Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Sammy Brooks was fearless during his first days on the University of Iowa campus.
In 2012, Brooks served as first base umpire for a wrestling “Upperclassmen versus Coaches” Wiffle ball game. UI associate head coach Terry Brands put the ball in play, stumbled over first base or the foot of first baseman Tony Ramos, and continued into rightfield where he tumbled, hurt his neck, and went on a 20-minute earsplitting tirade.
When order was restored, Brands stepped on first before his brother, Tom, the Hawkeyes’ head coach, informed him he was ruled out on the play.
“Who called me out? Who called me out?” an angry Terry yelled.
It was Brooks.
“It was a little scary, but I was still going to call him out because he was out,” Brooks said. “I just got (to campus) and this happened.”
If that wasn’t a rough enough beginning to his career as a Hawkeye, Brooks dropped his first collegiate wrestling match in the 2012 Lindenwood Open.
“It was time to suck it up,” Brooks said. “It’s still wrestling. I think I built it up more than I should have. It is the same thing I have been doing my whole life.”
Since then, Brooks, a senior 184-pounder, has won 93 times (19 as an unattached redshirt freshman), qualified for the NCAA Championships twice, won a Big Ten championships (2016), and become an All-American (eighth place at 184 in 2016).
“If you ask Sam Brooks about his career, I think he would say he has under-performed and he takes that serious,” Tom Brands said. “This is his last chance and I have seen a little bit more seriousness. That could be maturity, but for sure it is partly because he has had a lot undone in his career.”
Brooks didn’t think he would end up at the UI. Minnesota wrestlers Chris and Nick Dardanes attended Oak Park-River Forest (Illinois) High School with Brooks, so Brooks thought he would follow the twins to the Twin Cities.
“If I can open up matches and make it less about strategy and more about pure wrestling, I think I have a good shot against anybody. I can still hold it wide open and not be crazy about it. I can keep a high pace and have an attack mindset without endangering myself.” — Sammy Brooks
“My coach (Mike Powell) talked me into sticking it out and going to the rest of (my college visits),” Brooks said. “Once I came here I liked it a lot better. Everybody had the mentality of winning as a team and winning the whole thing.”
His flashiness and big-move ability on the mat has made Brooks a fan favorite. He has 18 career falls.
“He is explosive and dynamic,” Brands said. “He can pick you up and bear hug you, he can inside trip and put you in danger in a hurry. But the things that will get him to the top is setting those up with basics. Use basic, low-risk stuff to set up the higher-risk stuff.”
Brooks is part of a Hawkeye senior class that also includes Thomas Gilman (125 pounds), Cory Clark (133), Phillip Laux (133), Topher Carton (141), and Alex Meyer. That group combined for 117 wins and an 84.8 winning percentage last season, with Gilman, Clark, Meyer, and Brooks competing in the NCAA Championships.
“I think this can be one of the best teams we have had in a while,” Brooks said. “We have a good group of older leaders, solid core group of guys, and then some young guys that will battle it out for spots. I think this team has a ton of potential.”
Brooks backed up Ethen Lofthouse during his first two seasons in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. He was 19-9 wrestling unattached as a true freshman in 2012-13, placing second at the UNI, Roger Denker, and Grand View opens.
As a redshirt freshman, Brooks was 18-7 and won 7-of-10 dual matches. During his sophomore season, Brooks was 29-7 (14-3 in duals), placing third at Midlands Championships, third at Big Ten Championships, and advancing to the NCAA Championships, where he went 2-2 and missed the award’s stand.
A season ago, Brooks won his first 13 matches and finished 27-6 (15-2 in duals). He won a Big Ten championship and placed eighth at the NCAA Championships.
“If I can open up matches and make it less about strategy and more about pure wrestling, I think I have a good shot against anybody,” Brooks said. “I can still hold it wide open and not be crazy about it. I can keep a high pace and have an attack mindset without endangering myself.”
When the goal is a national championship, being prepared to compete on the back side of a bracket can seem like an afterthought. At nationals in 2015, Brooks won his first two matches, then dropped two in a row; in 2016, he again won his first two, then closed with a 1-3 record.
“Even if you don’t end up in the finals, you have to gut it out,” Brooks said. “It’s hard when you don’t get to where you want and then treat them the same, but every match is as important as if you are on the winning side of the bracket.”
An interview Brooks did with BTN after winning the Big Ten Championship went viral. Brooks defeated Nebraska’s T.J. Dudley, 6-4, and moments later he said:
“I think these fans respond to a good haircut, so I made sure I had it fluffed and feathered the right way and I think the fans saw my hard work,” Brooks said. “You can’t grow a great mullett in a day, you can’t win a Big Ten title in a day.”
Brooks said he would have traded the Big Ten title he won March 6 for an NCAA title 13 days later.
“If I sit back and start resting on what I have already won, then I don’t think that is conducive to winning a national title,” Brooks said.
As for his hairstyle? When practice began Oct. 10, his hair was trimmed short.
“There are still six months until nationals. A lot can happen,” Brooks said.
He was referring to the length of his hair. But Brooks could have been talking about the twists and turns of a Big Ten wrestling season.