There was a heavy pit in Tyron Woodley’s stomach as he sat watching teammates and foes prepare for their season’s pinnacle. As pained as he was, he could only watch.
It was late March 2004, national championship time for college wrestling. Woodley, then a junior for Missouri, was a year removed from becoming the first Tiger to win the Big 12 title at 165 pounds and placing eighth in the 2003 nationals, earning All-American status. But he had watched his record fall from 28 wins as a sophomore to 21 his junior year, as he finished fifth in the conference. The NCAA decided he wasn’t worthy of a wild-card berth to the tournament, so he was relegated to spectator status.
“Last year he had some ups and downs,” Coach Brian Smith said. “I think it was more just a mental lapse going through some tough times and last year’s season turned out to be not what he wanted.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The event was in St. Louis, Woodley’s hometown. He won a state championship there wrestling for McCluer High School in 2000, becoming Missouri’s 4A Most Outstanding Wrestler. The place he earned a scholarship to Nebraska, a wrestling powerhouse.
He turned down Nebraska’s offer, opting instead to join a budding program at Missouri. Three years later, the team had ascended to new levels as Smith led the Tigers to a fourth place conference finish and 13th place national finish, the highest since the mid-1980s. It was, at least in part, because of Woodley’s own ascension.
But now he sat in the place where friends and family had made arrangements to watch him achieve his greatest honor, the highest peak of college wrestling. And he was in street clothes.
“Definitely right at the end of last season it was just real difficult for me to watch,” Woodley said. “It really hurt me to watch that, but at the same time I didn’t want to give off that negative vibe to my teammates. I still wanted to be supportive to them and watch them. But it’s kind of tough watching it from the stands versus being out there.”
The experience has given Woodley a new outlook for this season, which begins at the Central Missouri State Open today. The attitude change didn’t start with the Black and Gold match, though, or even with the onset of practice. His determination was born on a March day in St. Louis.
“Almost immediately after (last year’s nationals), I think a week or two after, I got my mind ready: ‘All right, I have to work and start preparing to be here for next year,’ ” Woodley said. “I started doing freestyle events, and training all summer, and lifting weights, and things like that to get me ready for this year and I think I did a pretty good job of preparing. It sounds cliché that ‘champions are made in the summer’ but there’s a lot of truth behind that.”
Smith, who has resurrected the program during his five-year tenure, is familiar with how far hard work can go. He is familiar with the frustrations of a year ago, but more importantly recognizes the efforts of his senior standout and anticipates a return to form this season.
“He works real hard at it,” Smith said. “I always say you find out the character of a person not when times are good. Since that point of not qualifying for the nationals last year…he’s shown a lot of character.
“Last year, he was busy. He had things going on in his personal life that kept him busy, away. But now he’s back to Tyron. He’s got his life in order, and I really think he’s the head of the pack.”
Woodley says he has to be tougher to not let the little things get to him this year. He knows toughness from his mom, Deborah Woodley.
She raised 13 kids, alone after Tyron’s father left when he was 10. The children, some biological, some stepchildren, and some adopted, provided Deborah with quite a challenge.
Woodley recognized he would have to work to get to college. It’s something he began to think about while at McCluer .
“I knew I wanted to go to a university and get a college education but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Woodley said. “I opened up a lot of opportunities for myself by doing well at sports. I just knew in high school if I wanted to get a good job and have a good life I was going to have to go to college.”
His hard work got him the scholarship offers he needed, but he wasn’t ready to leave his family behind. Wrestling close to home meant his mother could come and watch, something she does often, proving to be a big factor in changing his commitment from Nebraska to Missouri.
The hard work continues for Woodley and his teammates as they prepare to improve on their preseason ranking of 11th in the country.
Smith says this work ethic helps him as a coach, providing a valuable model to other wrestlers. Woodley is only the second wrestler to be a three-time captain at Missouri.
“More than a third of the team is freshmen,” Smith said. “He’s a captain and they’re learning from example. He’s not a big vocal leader, but at times you’ll hear him speak out. He’s doing it by example, which makes my job easier. You’ve got to have people that lead by example, just take things and run with it and do it. And that’s what Tyron is doing right now. He’s got great leadership skills.”
Said Woodley, “I think this year is the most I’ve led so far: Doing extra workouts and going real hard, running real hard in sprints and things like that. Getting tired and not being afraid to get tired. A lot of my teammates see that, and I think it’s a positive thing for the team.”
After an offseason dedicated to taking his potential to the max, Woodley is ready to focus on the mats. He is ranked eighth preseason by Intermat, but he and his coach think he can do better than the eighth place finish he had two years ago. This year’s tournament will again be in Woodley’s hometown of St. Louis.
“He needs to have tunnel vision,” Smith said. “His life right now is to become a national champ because he knows he has that talent. We know he has the talent, the ability, the work ethic to win a national title, and that is his focus and that’s his goal.”
Said Woodley, “My goal is to be a national champion. I think that would be a perfect way to cap off my career and my senior year is to win it.”