Caldwell the latest to feel unforgettable pain

Updated: March 30, 2011

By Kyle Klingman

Something was not right.

Darrion Caldwell wasn’t taking any shots in his second-round match against Michigan’s Eric Grajales. Caldwell, a 2009 NCAA champion and the top-seeded 149 pounder at this year’s NCAA tournament, looked tentative and cautious.

This was not our Darrion Caldwell.

This was not the Darrion Caldwell who received a standing ovation for getting pinned by Northwestern’s Ryan Lang during their 141-pound quarterfinal match at the 2007 NCAA tournament. The match lasted 100 seconds, but the Caldwell-Lang, punch-counter punch match was a necessary thrill to a sport that can lack action.

This was not the Darrion Caldwell who pinned Iowa’s Brent Metcalf in a spladle the following year.

This was not the Darrion Caldwell who lost a thrilling 12-8 semifinal match to Penn State’s Bubba Jenkins at the 2008 NCAA tournament.

This was not the Darrion Caldwell who lost by technical fall to Metcalf at the All-Star Meet during the 2008-09 season — and then beat Metcalf (shocking everyone) 11-6 in the finals of the 2009 NCAA tournament at 149 pounds.

This was not the Darrion Caldwell who always put it on the line.

Winning and losing never seemed important. Caldwell wanted to entertain.

“I’m out there to give fans a good time and to bring more viewers to the sport,” said Caldwell. “I hope in years to come that I can continue to do that: keep fans happy with the performances that I’m putting on the mat.”

That’s why it was hard to watch Caldwell walk away from his match against Grajales due to a separated shoulder. Caldwell redshirted last season and sat out the first half of this season because of the injury.

“Ending my career with an injury didn’t feel good, but when I was leaving from the mat and I heard the fans clapping and cheering it made me feel a lot better because that’s who I do it for. I have dreams of being a World champion and an Olympic champion, but I’m out there to give fans a good time and to bring more viewers to the sport.”

College wrestling’s next superstar — a person who lifted the sport with his style — had been knocked out of the NCAA tournament without a fight. It was an unfitting end to a senior year with so much promise.

But, it is an ending we have seen too often during the past five years.

Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota: NCAA champion as a true freshman in 2006, third place in 2007, seventh place in 2008, makes a freestyle World Team during a redshirt year in 2009, injury default (knee) in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2010.

Troy Letters of Lehigh: NCAA runner-up as a freshman in 2003, NCAA champion in 2004, third place in 2005, gets pinned in his second-round match because of severe disc problems in his neck.

Letters didn’t step foot on a mat from December through March because his neck was so bad. That’s why Letters, now an assistant coach at Penn State, can empathize with the way Caldwell’s senior season ended.

“At least for me, (my senior year) is always on my mind,” said Letters. “It’s very hard to put it in the past because I’m still involved in wrestling. I’m still involved in the national tournament and coaching guys at the national tournament. It’s something that I always get reminded about.

“It’s part of our sport though. It’s the nature of our sport. It’s the nature of the game. To end it like that was the tough part. I wanted to go out on top.”

Caldwell, who admits he had to change his style because he was wrestling with one arm, knew his back was up against the wall entering the NCAA tournament. Caldwell’s shoulder popped out twice during the year, and the prospect of it happening again was on his mind.

Caldwell, however, wants to be remembered for his influence on the sport — not the injury. And if Letters has his say, Caldwell’s legacy is secure.

“Darrion had a great career,” said Letters. “I do know what he’s feeling now, but Darrion has a lot to be proud of. He’s done some incredible things in the sport, and what he’s accomplished will always be remembered.

“That’s what he needs to realize. They’re going to remember what he did, not what happened his senior year. Not him having to pull out like that. He’ll realize in a couple years that people do remember, and that’s what stands out: him winning the Nationals his junior year and having an awesome season. That’s what they’re going to remember him by.”

Caldwell wants to give fans more though. Although he will be out of competition for awhile, the North Carolina State senior wants to entertain the freestyle wrestling world.

“You ain’t seen the last of me baby,” said Caldwell.

For wrestling’s sake, I hope Caldwell is right.

(This article appeared in the April 5, 2011 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. To subscribe to WIN, either click the “Subscribe to WIN” button on this website or call our office at 1-888-305-0606.)