Standing toe to toe, Missouri wrestlers Josh Wagner and Maxwell Askren prepared to compete for pride and a week’s worth of bragging rights in the middle of their living room.
The game of Foosball, with its rows of men jockeying for control of a ball no bigger than a piece of hail, is fun for these two friends who first met through the mat. They, along with Ben Askren and Matt Pell come from Wisconsin, a state that produces more dairy products than any other in the country, and also holds the distinction of being responsible for 40 percent of the Missouri starting lineup. The four, who are sometimes called the “Wisconsin Pipeline,” each had a hand in recruiting the other to coach Brian Smith’s team. That involvement with one another’s recruiting, however, began first and foremost with a friendship based on a love of the sport.
The pipeline can be traced back to the hometowns of Wagner, Askren and his older brother, Ben. Growing up in Hartland, Wis., the Askrens were a staple around the state pee-wee wrestling ranks. In what is, according to Maxwell Askren, a small state for Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestlers, it was hard not to meet and wrestle with the same guys in all-star and national teams. It was here that the Askrens first encountered Wagner, a native of nearby Milton.
“I’ve known Josh since I was younger and Pell, too, so we have always been friends and it was a blast,” Maxwell Askren said.
The three became fast friends and the older Askren extended the invitation for Wagner to come work out with the brothers in Hartland. Being an hour away from each other, the trio were able to get together quite a bit.
“We wrestled on Wisconsin national teams together and I only lived an hour from Max and Ben and I’d go hang out and wrestle with them and we would have fun.” Wagner said.
The fun extended away from wrestling as well. This past summer, Maxwell Askren, Wagner and a few others took a chance on “pool jumping”: jumping into the swimming pools of total strangers and, in Maxwell’s words, “trying to get caught because it is more fun that way.”
The brothers and Wagner maintained their friendships throughout high school, still visiting each other and connecting through their accomplishments on the mat. They connected further when it came time to choose a college. Ben Askren, being the oldest of the three, was the first to begin collecting scholarship offers. Although some of the elite programs around the country were eyeing Ben Askren, it was Missouri coach Brian Smith who caught his eye. In his fourth season and coming off an 18-3 record, Smith was building the program with his own particular vision and saw Askren as the type of wrestler to help realize his goals. With a program that in his words was “on the rise,” Smith pushed hard for the grappler.
“We sold Ben hard on what we were building,” Smith said. “We told him that he could be the first of a lot of things. Be a Big 12 champion and our first national champion. We sold him on records and being the best.”
Ben Askren, who Smith freely refers to as the best wrestler in the country, has lived up to that promise. Before earning a national title and three-time All-American distinctions, Ben Askren liked what he saw at Missouri. He liked the direction of the program and what it could someday become. It was with that enthusiasm that he referred Smith to another prep wrestler from the Badger state who happened to be graduating the same year.
After moving from Washington before his freshman year, Luxemberg, Wis., native Matt Pell earned two state titles at Luxemberg-Casco High School in the northeastern region of the state. Following his senior year in high school, Pell stayed with the Askrens to train and, at that point, had not taken the ACT, which meant he could not take any official recruiting visits. Ben Askren, high on the Missouri wrestling program, dropped Pell’s name to Smith and knew he would be a good fit to the program.
“He was in a smaller school and wasn’t getting recruited too much,” Ben Askren said. “I knew he had talent, and I told Coach Smith he had talent, and it obviously worked out for us.”
Pell said he enjoys being able to share his success within what he calls a “brotherhood.”
“It’s been a good experience being on this team, especially with those three that I know so well,” Pell said. “The camaraderie has made it all worth it.”
Ben Askren’s input continued when recruiting for the class of 2004. This time it was Wagner who Ben Askren recommended. Like Pell, Wagner knew plenty about the Tigers program through Ben Askren.
“Since I talked to Ben so much, I saw they were on the rise and he would keep me updated,” Wagner said. “I knew they were a young team, and I thought it would be a good fit for me.”
Smith does not place any special emphasis on Wisconsin when recruiting now, but does remark that the success of these four wrestlers can only help them out when recruiting there in the future.
“There are a lot of good kids out there from the state of Wisconsin, and we happened to fall into four really good ones,” Smith said. “If you get the pipeline going, Ben is a good guy to start it because he is so outgoing.”
The Foosball games that get so heated in the home of Maxwell Askren and Wagner are just one way that the four Wisconsin natives have continued their ties amid the hoopla of college athletics. The best of three contests can usually result in the winner making the loser wear a shirt that simply says “Loser.”
Even though wrestling brought them together, the group makes time off the mat to get together. Recently Maxwell Askren and Wagner visited the newly opened Culver’s, a restaurant that first opened in Wisconsin, and that recently opened up in Columbia. The trip to the restaurant reminded the two of being back home, a place that they are not able to get to as often as they like because of their schedules. That was one reason that Ben and Maxwell’s parents brought Thanksgiving dinner to their sons. Wagner, who feels “almost like a part of their family” joined in the feast as well showing that the friendship that started on the mat is more than that.
“It’s been great having all of them here, but they are friends first and they always will be,” Smith said.