COLUMBIA — Drake Houdashelt is soft-spoken. In kindergarten, his teacher didn’t hear him speak until the end of the school year. Now, he speaks through his wrestling.
But on March 21, the Missouri junior was silent.
The Missouri wrestling coaching staff slumped in the corner. Freshman wrestler J'den Cox was distraught. Houdashelt was gone — back in his hotel room asleep, cutting weight after just losing in the semifinals of the NCAA national championships in Oklahoma City.
“I watched it happen,” Cox said. “And honestly, I couldn't believe it. I didn't want to, because he pushes himself and everyone so hard, and I know he wanted this title more than anything.
“And to see it taken was hard to swallow.”
The next day, Houdashelt finished in fifth place in the 149-pound weight class.
For the entire 2014 season, Houdashelt was ranked No. 1 in the country among 149-pounders. He boasted a regular-season record of 34-1, making his 2-1 loss in the semifinals to Northwestern freshman Jason Tsirtsis all the more painful.
“It sucked,” Houdashelt said recently, shaking his head and searching for more words. He can’t find any. “It just sucked.”
'Expect to win'
A sign hangs over the entryway in Missouri's wrestling facility. "EXPECT TO WIN," it says. And every wrestler in the room does.
None more than Houdashelt.
"I'd say he is quiet with his words but loud with his actions," Cox said. "I mean the guy is hands-down one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. And that's how he leads this team, by example. And though he isn't the most vocal, we as a team thrive and feed off his drive through a match or in practice.
"I know at least for me, that's the reason that I follow Drake full-heartedly is because he makes me want to drive and get better. So what better of a leader could you ask for?"
Houdashelt pedals on the exercise bike underneath the sign, laughing with coach Brian Smith. It's his second day back training since taking two weeks off following the national championships.
“If I’m not wrestling and working out and stuff, I feel really weird,” Houdashelt said. “I feel uncomfortable and like something’s missing.”
He feels like himself again, but the presence of Cox is a constant reminder that something is still missing.
A 197-pound freshman, Cox is the youngest wrestler to win a national title in Missouri's program history. To Houdashelt, he's a friend, teammate and motivation.
“I wish I was up there, too, with him," Houdashelt said. "That part sucked. But I was really happy for him.”
Cox wants Houdashelt to join him on the national championship podium next year.
"I (want) him to get his goal, his dream, and become a national champ," Cox said. "He deserves it. No one, and I mean no one, deserves it more than Drake does. He has worked too hard not to."
Houdashelt bows his head and grins in front of the hundreds gathered at Mizzou Arena for the wrestling team's banquet. Missouri Hall of Fame wrestling coach Hap Whitney is praising him before giving him the Hap Whitney's Coach's Award.
Earlier, Houdashelt was already named the team's Iron Man.
His family sits at a table in the center of the crowd. His father, Andy Houdashelt, is looking on misty-eyed.
"The wrestling accomplishments are great," Andy Houdashelt says. "And you’re super proud of all those things, but just all the things you hear from everyone else about how good of a man he’s becoming is pretty unbelievable."
He remembers what he told his son to pick him up after his loss at the national championships.
"How crazy (it is) that we could be so upset to be a two-time All-American," Andy Andy Houdashelt says. "And that he’s got another year."
Drake Houdashelt can verbalize his dream with ease. After all, it's been the same since he began wrestling as a shy, 7-year old.
"I wish I could change it, but I can’t," he says. "I felt like I gave it everything I got but just came short. At the time, it really sucked. But it gives me extra motivation in the off season to work for a national championship next year."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.