The ‘Vision Quest’ life of college wrestler Austin DeSanto
Austin DeSanto would like to clear something up. Contrary to popular belief, when Iowa’s relentless 133-pound junior needs a break from his sport, when he just needs to clear his head a bit from the grind of wrestling, when the wear and tear of wrestling gets to be too much, he swears he doesn’t always put on a singlet and go wrestle more.
No, DeSanto occasionally channels his energy toward video games or a movie. He likes war movies in particular, and he’ll binge-watch a TV show here or there.
But DeSanto, one of top-ranked Iowa’s keys to beating reigning national champ Penn State on Friday (9 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) in the biggest dual meet of the season, chuckles at the question of whether he has other hobbies because part of him knows it’s true that he loves wrestling in a way that goes beyond what even die-hard wrestleheads can keep up with.
He doesn’t drink. He has no interest in parties or hitting the mall. He doesn’t have a driver’s license — never has and doesn’t plan to get one. When he wants to hang out with friends, well, it’s his teammates. Sometimes after he finishes a match, he actually does go and wrestle some more.
“I love wrestling,” says DeSanto, who has been ranked as high as No. 1 this season after finishing fifth in the nation last year. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it this much.”
That DeSanto ever took the mat in an Iowa singlet includes a backstory that is hard to fathom. In fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the wrestling cult classic “Vision Quest.” The 1985 coming-of-age movie starred Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino and featured a virtually unknown singer named Madonna in her first big-screen appearance.
The movie is beloved by the wrestling community and also pretty absurd in its representation of the sport: High school senior Louden Swain (Modine) decides to drop from 190 pounds to 168 to challenge monstrous three-time state champion Brian Shute, who is shown carrying telephone poles up and down bleachers as a workout. But — spoiler alert — Swain drops the weight and pins Shute in the final seconds of the state finals.
There has never been a sequel and probably never will be. But DeSanto’s story would be a good inspiration for a reboot. As a high school junior, DeSanto advanced to the Pennsylvania state finals to face off with the Brian Shute of recent high school wrestling, Spencer Lee. Lee was unbeaten at that point and regarded as a generational talent. Lee blew right through DeSanto in the finals that year for his third straight championship, winning by a 15-0 technical fall, wrestling’s version of the mercy rule.
Iowa coaches were there to see Lee, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the class. But they couldn’t help but notice DeSanto, even in a blowout loss. “We ought to be recruiting that kid too,” assistant Terry Brands later told his twin brother, Hawkeyes head coach Tom Brands. But DeSanto, a solid second-tier prospect, was committed to Drexel, so the odds of getting both Lee and DeSanto were slim to none.
So how did DeSanto respond in his senior year to such a crushing loss? He promised everybody around him that he was going to come back and win a state title — and that he would beat Lee to do it. Rather than do what so many other Pennsylvania wrestlers opted to do that year — avoid Lee — DeSanto insisted on landing in the same bracket as Lee as a senior. It would have been so much easier to just avoid him.
“That’s not the kind of kid Austin is,” Tom Brands says. “It was about more than wrestling for Austin. None of it is fake — he wants to be challenged as a person.”
The two stars marched through their sides of the bracket and into the finals against each other, a repeat of the previous year’s title match. Lee just needed to beat DeSanto again to cap a perfect prep career — zero losses, four state titles — in the toughest wrestling state in the country. But DeSanto’s rugged pace and style began to wear on Lee, and he eventually did the unthinkable with a takedown at the buzzer that is debated to this day: He dethroned Lee.
Here’s where DeSanto’s story drifts into the hard to believe. Lee, who later acknowledged he was wrestling at the end of his senior season with a torn ACL, pulled DeSanto aside at the medal ceremony and said, “You should be coming to Iowa with me.”
DeSanto appreciated the graciousness and complimentary approach from Lee, but he kept his commitment to Drexel. After a solid freshman year, though, DeSanto started thinking about a transfer … to Iowa, where he’d wrestle alongside his old nemesis and give Iowa college wrestling’s best one-two punch in the first two weight classes.
“You gotta give Spencer Lee a lot of credit, because if he doesn’t want that to happen, it probably doesn’t,” says Christian Pyles, managing editor at FloWrestling.org, college wrestling’s preeminent home. “He put that loss aside in a remarkable way.”
DeSanto’s path hasn’t been without speed bumps. Last year, Brands suspended DeSanto for a match after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a dual, his third of the season. At Drexel, DeSanto caught widespread derision from the wrestling world after twisting an opponent’s arm during a bad loss at NCAAs.
“His reputation preceded him,” Brands says. “He’s a very polite, generous, respectful kid. He just had to stop with the antics. Tough conversations are easier when they’re with someone who’s ready to look in the mirror and take criticism the right way. He took it the right way. Austin was willing to own it.”
DeSanto is still regarded as one of college wrestling’s most aggressive guys, just without the extracurriculars.
“I’ve grown a lot as a person thanks to Tom and Terry,” DeSanto says. “Last year was a real wake-up call that I needed to get my crap together.”
Friday’s Penn State-Iowa dual meet is the biggest match of the college wrestling season, and it should be the first of three head-to-head battles between the legendary programs. Right now, Iowa looks like the strong favorite in all three — the Penn State dual, Big Ten championships and NCAAs. A key to the school’s hopes of winning its first national title since 2010? DeSanto. His match against Penn State’s unbeaten Roman Bravo-Young should be one of the more pivotal and captivating matchups Friday night.
“My dad taught me to look for the best challenge possible, and Friday night is a big one,” DeSanto says. “I just need to go out and do my job.”
Speaking of which, what does Austin DeSanto want to do for a living once he has to hang up his singlet? Well, take three wild guesses. Or just let him answer.
“It’s always been my dream to someday be a wrestling coach,” he says. “I want to be in this sport for the rest of my life.”