We often speak of the arduous lifestyle endured by the college wrestler, and the final payoff at the end. All the hours in practice, the weekends spent in gyms, the days at a time spent starving in a van are made worth it when you stand on a podium at the end of the year, or at least get a chance to stand on a podium. The majority of wrestlers on the division one level, and elsewhere, never have a shot at this payoff. They rarely or never start, won't ever qualify for nationals and certainly won't ever become an All American. They know this, yet they labor on, toiling every day for a career that even college wrestling's few fans may not even be aware of.
Jason High was one of these wrestlers. He spent five years as a college wrestler - two at Meramec, a junior college in St. Louis, and three at the University of Nebraska, one of the nation's top NCAA Division 1 wrestling programs. While High produced standout results in high school, and in JUCO, he never achieved at the ultra-elite level demanded from Division 1 competition. Nevertheless, after departing Meramec he made a place for himself on the Nebraska Cornhuskers wrestling team. Three years later he was the owner of three Nebraska varsity letters.
Many college wrestlers who fight in the UFC possess far greater accolades than just varsity letters, though, in Jason's case, those big red 'N's' mean an awful lot.
Competitively, Jason's Division 1 resume does seem fairly modest. High never regularly started for Nebraska, and he never appeared at a conference or national championship. What he did do during his time in Lincoln was improve dramatically. His first year on campus he took his lumps, enduring a record of 4-16. He turned things around impressively. In his last year of eligibility, he secured a winning record (11-10) and enjoyed some respectable finishes at open tournaments. While these aren't eye-popping results, a winning record against his level of competition would still put him, estimating conservatively, in the upper third of all college wrestlers in terms of skill level.
Wins and losses can serve as useful tools for gauging success, but simply looking at the competitive results does not come close to revealing the true significance of Jason's college wrestling resume.
The fact that Jason wrestled out his full eligibility as, essentially, a back-up speaks volumes about him. Division 1 wrestling represents an insane commitment of time and energy. Practices push you to the limit, and sometimes you have multiple practices in a day; what remaining time that isn't spent tending to the maintenance of academic eligibility is spent in transit. Few speak about the travel involved with college wrestling, particularly in a place like Nebraska.Wrestlers like Jason don't get chartered planes to take them to an open tournament in Oklahoma. Entire weekends are consumed by interminable road trips through featureless terrain. Wrestlers will traverse hundreds of miles to spend 15 hours in a gym only to actually wrestle for a very small amount of time.
Jason went through all of this without the payoff of competing directly for the sport's highest prize. He was almost assuredly a walk-on, receiving no scholarship money for wrestling. When you're a walk-on, you regularly come face to face with the fact that your coach, who might care for you very much (and I think Nebraska coach Mark Manning is a guy who does care about his wrestlers), is relying on a bunch of other kids for his job security. Kids to whom he gave money. Walk-ons are only on teams so long as they don't get in the way, no breaks are cut for them. When you are down on a depth chart, no allowances are made for tardiness or lack of effort; you show up everyday and bust your ass or you find yourself off the team in a hurry.
At any time during his Division 1 career, Jason could have quit wrestling and just spent the rest of his time at the school as a normal Nebraska student. He was already in the school, his acceptance wasn't contingent on his continued wrestling (High did make the most of his time at Nebraska, earning a degree in history). The vast majority of young men in Jason's position do quit, and usually nobody thinks any less of them. At the end of the day, most find that the cost outweighs the benefit. Jason didn't quit though, he finished three seasons and earned three letters. This tells me two things about him as a person. First that he's the kind of guy who embraces grinding drudgery, and second, that he never abandoned the hope that he would someday be more than a second stringer.
Ultimately, I have to speculate that a primary motivation keeping Jason in that wrestling room was the hope that one day he would blossom into a wrestler who would start for Nebraska and compete for national honors. You need this mindset to survive in a Division 1 wrestling room; no matter how good you are, you need to believe that you will one day be the best. Once you stop believing, your exit from the sport is usually soon to follow. What Jason hoped for does happen sometimes, though rarely. Wrestlers who never really excelled can suddenly explode into shining stars (see Jamil Kelly, 2004 Olympic silver medalist). That time for Jason High didn't come in college, but perhaps it was only delayed.
The beauty of mixed martial arts, at least from my perspective, shows itself most clearly in the fact that it gives dedicated college wrestlers an extended chance to excel as athletes; it opens up a pathway to follow their dreams. While I believe that the better the pedigree of a wrestler will generally lead to the better quality of a fighter, MMA will also reward the wrestlers who never starred on the college mat, but never let that dissuade them from pursuing their championship goals. Jason High is living proof that fighting is about where you end up, not where you started.
The Factgrinder Final Analysis:
Jason serves to exemplify the value that a few years in a Division 1 wrestling room hold to a fighter, regardless of achievement level. Relative to the wrestling level of most of the athletes I envision will be featured on the Factgrinder, High's competitive wrestling achievements are merely solid. However, closer inspection of Jason's wrestling career reveals qualities about the man which are possibly more important to success as a fighter than any mere competitive wrestling achievement.