A heart of gold

Published 1:09 pm Saturday, March 12, 2011

University of Minnesota heavyweight Ben Berhow, left, reacts Jan. 30 after beating Wisconsin’s Eric Bugenhagen at the Sports Pavilion in Minneapolis. Berhow, a 2006 graduate of Albert Lea High School, sealed Minnesota’s 21-15 win over Wisconsin, in the final match of his varsity career. -- Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota athletics

After two injuries sidelined Ben Berhow, the senior lifted his team on and off the mat

Ben Berhow was used to being the top dog.

After winning a state wrestling championship in 2006, his senior year at Albert Lea High School, Berhow, of Hayward, spent three years as the starting heavyweight for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

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After just missing All-American distinction his junior year, Berhow was expected to win the Big Ten Conference heavyweight

University of Minnesota wrestler Ben Berhow, of Hayward, wrestles Eric Bugenhagen on Jan. 30 after the Sports Pavilion in Minneapolis. Berhow beat Bugenhagen 3-2. -- Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota athletics

title this season — until bad luck got in the way.

During fall training in October, Berhow caught a knee to his head while wrestling in the Minnesota Coaches Clinic in Minneapolis. He became nauseous soon after and was dizzy during practice, prompting the team’s trainers to test him for a concussion — he failed.

The school’s doctors told Berhow he couldn’t wrestle, train or do anything for that matter until the symptoms subsided. He spent the next two weeks resting during the team’s crucial fall training.

“With a concussion you can’t really do anything,” Berhow said. “You can’t work out. You can’t use your brain.”

As a wrestler, Berhow was familiar with injuries. He dealt with them by doing alternative workouts and conditioning. His concussion, though, was a different kind of monster.

“For the first time in my career I couldn’t do what I wanted to as far as training,” Berhow said. “That hindered my conditioning.”

Berhow missed the team’s first tournament — the Bison Open in Fargo, N.D., during the second weekend in November. He wrestled in the team’s second tournament in Omaha, Neb., and then in California, where he won two matches and began to regain his form.

But as soon as Berhow’s head stopped spinning his hip began acting up.

While competing in the Southern Scuffle in late December at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Berhow’s hip gave out in the quarterfinals. He lost his next match and was eliminated from the tournament while his apprentice Tony Nelson, a redshirt freshman heavyweight, placed fourth.

Berhow had been Nelson’s mentor for two years, working with him on wrestling technique and in the weight room. Nelson was the heavyweight-in-waiting, hoping to learn during Berhow’s senior season before taking the reigns in 2011-12. Berhow’s injury made the wait much shorter and suddenly gave Minnesota’s coaches something to think about. For the first time in his career, Berhow’s starting job was in jeopardy.

“It was a tough spot for me and the coaches,” Berhow said. “We really didn’t know what was going on with my hip, and Nelson was wrestling well.”

Faced with the tough decision, the coaches ultimately decided to give the starting spot to Nelson.

Then Berhow had to make a tough decision of his own.

Doctors determined Berhow had torn labrums in his hip and that his hip joint was rubbing against his pelvic bone causing pain. They recommended surgery, which would end Berhow’s career. He could either have surgery or fight through the pain and continue practicing two to three days a week.

He made his decision — for Nelson.

“They needed me for Tony (Nelson),” Berhow said. “To push him in the wrestling room”

Berhow was unsure if he’d ever wrestle a match for the Gophers again but he gutted out practices to make the freshman who took his starting role better.

“It was a little bit hard because he was the young pup coming in,” Berhow said, of Nelson. “But I know he made me a better wrestler. It came to the point where I needed to be strong for him. It’s not his fault things didn’t go right for me.”

But Berhow’s season wasn’t over.

On Saturday, Jan. 29, the day before the No. 4-ranked Gophers were to wrestle the No. 3-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, Berhow received word that Nelson had a bacterial infection in his knee and couldn’t wrestle the next day. Berhow was asked to wrestle in his place in one of the biggest matches of the season.

“I was surprised and a little shocked,” Berhow said. “I was excited to wrestle one more time under the lights my senior year. I knew it would probably be my last.”

So on Jan. 30 as the Gopher battled the Badgers in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,225, Berhow watched each weight class wrestle and the score stay tight. When the heavyweight class was called, the final match of the dual between Berhow and No. 11-ranked Eric Bugenhagen, the Gophers led 18-15. Berhow needed to win to clinch the victory for his team.

“I knew my ability,” he said. “I had wrestled (Bugenhagen) several times and knew I could win. It was just a matter of how I would go about doing it.”

In fact, Berhow had never lost to Bugenhagen, and he knew that bothered the Wisconsin wrestler.

“I was the last person he wanted to wrestle,” Berhow said.

But Berhow was still injured, limiting his ability to wrestle offensively and shoot for takedowns — trademarks of his wrestling style.

Trailing 1-0 after the first and second periods, and with his entire family in the stands, Berhow scored an escape in the third to tie the match and a takedown in the final seconds to win.

“It was a great way to go out,” he said. “It was very rewarding for me and my family.”

When Berhow went back to the Gophers’ bench, his coach, J Robinson, had a message for him.

“He pointed at his chest and said ‘That’s heart,’” Berhow said. “If there’s anything I would say to any wrestler it’s that even if you’re not starting it doesn’t mean you won’t get the opportunity. When you put your nose to the grindstone it’s not as easy when things aren’t going your way.”

Berhow said with the NCAA wrestling tournament approaching it’s hard not to think about what this season could have been. He’s still practicing, though, preparing Nelson for the national stage.

“I’m still trying to help him get better,” Berhow said, of Nelson. “I’m only there for him.”

Berhow graduated from the University of Minnesota this winter with a degree in history. He hopes to become a grad assistant at a Division I wrestling program and eventually a coach.