Missouri senior wrestler Cody Greene quit the team.
Actually, he quit the team numerous times.
“He’s quit the team a bunch, I won’t lie to you there,” coach Brian Smith said. “But he’s persevered.”
Greene has persisted and now on the cusp of accomplishing a rare feat March 17-19 at the Savvis Center in St. Louis.
“About a year and a half ago, I sat him down and asked him, ‘Cody, how many one-time All-Americans do you know out there right now?’” Smith said. “He said ‘not too many’ and I said, ‘that’s something your shooting for, to be an All-American here.’”
For his first four years in the Missouri wrestling program, he was denied that chance while wrestling in the shadow of All-American Jeremy Spates.
Greene wasn’t involved in most dual meets. Throughout that time, he appeared in 56 matches, compiling a 39-17 overall record and 2-3 record in the Big 12 Conference.
Even in tournaments, Greene’s path to success would inevitably run through Spates, and like a crash-test dummy, these situations did not end well for Greene.
One memorable battle came on Dec. 29, 2003, when Greene and Spates met in the Southern Scuffle tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Spates won 7-0.
“It’s tough being a backup to a quality kid like Spates and knowing he was going to tournaments thinking finals against Spates or losing in the semis to Spates,” Smith said. “He has a lot of losses to Spates.”
Piling up agonizing losses to a teammate without other quality chances to prove himself, Greene became depressed.
It was as though he was given a baseball in spring training and told to prove himself by pitching to a lineup made up of members of the 500-homerun club.
“I think it says a lot about the program, for him to believe in the program and stick around this long,” Smith said.
Part of Greene’s diligence was because of Spate’s personality and demeanor. According to Smith, Spates took Greene under his wing and acted like more of a coach and mentor to the young wrestler from St. Charles.
“He could have easily poked fun at me and been a jerk about it,” Greene said. “Instead, he took me under his wing and helped me become a better wrestler. When you come to practice everyday and compete against one of the best in the country, you’re bound to learn things.”
In his senior season, Greene applied that first-hand knowledge while competing everyday for the first time since his high school days. He enters the NCAA tournament ranked No. 13 in the 149-pound class. He compiled a 27-8 overall record this season, including a 6-2 record against seven grapplers he has already wrestled, which will also be at the NCAA championships.
“I’m excited, I’m really looking forward to it,” Greene said. “I know it’s only one chance to get done what I have wanted to get done, but at the same time I’m finally there, so I want to make the best of it.”
The attitude Spates displayed with Greene made it clear Spates has the type of character to become a coach after his college eligibility had expired. According to Smith, Spates was a student of the game, a student athlete/coach of sorts. He was a very technical wrestler and Spates and Greene only made each other better.
After his time at Missouri, Spates, a native of Norman, Okla., traded in his black and gold to be an assistant coach for the crimson red of the Oklahoma Sooners. His father, Jack Spates, is the head coach.
“I wish we still had him (as a coach),” Smith said.
Now, practice is over and Greene’s shirt has transformed from a light to a dark gray, looking as though he has just been running through a severe thunderstorm for the last hour. Soaking wet and gasping for air, Greene appears ready to collapse.
It’s the sign of hard work by a competitor on a mission to do something many wrestlers have never done.
Four years of conditioning, weight training and excruciating pain has landed Greene with a spot in the NCAA championships. With one shot at a national title and the All-American standing, Greene is ready to go. He knows exactly what he needs to do to be successful this weekend.
“The biggest thing for me is just to stay focused and wrestle the entire seven minutes and just keep my feet moving,” Greene said. “Sometimes I have little mental lapses and quit moving for a little bit, which is usually when I get into a little bit of trouble. If I keep my feet moving and focus the whole seven minutes, I think I’ve definitely got a shot.”
Any amount of success for Greene would be bittersweet for Jeremy Spates as Oklahoma’s Matt Storniolo (No. 3) stands in Greene’s way. Greene won’t hesitate to apply the skills and knowledge he gained from his years working closely with Spates and the Missouri coaching staff.
“He’s been loose,” Smith said. “He’s got nothing to lose, and if he goes in with that attitude he’s a dangerous wrestler and he can beat anybody on any given day. If he goes in there and wrestles that way he’s going to be on the stand, there’s no doubt in my mind because he’s a kid that can be in the All-American round and upset some people because he’s dangerous and he’s tough from all situations.”
Greene can beat his opponents in a variety of ways. He can ride people, keeping them on the mat and in a vulnerable position. He’s also capable of pinning opponents. His speed is one of his strengths, which is why it is vital that he keep his feet moving through all seven minutes of his matches.
Greene’s practice matches with Spates were taped, but only for use by the Missouri program. With little action in his first three seasons, Greene’s obscurity to wrestlers outside the Big 12 could be a major advantage this weekend.
“That’s a kid you don’t want in the tournament because he’s unknown,” Smith said. “A lot of people in the country don’t have film on him because he’s a first-year starter for us.”
Although Greene had trouble seeing how his work behind Spates would eventually pay off, those years of fury and tears are over and the price he has paid has left him hungry for the same All-American honor Spates gained in 2004.
“I’m so focused on this weekend,” Greene said. “I am definitely happy to be there, but I still want a little bit more.”
Smith said Greene’s years of frustration are now forgotten.
“Now, he’s got his opportunity and he’s got to make the most of it,” Smith said. “Cody is one kid who has made the most of it. He’s been in here doing individual extra drills and believing in everything we’re saying, doing everything right, and now it’s going to pay off even more when he’s on the stand as an All-American for the University of Missouri.”
Once Greene steps off the stand at the Savvis Center, with a smile as wide open as this year’s NCAA tournament, he’ll have many people to thank.
Spates should be one of the first.