s training camp. His dedication to his training, attentiveness and willingness to learn, as well as his intense focus on the mat, are what stood out to Chertow the most.
“He just steadily kept improving, through middle school and high school, and throughout college now. He’s just got the right work ethic,” he said. “Zain chose to keep improving and better himself, and I’m sure when he makes the transition into freestyle he’ll continue to keep improving.”
Leading by example
Although Retherford said it’s too early to think about his legacy at Penn State, he said he does want to be remembered as someone who gave his all, didn’t hold back from the experience and had fun with it.
It seems he has successfully made that impression on his teammates.
“I’ve never been around somebody that’s ever worked as hard, has ever pushed themselves to a different level,” junior heavyweight Nick Nevills said. “(He) just has laser-like focus, it’s almost unreal, where it seems like when it’s time to focus, it’s like he’s a robot where he just tunes everything out except what he’s doing at the moment.”
Retherford’s hard work ethic has inspired Nevills, who said he always tries to jump in Retherford’s group when doing circuits because he wants to be able to push himself the way Retherford does.
“It’s really crazy to see somebody work as hard as he does,” Nevills said.
But Retherford isn’t all seriousness.
“It’s pretty cool but he can also just switch it right back to just relax and have fun the second we’re done with practice or the second the coaches say that we’re done,” Nevills said. “He can put a huge smile on his face and make anyone else on the team laugh, he’s always there to help everybody, and he’s been a really good leader.”
It’s that aspect of Retherford — his ability to inspire his teammates just by being himself and working hard — that Sanderson said he’ll miss most.
“Zain’s brought everything,” Sanderson said. “He’s been a great example, he’s a tenacious competitor, consistent, every day he’s been in here he’s given us his best; he does the same thing in the classroom, socially he’s been a great leader, but very rarely do you have all those things aligning. We’ve been fortunate for the past five years to have Zain in the program. He’s been a special one.”
Leaving some time for fun
The fifth-year finance major got most of his heavy coursework completed early, leaving time in his senior year to wake up, drink a cup of coffee and read a little bit before hitting the wrestling room.
The light class schedule has also freed up some time for Retherford to focus on some of his pastimes — like playing guitar and making kombucha, a combination of fermented sweet teas touted for its health benefits.
“He has these giant jars, it’s like he has his own distillery in his house, making these weird healthy drinks, and he’s like crazy about it, a fanatic, and sometimes you walk into the lockeroom and he’s sitting there and he’s like 45 minutes into a video about making a drink,” Nevills said.
When asked in December whether he’d pull out the guitar and play his run-out song on senior day, Retherford said no, but he did tease at a possible future performance.
“Maybe next year I’ll come back and play the national anthem,” he said with a laugh.
More moments ahead
Although Sunday will be the last time Retherford will step onto the mat at Rec Hall as a competitor, his time in a blue and white singlet is far from over.
He still has his main goals of the season yet to accomplish — to win the NCAA tournament with his team and as an individual.
Should Retherford get his hand raised on March 17, he’ll make the short list of three-time NCAA champs — joining Ed Ruth as the only Penn Staters to do so.
As the season — and his college career — come to an end, Retherford said he’s just going to focus on taking it all in, one thing at a time, and creating new memories to last a lifetime.
“I think we’re just making new moments each year so, last year was pretty special, you know with five guys in the finals and winning with the team, but I think every year has its special moments and I don’t like to dwell on the past too much,” he said. “I just kinda (like) making new moments as they come, that’s kinda what I’m focusing on.”
Buffalo (5-11) at No. 1 Penn State (13-0)
When: 2 p.m., Sunday | Where: Rec Hall | Radio: WRSC 1390
125: Carson Kuhn (0-2)
Kyle Akins (12-7)
133: Corey Keener (13-6)
No. 14 Bryan Lantry (13-4)
OR Justin Patrick (11-8)
141: No. 8 Nick Lee (21-4)
Jason Estevez (7-8)
149: No. 1 Zain Retherford (22-0)
Nick Palumbo (13-17)
157: Bo Pipher (7-11)
Eric Fasnacht (15-14)
165: No. 3 Vincenzo Joseph (16-1)
Noah Grover (8-16)
174: No. 2 Mark Hall (23-0)
Christian Dietrich (9-4)
OR Ryan Kromer (5-10)
184: No. 1 Bo Nickal (22-0)
Brett Perry (7-12)
197: No. 5 Shakur Rasheed (16-2)
OR Anthony Cassar (16-2)
Joe Ariola (11-8)
HWT: No. 4 Nick Nevills (21-4)
No. 20 Jake Gunning (15-4)