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Smeltzer: Aaron Brooks Might be on his way to Becoming Biggest Penn State Wrestling Legend of All

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA - APRIL 20: David Taylor (Nittany Lion WC/Titan Mercury WC) and Aaron Brooks (Nittany Lion WC/Titan Mercury WC) wrestle in the men’s freestyle 86kg division of the Olympic Wrestling Team Trials on April, 20, 2024 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

In my relatively time covering wrestling, I’ve used these four words a lot: “Penn State wrestling legend.”

I’ve used it to describe Bo Nickal, a three-time national champ who’s now a budding UFC star.

I’ve used it to describe Carter Starocci, who is still competing in college but is so good (four national titles), I couldn’t help myself.

I’ve also used it to describe Aaron Brooks and David Taylor, the two men who main-evented this year’s U.S. Olympic trials (it wasn’t the last match, but anybody who saw the exodus of fans inside the Bryce Jordan Center after should understand why I’m calling it the main event.)

When it comes to the cumulative success of folkstyle and freestyle wrestling, Taylor is the gold standard for Penn State. He’s thought by many to be the greatest college wrestler Penn State’s had. He and Zain Retherford are the only wrestlers in Penn State history to win two Hodge Trophies. Where Taylor has separated himself from Retherford and everybody else in PSU history is in freestyle. He has what no Penn State wrestler has: an Olympic Gold Medal.

Nittany Lion Wrestling Club member Kyle Snyder also has an Olympic Gold, but this is strictly about wrestlers who competed at Penn State. Snyder wrestled at Ohio State and thus isn’t part of the discussion.

Taylor’s gold and three World Championships make him the obvious freestyle king for Cael Sanderson’s wrestling empire, and it would take fellow legend to dethrone him.

Saturday night might have been a sign that Brooks could be the guy.

Brooks, less than a month out from wrestling his last college match— a fourth national championship win— beat Taylor in the afternoon, then did it again at night.

It remains to be seen what Brooks will do in Paris but the fact that, barring a surprise, he’ll be there, and that wasn’t something many people expected.

It’s too soon to say that Brooks will be the greatest overall Penn State wrestler ever. But now is the time to start thinking about the possibility.

Speaking strictly about college wrestling, Brooks has a case to be on the Mt. Rushmore.

Anybody with four national titles— a feat only seven wrestlers in history have accomplished— has to at least be in the discussion. The other four-time winner from Penn State is Brooks’ former teammate Carter Starocci. But based on Starocci’s interest in pursuing MMA, there’s a chance he doesn’t go after much of a freestyle career beyond these trials. If that ends up being the case, Brooks has a chance to separate himself  from Starocci and Nickal, who’s already in the UFC.

Brooks also faces competition in this argument from Retherford, who accomplished something Brooks didn’t in college and won two Hodge Trophies.

Retherford has since had success in freestyle, where he was won Gold at 70 KG in last year’s World Championships and took second the year before. He went unbeaten over the weekend but still has to qualify for the Olympics in Istanbul next month.

With all do respect to Retherford, Jason Nolf and other Penn Staters who have competed at a high level in freestyle, Taylor is the best of them.

As Ric Flair— a legend in a different kind of wrestling— once said, “to be the main, you have to beat the man.” Brooks beat the man twice.

Now, would the current version of Brooks have beat the Taylor that won the Gold Medal in 2021? Who knows. But the bottom line is that Brooks took on somebody who many felt was the best in the world at what he did and took care of business, so one has to think he’ll be a factor in the Gold Medal discussion come July. It’d be a lot to ask of Brooks to win a Gold Medal at any Olympics, let alone his first, but it was also a lot to ask of Brooks to get this far to begin with, and he’s done it.

What’s scary is that, although this is his first Olympics, it might Brooks’ only shot to win a medal even if he continues to compete at a high level.

He’s a young man at 23, and the next time the Olympics come around, he’ll be 27. J’den Cox, an Olympic Medalist and two-time World Champion, turned 29 last month. At the trials, he left his shoes in the center of the mat, the universal sign that he’s retiring.

Granted, Taylor is 33, and Jordan Burroughs, who likely also wrestled his last trials this weekend, is 35. But the case of Cox shows that Brooks may not have many chances to win a Gold Medal, lwould take a lot to match Taylor’s three world championships, too. But after what wrestling fans have been seeing for the past four years at folk and now freestyle, I don’t think it’d be wise to doubt Aaron Brooks.

Unlike some Penn State greats such as Nickal and Starocci, Brooks doesn’t display an outspoken demeanor, and that may have led to him flying under the radar despite all his success.

But when all’s said and done, Aaron Brooks might be the Lion who roars the loudest of all.

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