All Brock Hudkins wanted to do was get up. If Hudkins stood up, he knew he would win the match.
Instead, the IU junior wrestler clutched his left knee in late December after a scramble with Princeton University's No. 3 Patrick Glory.
There was twisting and turning. Limbs from both wrestlers stretched in every direction, and Hudkins contorted his body to score the winning takedown. In the whirlwind of competition, Glory bent Hudkin's left leg.
Hudkins’ torso kept moving forward. His leg didn’t.
“This ain’t good,” the announcer called out.
Hudkins, 22, pounded the mat with his right fist and rocked on his back. He dug his head into the solid foam material.
He didn’t want to come off of the mat, but he couldn’t move his leg. It felt like it was on fire. Later, he learned that if he would have cranked his knee a centimeter more, he would have severed a nerve.
Hudkins' left leg was limp. IU trainer Kyle Winters crouched next to Hudkins. He told Hudkins to take off his ankle bands. They’d move to the locker room.The match was over.
Hudkinsdraped his arms around Winters and IU head coach Angel Escobedo to steady himself. With Winters on his left and Escobedo on his right, Hudkins' legs dangled in the air .
Hudkins' season-ending knee injury was in the semifinals of the Midlands Championships on Dec. 30. The injury was never officially diagnosed.
At the beginning of the season, Hudkins was locked in a competition with junior Liam Cronin for the starting spot at 125 pounds .
Cronin had established himself in the program. He was there when Escobedo and his staff took over two years ago.
Hudkins is in his first year with the program. He transferred from Northern Illinois University and spent three years in DeKalb, Illinois. He was adjusting to a new campus and a new routine.
At the beginning of the season, Escobedo said whoever wrestled at 125 pounds, whether it was Cronin or Hudkins, would be an All-American. Hudkins earned the starting bid.
In the first tournament of the season in November, Hudkins showed why the coaching staff brought him to Bloomington. He went a perfect 5-0 on the weekend, including a win over a top-10 wrestler, on his way to a tournament championship.
After the match, Hudkins gripped a sweatshirt with white lettering that read “Michigan State Open Champion”. He grinned for the cameras.
Hudkins shot up the rankings after taking the title. He moved into the top 12 on three major wrestling websites. He was making himself known.
He had never been told he was a national title contender at NIU, despite qualifying for the NCAA championships twice. No one said he was going to be an All-American. But this season had a different feel.
“I was like this was my year, this is my year to win it,” Hudkins said.
Even before his knee injury, Hudkins was forced to watch from the sidelines earlier in the year. He tweaked his ankle. Then, his leg. Escobedo called the aches “bumps and bruises.” The discomfort kept Hudkins out for more than a month. Escobedo was being cautious so Hudkins would be ready for the Big Ten season. Meanwhile, his name climbed the national rankings.
Hudkins’ return was set for Dec. 29-30 at the Midlands Championships, a tournament known as one of the most challenging events in the nation.
He had no problem in his first two matches, shutting out his opponents by a combined score of 15-0.
Then came a true test in No. 14 freshman Michael Colaiocco from the University of Pennsylvania. Hudkins prevailed 5-2. Forget the minor injuries. He was storming his way through one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country. Brock was back.
Before those matches, for the first time in his career, he didn’t listen to music when he warmed up. Usually he vibes to ACDC or Hell’s Bells. His go-to track is “Do What I Want” by Lil Uzi Vert.
Even without music, he felt calm. Collected. He knew exactly what positions he needed to be in to score. Everything came easily.
His streak of success came to a halt in the match with Glory. Hudkins took the bout into an extra period when he went sprawling on his flank after his knee bent awkwardly.
It took trips to four different doctors for the Hudkins' family and coaching staff to decide that his season was over. After three, he tried to keep hope. Maybe the fourth will say something different, he thought. They didn’t. Hudkins wouldn’t need surgerythough.
"It’s tough,” Escobedo said. “Particularly with Brock, seeing the growth that he has had. It’s heartbreaking for him.”
Hudkins sat in the doctors’ office and cried. His girlfriend, who was with him,told him that it was OK. That there would be more opportunities. That it wasn’t the end of the world.
“It was just like ‘Dang, I’m done,’” Hudkins said. “Even though it’s kicked in, it still doesn’t feel real.”
Hudkins had to put his life into perspective. He could’ve kept wrestling with a high risk of reinjuring his knee. But he made the decision to look out for his future. He wanted to be able to run when he was 30. He wanted to be able to take care of his family. He wanted to be able to play with his kids.
“The biggest thing that I had to learn is that everything doesn’t need to revolve around wrestling,” Hudkins said.
The conference season has gone by without Hudkins on the mat. Outwardly, he thinks he’s handling it well. But internally, he’s still trying to sift through his emotions.
“Sometimes you have to humble yourself,” Hudkins said. “I don’t think I’m cocky, but just thinking that you’re indestructible and then something like that comes along, it makes you realize that your season can be taken just like that.”
He’s learned to control his competitive spirit in a different way. He’s at practice every day watching Cronin and freshman Cayden Rooks. Escobedo said Hudkins is an extra coach.
At matches, Hudkins traded in his singlet for a canvas-colored IU hat that he dons on the bench. He swings his leg in a bulky knee brace instead of lacing up wrestling shoes. He cups his hands around his mouth and shouts advice. He twirls his pointer finger, signaling for Cronin to push the tempo.
“ As time has gone on and he has healed, I see a different spark in him,” Escobedo said. “Once you start coaching this sport, you start to realize what works and what doesn’t work. You have to understand the other side of it.”
Hudkins has always considered coaching after his career is over. He loves giving back. He enjoys learning and teaching the mechanics of wrestling.
Assisting Cronin and Rooks will help him in the long run. Those are the guys that he’ll be practicing with when he comes backin a few months. They’ll be the ones driving him to be a national champion.
As for now, Hudkins is sculpting his upper body and has started some light leg workouts, but he’s being careful. He’s in for rehab up to three times a day as he tries to get his range of motion back and has made an effort to get 8-9 hours of sleep per night. He’s optimistic he’ll be back on the mat in a couple of months.
The coaching staff is trying to get Hudkins a medical redshirt, which would leave him with two more years to wear the cream and crimson. He’s planning to stay in Bloomington over the summer to train. He wants to get more repetitions in training with Escobedo, who was a four-time All-American himself.
And then next year will come. A knee brace will remind him of the past. But Hudkins is looking ahead with one vision.
“National champ,” Hudkins said. “That’s it. The goal is to be the best version of myself on and off of the mat. I know I can do it.”
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