The Band that Makes Brothers in Wrestling

Updated: March 12, 2012

By Mike Finn

It seems like most wrestlers have one.

No, not a cauliflower ear or singlet, but something … or someone … each wrestler has dealt with since he was a little boy wrestling on the family carpet: a brother.

And together, wrestling siblings eventually take their mat activities to the same place: first to high school and even to college. Just check out the current Division I programs and more than half have at least one set of brothers wrestling. Say the last names Smith, Sanderson and Brands and you know their alma maters of Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Iowa, respectively, benefitted from a bunch of brothers.
And even those current college rosters, which don’t have wrestlers with the same bloodline, feature many guys who grew up training with a family member. That includes the likes of Cornell, where Marshall Peppelman, the 165-pound sophomore from Harrisburg, Pa., has an older brother, 157-pound junior Walter Peppelman, wrestling at Harvard.

Sonny Yohn

But when it comes to producing the most sets of brothers in one program, the University of Minnesota is second to none. And of the three sets of brothers — Chris and Nick Dardanes, Cody and Sonny Yohn and Dan and David Zilverberg — competing for the 2012 NWCA National Duals champion, two (the Dardanes and Yohns) all start for the Gophers and will compete in this year’s NCAA national tournament. Even Minnesota’s starting 149-pounder, Dylan Ness, is the younger brother of 2010 NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Jayson Ness, who is currently serving as an assistant coach for Minnesota head man J Robinson.
“Brothers make great combinations,” said Robinson, who has spent over a quarter of a century coaching in Minneapolis. The program has had a long history of bringing brothers — starting with the Morgan brothers (Gordy and Marty each earned All-American honors between 1989 and 1991) — to the wrestling room.
“When you’re getting brothers, you’re getting two for one … and two for one of what you want,” Robinson added. “If you recruit on statistics, you get two guys with similar statistics. If you’re recruiting attitude, you get the same kind of attitudes. You are doubling everything you get when you bring in brothers.”
And in turn, brothers also have brought brothers to Minnesota.
“Marty Morgan (a former Minnesota assistant coach) was the one who recruited me,” said 197-pound senior Sonny Yohn, a year older than his 165-pound junior brother Cody. “He had the philosophy if you recruit one, you can get the younger one, who ended up being as good most of the time. It worked with the Schlatters (Dustin and C.P.). It worked with the Thorns (Mike and David) and Ness brothers. Now it’s working with the Dardanes and Zilverbergs.”

Cody Yohn

Actually, it may have been Cody, who was the force within the Yohn family that helped move the brothers from Alamosa, Colo. — which is 200 miles south of Denver — to Minneapolis.
“When (Sonny) was looking at schools, I remember telling him that I wanted him to go to Minnesota and that if he did I would follow him,” said Cody, who like Sonny and their father, Kenny, all won state championships for Alamosa High School.
When it comes to athletics, people use the phrase, “Band of Brothers” to illustrate how close teammates become and how much they depend on each other.
But when teammates are actually brothers, the bond is closer.
“I think it’s far more different when you are brothers because you are so much closer,” Cody said. “You’ve grown up and done things together that teammates rarely do.
“A lot of guys here at Minnesota have been teammates and buddies since they were in high school. We have teammates who we’ve been best friends with for four or five years. But with Sonny and I, we’ve been friends for about 22 years. I think I know Sonny better than he knows himself.”
Cody, whose record was 15-7 before this year’s Big Tens, admitted he needed his brother this season, especially in January when he lost three straight bouts and was pinned by Iowa’s Mike Evans, which was one reason the Hawkeyes defeated the Gophers in Iowa.
A few weeks later, Cody defeated Evans in sudden victory during the semifinal dual between the schools at the National Duals, which Minnesota won with both Yohns scoring impressive victories over Iowa and Oklahoma State foes during the Final Four in Stillwater, Okla.
“I hit a bump in the road and he actually figured things out and told me what needed to be changed and I had significant improvement after that happened,” Cody said.
“He came up to me and told me that I wasn’t wrestling well, which was obvious to me. It came down to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it and over analyzing wrestling. I needed to take a little break and refocus. I was able to come back so much stronger.”
Sonny said this kinship comes naturally, especially at tough times.
“I think you’re always rooting for your brother,” Sonny said. “It hurts me as much to see him lose as much as it hurts him. I’ve watched Chris (Dardanes) lose a match, then see the look in Nick’s face. It looks like he wants to rip the (opposing) dude apart after that. It’s real personal when it’s someone you know so well out there.”
All brothers grow up with sibling rivalry and it’s no different with college wrestlers.
“Since a young age, we’ve always been competitive with each other,” Cody said. “We thrive off each other’s enthusiasm and accomplishments. With that, we’d try to out-do the other and then would have each other’s backs.”
Of course, not all brothers are the same the way they deal with each other. For example at Iowa in the early 1990s, Tom and Terry Brands appeared to have a much more rival-type relationship than that of Troy and Terry Steiner. Yet, the Brands are able to unite their personalities as Iowa coaches and are one reason the Hawkeyes won three consecutive (2008-10) NCAA championships.
Robinson, who was part of the Hawkeyes’ brother tradition when he served as an assistant coach under Dan Gable, said brothers’ personas are not that much different when it comes to competition between brothers.
“On the surface, you might have seen (the Brands as college wrestlers) punch each other in practice. That’s just their competitiveness,” said Robinson. “I would venture to say that the Brands brothers would do anything for each other. Wrestling brings out the competitiveness between the two. It’s like the Dardanes brothers.
“It’s like any family. You can fight within your family, but if anyone else picks on someone in your family, what do you do? You come to their aid very quickly.”
Robinson still remembers a time when the Banach brothers, which included the trio of Steve, Ed and Lou, showed they could keep their fights within the family.
“One time, Steve and Eddie were wrestling and all of a sudden it turned into a fight,” Robinson recalled. “Soon, Lou, who was sitting on the side, got up, broke them up and punched one of them and told them both to grow up.
“Like my father said, if you want to solve a problem, look seven layers down. Most people just look at the surface.”
Robinson also believes these relationships are simply an extension of what brothers enjoyed in their childhood homes.
“When you come to school, you’re bringing a support group with you,” Robinson said. “You have someone to bounce ideas off, you have someone who understands you, someone you can relate to.”
But eventually, these true brotherhoods in college wrestling end when one graduates. That will happen after this year’s NCAA tournament, when Sonny completes his eligibility.
“This may be the last time we compete (together),” Cody said. “This is the last show and why I’ve treasured all the moments this year.”