Nebraska’s Peyton Robb overcame an “all-too-real” pain

Updated: October 31, 2023

Photo: The 2023 NCAA Championships started off on a high note for Nebraska’s Peyton Robb, who reached the semifinals at 157 pounds last March in Tulsa, Okla. But he suffered two losses, including an overtime setback to North Dakota State’s Jared Franek in consolation. Robb then medically forfeited his sixth-place match when an infection in his left leg left him with no energy and eventually in a hospital emergency room. (Tony Rotundo photo)

By Mike Finn

After coaching NCAA Division I wrestling for a quarter of a century, Nebraska mentor Mark Manning has dealt with many different personalities.

In Peyton Robb, the Huskers’ two-time All-American, Manning sees something unique about his sixth-year senior from Owatonna, Minn..

“He has a very confident demeanor and calmness about him,” said Manning, who is about to start his 23rd season in Lincoln, Neb. “What I see in him right now is a very focused, more mentally tough, grateful young man, who is happy doing what he loves.”

This story appears in the Nov. 2 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Fortunately, Robb is going to make the most of his final year in college wrestling at 157 pounds … and not just because the pandemic gave him and other college wrestlers an extra season to reach their goals.

The 23-year-old Robb is also just happy to be alive.

For the pain of settling for sixth place last March at the NCAA Division I Championships in Tulsa, Okla., paled in comparison to what awaited him a few days later in Lincoln, where a flesh-eating infection put him in the emergency room for several weeks; leaving many wondering if Robb’s health nightmare would allow him to ever leave that hospital alive, much less back into the Husker wrestling room.

Many people knew the Husker was forced to injury default his sixth-place match in Tulsa, but few understood what was happening when social media reported that Robb was in critical condition a few days later.

“I was aware what was going on,” Robb recalled. “It did not quite feel like a dream and the gravity of it didn’t seem to hit me while I was in the hospital. I knew it was life-threatening but I didn’t think about it too much.”

Robb was finally diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, which is an extremely rare infection affecting only a couple hundred people in the United States per year and has been as low as 70 cases in recent years past. Even with treatment, one in five people die of this rare infection.

Nebraska coach Mark Manning (left) tended to his two-time All-American Peyton Robb after his final match at the 2023 NCAAs in Tulsa. (Tony Rotundo photo)

Robb first noticed a rash or bruise on his lower left leg prior to his 5-3 semifinal loss to Penn State’s Levi Haines on March 17.

“After the semifinals, I started to feel sick, like one would feel with a fever or a cold,” he recalled, mindful that he still had a chance to finish third, one year after finishing in fourth place as a No. 10 seed in the 2022 NCAAs.

Still upset after his loss to Haines, he had to refocus on Saturday morning, when he weighed in but was not 100 percent.

“Peyton came back to our cubicle and he was shivering uncontrollably and then he was throwing up,” recalled Manning. “He was really pale and his skin color was bad. We put two coats on him and he said, ‘My leg hurts’ and said, ‘I must have gotten kicked while warming up for the semifinals.’

“I knew something was wrong, but I did not know the severity,” said Manning, who also had another wrestler, Brock Hardy, dealing with broken ribs which forced him to also injury default in his fifth-place match at 141 pounds. “I didn’t want them to wrestle, but they said, ‘We’re not going to be wimps. We are going to wrestle for the team.’”

For someone who became his high school’s first three-time Minnesota state champion in 2018 before qualifying for the (eventually-canceled) 2020 and 2021 NCAAs, Robb still had the typical mindset of an elite wrestler where excuses to quit are rarely an option.

 “I was trying to keep that out of my mind,” said Robb. “My body started to fight the infection and I was trying to tough it out. If you lose a match, you don’t want to make excuses.”

But when it came to wrestling in the consolation semifinals against North Dakota State’s Jared Franek, Robb said energy-wise he was at about 60 percent but could not get his body warm and was unable to warm-up correctly for the match.

Eventually Franek defeated Robb, 3-1, in sudden victory and finally the Husker knew he had nothing left for the fifth-place match.

Peyton Robb will start his final season for Nebraska this Saturday at North Dakota State as WIN Magazine’s No. 4-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds.

“I had no strength left and could not think of any moves during (the loss to Franek),” Robb said. “I was just throwing myself at him (Franek) the whole match. As soon as we got to the tunnel after that loss, I told the coaches I could not wrestle another match.”

The Nebraska trainer eventually took Robb to a local Tulsa hospital, where they gave him oral antibiotics to fight what they thought was strep cellulitis but he could not keep any food down.

He and the team then headed out that night for an eight-hour trip back home.

“I was laying down the whole time and gutted through the pain, which was brutal,” he recalled. “It was almost like being seasick with all the rocking from the bus.

“Eventually we got back to Lincoln and my apartment, but my girlfriend (Taylor Krone) saw me trying to walk and said, ‘This is not good.’ So, she made me go to the hospital. I probably would have tried to be tough and stubborn and gut it out and it might have gotten to a point where it was too late to fix it, but she really took care of me.”

On March 19, the day after the 2023 NCAAs ended, the doctors wanted to make sure he was hydrated and that all his vitals were in order.

“I had just made weight the day before but I had not gained any weight and was not able to hold any (food or water) down,” Robb recalled. “So, they started pumping me full of IVs to get my vitals in order because when I first got to the hospital, I was having an acute heart failure and kidney failure.

“Because they had to get those vitals in order, it also causes your organs to swell, which makes it hard to breathe. They had to put me on oxygen. I had so many tests those first couple days to see if any of the infection had gotten into my bones or joints, which luckily it hadn’t.

“Then I had an orthopedic surgeon come in to see me. By that time, blisters had popped up and were black. He knew it was necrotizing fasciitis and within 30 minutes to an hour, I was in surgery.”

Overall, Robb, whose weight fell to 150 pounds, went through six surgeries to clean out the infection and a seventh for a skin graft.

“They had to cut out anything that had an infection so it was mostly tissue on the top, but there was some muscle that they had to take out. It was pretty wild to see it open after the surgeries. It was pretty crazy.”

Surely, Robb’s family and friends were scared. Was he?

“Just the way that I am, I felt like everything would be OK,” he said. “I know it was hard on my mom and my girlfriend. They knew I was in pain a lot of the time and it was hard to watch that. I kept telling myself I was going to get through it and I was going to be OK. It didn’t do any good for me to think about the negatives at that point.

“It helped knowing the doctors I had were very good and that I was in good hands. I had all the people that I needed around me.”

Fortunately, Robb did recover and believes he is ready to go after his goal of winning a national championship after returning to the practice mat in May. He was ranked No. 4 in WIN’s 2023-24 preseason rankings.

“Now, I’m back to doing 100 percent of the practices and everything else,” said Robb, who believes that being a wrestler also helped him overcome this.

“I put a message out from the hospital, once I knew I was in the clear, that the three reasons that wrestling saved my life: one, was the sport got me back into the physical form so that my body could hold up; to the mental side on how wrestling trained me to look at the positives; and finally, there was the wrestling community that supported me.”

Following his wrestling career, Robb — whose college major has been nutrition and health sciences — would like to get into coaching after he also first competes on the Senior freestyle circuit.

“I will tell (future wrestlers he coaches) that they can get through anything with the right mindset and the right people around you,” Robb said. “If you do that, you are going to make it through whatever struggles and hardships you have.”