Words by Richie Mulhall
2011 NCAA champion and Kent State wrestler Dustin Kilgore talks about his simple life outside the mat and his eventful life in the spotlight
He is seen almost every day drenched in sweat working out in the wrestling room in the Gym Annex. His signature can be found on children’s tickets, posters and programs after every home wrestling match in the M.A.C. Center. His face is plastered on the interior walls of the M.A.C. Center, constantly reminding opponents who walk through the front doors that they are not dealing with any ordinary wrestler. They are dealing with the 2011 NCAA champion that is fifth-year senior Dustin Kilgore.
On the Mat
Dressed in the conventional wrestling singlet – the one-piece, tight-fitting uniform worn in wrestling – and bright blue and gold wrestling shoes with the traditional Kent State Golden Flashes logo emblazoned on the side, Dustin Kilgore approaches the doors leading to the M.A.C. Center gym and anticipates his charge onto the mat.
Fervent photographers, zealous reporters, enthusiastic children and cheering fans await Kilgore’s long-anticipated appearance. For the elementary and middle school boys who come to see him, even just a glimpse or a wave from Kilgore makes them beam. They are finally getting to see their hero. Photographers scramble to snap pictures, and reporters attempt to craft questions Kilgore hasn’t been hit with, but this task proves difficult — he has heard them all before.
As the rock song “Hats Off to the Bull” by Chevelle blares over the M.A.C. Center’s speakers, Kilgore storms speedily to the mat. Muscles warmed up and mind focused, Kilgore’s attention is aimed at trumping whoever stands in his way on that given night. Taking each match one step at a time, Kilgore’s focus tonight is victory.
Intimidating his foes with his commanding size, imposing strength and unmatched conditioning, he paces back and forth right before his match, stalking his prey and waiting for his chance to pounce.
“I just go out there and it’s the same thing every time,” Kilgore says. “As soon as I step on the mat, something clicks in my head, and it’s time to wrestle. Off the mat, I’m the goofiest guy you could be around. Then when I get on the mat … something just changes. I just go out there with the mentality to try to absolutely destroy anyone in my path.”
When the referee kicks off the action with a swift wave of his hand, Kilgore hand-fights his opponent for a little while to test the waters and plan his attack. Then all of the sudden, like a blast from a cannon, he quickly shoots for the takedown. It’s all blood in the water now.
He skillfully maneuvers his body around his foe to gain the top and dominant position. Always looking for a pin, Kilgore imposes his will on his opponent and cradles him in his deadly, signature move called the “Killer Krunch.” The opponent has no choice but submit and allow his back to touch the mat. The referee slaps the mat and the fans rapidly rise to their feet as Kilgore’s hand is raised in triumph.
After his match, Kilgore runs off the mat and out of the gym for a brief period of time to cool down. When the match ends, Kilgore is ready go home, but his night is not over yet.
Off the Mat and In the Spotlight
The media circus bombards Kilgore as reporters from the Daily Kent Stater, TV2 and Kent State athletic communications all approach him after the match to either interview him on the spot or drag him upstairs to the press conference room. Kilgore doesn’t mind answering questions that different media outlets have to offer, but as the season progresses, the constant questions embedded in press conferences, interviews and phone calls that buzz through Kilgore’s ears get repetitive and grow wearisome. The attention Kilgore receives begins to wear, and the spotlight gets too bright.
“I just hear so many of the same questions and it just gets old,” Kilgore says. “It becomes very repetitive and it’s almost like if you’re gonna ask these questions, just look at another article and you can find the same answers there. I don’t know if people like to hear the same thing over and over again.”
Although adored by Kent State wrestling fans and sought after by numerous reporters, Kilgore finds comfort in going home after matches and spending time with his family and friends. Instead, reporters “bombard me all the time and come at me, and they’re asking all the same questions,” Kilgore says. “I just tell them this isn’t really what I want to do right now because I’m trying to have a good time with the people I love.”
“As soon as I step on the mat, something clicks in my head, and it’s time to wrestle.”
Kilgore is a renowned athlete among the wrestling world. Publications such as the Plain Dealer, USA Wrestling, the Record Courier, as well as multiple radio talk shows have all made their treks to Kent State to speak to Kilgore. Most wrestlers don’t get as much attention as athletes in other sports, but according to Kent State wrestling head coach Jim Andrassy, when they do, “kids usually suck it up. They get big heads, and they enjoy it, but I don’t think Kilgore enjoys it. I don’t think he ever has. He just wants to wrestle and be successful at it, and he doesn’t really care what comes along with it.”
Some days, Kilgore is more than willing to speak with reporters he knows and likes.
“There’s a select few reporters that I know pretty well, especially through USA Wrestling, who, I understand that [it is] their job and I give a lot of respect to that because they are writing articles specifically for wrestling magazines,” Kilgore says. “To people like that, I’ll definitely give my time.”
Other times, Kilgore becomes a difficult man to reach, reluctant to answer his phone to talk to reporters. Sometimes if a reporter comes to a practice to interview Kilgore, his teammates immediately begin teasing him, saying, “Uhh, ohh Kilgore! Interview time!” Even Kilgore’s teammates are quick to recognize when their friend is about to be cornered by another dreaded reporter with a notepad in one hand and recorder in the other.
“Under the Radar” but Under Pressure
“I want keep it down about what I’m trying to accomplish here,” Kilgore says. He likes “being recognized for [his] accomplishments, all the hard work [he’s] given,” but in the same sense, he believes “the more media you’re getting, the more people kinda run away with it, they get big heads about it. I don’t want people to think that the success I’ve had with wrestling has given me a big head, that I think I can just walk in the NCAA [tournaments] and win because that’s not true.”
Even though losing a match is a rarity for Kilgore, he still feels the pressure the media puts on him to succeed. He is expected to win every time he steps on the mat, and even for a guy as tough as Kilgore, the pressure can take its toll.
“[The media] kind of hype it up and build it up to where it seems like you’re this guy that’s invincible, you cannot be beaten,” Kilgore says. “That’s not the case at all. This is wrestling, something’s gonna happen eventually. Nobody goes on forever just unbeaten. It doesn’t happen.”
Unfortunately for Kilgore, he proved himself right. At the 2013 NCAA Tournament held in Des Moines, Iowa, this past March, Kilgore made it to the finals as everyone expected him to. After that, Kilgore’s highest expectation of all was put to a screeching halt. Kilgore’s dream and pursuit of a second NCAA title were doused in a close match at the hands of Quentin Wright, now two-time NCAA champion and Penn State wrestler.
“He doesn’t get all worked up and get nervous. He just stays loose and goes out there with a positive attitude.”
Kilgore’s match against Wright was anticipated and talked about from the beginning to the end of the season. Despite Kilgore’s impressive win streak and the many predictions that were supposed to foretell of Kilgore winning the 197-pound weight class crown, an undefeated season for Kilgore was not to be.
The loss surprised everyone, including the media who covered Kilgore’s would-be journey to a second NCAA Championship all season long. Kilgore says the media “build up this persona about an individual, that they’re gonna be unstoppable, so that when something does happen,” everyone is shocked when this individual loses.
The person who was probably the least shocked by the loss was Kilgore himself. During press conferences, he constantly emphasized that in wrestling, on any given day, someone could pull off an upset and defeat him. Keeping this notion in mind, Kilgore always maintains a focus, poise and collectiveness that often goes unmatched by other wrestlers. No matter how many distractions surround Kilgore, he maintains his composure on the mat.
“Kilgore just prepares for the moment, puts his mind to it and he goes for it,” Kilgore’s father Kevin says. “He doesn’t get all worked up and get nervous. He just stays loose and goes out there with a positive attitude.”
Kilgore’s loss stunned fans, enticed the media and stifled his winning streak. However, the loss did not take away from the respect he earned by becoming the most successful and decorated wrestler in Kent State history. He will still be rendered and remembered as the “Killer” who helped put Kent State wrestling back on the map.
“[Kilgore has] had a great career, he’s really helped our program take that next step as far as getting kids to understand that they can do it at Kent State,” Andrassy says. “He’s one of the greatest athletes in Kent State’s history with what he’s accomplished, and I’m real proud of him. I know that our program’s proud of him.”
An Average Joe
Even though the media often portrays Kilgore as being this perfect, intricate athlete, Kilgore considers himself to be an “average Joe” who enjoys a simple life.
“I’m just a regular student other than the wrestling,” Kilgore says. “I love the outdoors, I’m an outdoorsy person. I love camping, fishing, hunting, hiking — anything like that. I like hanging out with friends. I like to go out and do things and have fun with people.”
On the mat, Kilgore undergoes a 180-degree transformation in which he becomes this “killer” – as he is often called – resolute on pulverizing his opponent, but off the mat, Kilgore says he is just a goofy guy who likes to have fun. The fun works well for him because it relieves the stress and pressures of being a busy, dedicated collegiate athlete.
“I drive my coaches crazy sometimes ‘cause I’m so goofy, but I think that’s part of what’s really helped me throughout my wrestling career,” Kilgore says. “You see a lot guys that are so tense and so worried about wrestling it almost crumbles them. It becomes a very stressful environment for a lot of people, but as for me, I’m just goofy.”
As loose as Kilgore is, he is also one of the most focused athletes you will ever meet. He takes his wrestling seriously by eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, and refraining from partying and drinking.
Kevin says his son’s restraint from activities that could harm his wrestling career surprise him, especially while Kilgore attends a university known for partying. Kilgore’s temperance shows his dedication to his sport and goals.
Kilgore’s modest lifestyle and humble attitude toward his wrestling success is rooted in his Berea High School wrestling experience. His team practiced in a small classroom with a few wrestling mats and some padding on the wall. Kilgore chose Berea High School over wrestling powerhouse St. Edward because he he wanted to be something special for his school. Kilgore says he wanted to “go somewhere where [winning] meant something.”
“My dad went to Berea High School, my uncle was a state champion for Berea High School, so I wanted to compete somewhere where if I became a state champion or a national champion it would mean something for the school and for my hometown,” Kilgore says.
His success as a small-town high school wrestler brought a lot of inspiration to his town, Kilgore says, including some of the younger generations growing up in Berea. Later on in his wrestling career, Kilgore turned down another powerhouse, the Ohio State University. He chose Kent State over Ohio State because he wanted to show people, especially the children in his hometown, that he “didn’t have to go to the top schools, the best schools,” Kilgore says. “I can go somewhere where I’m happy.”
Kilgore’s childhood role models were his dad, Kevin, his uncle, Van Kirkendall, and his cousin, Klint Kirkendall. These three men taught Kilgore about work ethic. Now, Kilgore gets to be that guiding figure for kids who show up in the M.A.C. Center to see him wrestle. He believes these kids need someone like his father, uncle and cousin to look up to.
Kilgore and Dad: A Special Bond
The one person Kilgore has most looked up to is his father, Kevin.
“There’s a special bond there,” Kevin says of his relationship with Kilgore. “It’s outspoken and it’s there, and I’m not just saying that ‘cause I’m an overzealous proud dad.”
Kevin says he usually lets his son handle his own stresses involving wrestling and the media storm that engulfs his son. He wants Kilgore “to be his own man,” and Kilgore has a lot of respect for the way his father values his independence.
“I let him do his own thing, I don’t interject,” Kevin says. “I just let him be his own young man to a grown man now. I give him his space and room. I don’t crowd him, and he shines within his own.”
One way Kevin alleviates some of the pressure his son faces is to provide an escape from the stresses of being a college wrestler stuck in the spotlight. Kevin says when he and Kilgore are together, they just have a good time. He wants Kilgore to feel relaxed when they spend time together, and he wants his son to be and feel like “his normal, usual self.”
“When we hook up, it’s a release. It’s an outlet and a release where he can just have fun, and then he gets back to the program and he’s ready to go again,” Kevin says. “I don’t talk about pressing issues. He takes care of those things, and it’s a dad-son relationship purely.”
Fans can see the strong bond existing between Kilgore and his father at home matches in the M.A.C. Center. They have a mutual respect for one another that has grown and developed since Kilgore was a small boy. Kilgore “is truly close to my heart,” Kevin says, and their relationship displays this closeness.
“I treat him like an adult and respect everything that he is and let him know when he’s wrong,” Kevin says. “And it’s reciprocal, too.”
Even though Kilgore does not get a chance to see his dad as often as he would like to, when they do spend time together, they take to the outdoors activities such as fishing in the Rocky and Cuyahoga Rivers and hunting on his family farm in Medina County.
“We have a lot in common,” Kilgore says. “He loves hunting and fishing just as much as I do, and in the summertime, winter, spring, whatever it is, we’ll go out there and have some fun.”
Kevin is the first person who introduced wrestling to Kilgore when his son was in the third grade. Kevin encouraged Kilgore to make great strides in the sport in which Kilgore found his passion.
“It’s just another part of wrestling, it’s another aspect that I know will always be there as long as I’m competing,”
“On his weekends he was driving me all over the country to different tournaments, so he never really had any time off to do the things he wanted to do because he was always pushing towards helping me become a better wrestler,” Kilgore says of his father. “He was my coach growing up and my inspiration for where I am today.”
Chasing Olympic Dreams
So what’s next for Kilgore now that his collegiate career has met its end with a second-place finish at the 2013 NCAA Tournament? Kilgore will pursue the next step of his career: preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Kilgore says after he graduates in May, he plans to return for the freestyle wrestling season. He will train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he trained during his 2011-2012 Olympic redshirt season.
“For freestyle, it’s an all-year thing, and there are tournaments that can be done all year long,” Kilgore says. “It takes away a lot of your personal time from visiting family and friends, and that’s the thing I don’t like, but that’s just how wrestling is.”
Committed and determined to become a future Olympian, Kilgore says he knows the media and attention he has received this past year in college will continue to follow him as he begins to train for the Olympics, but Kevin says his son’s Olympic-redshirt experience of dealing with reporters and media attention almost every day will help him manage the intense publicity.
Kilgore’s Time to Shine
No Kent State wrestler has dominated the collegiate wrestling scene like Kilgore. With 65 straight career dual meet wins, a 20-0 MAC dual record and the accolades of being Kent State’s career leader in victories (178) and pins (50), Kent State’s first three-time, All-American and NCAA wrestling champion, Kilgore has accomplished a great dealduring his illustrious tenure at Kent State. Andrassy even called Kilgore “the greatest athlete in Kent State history.”
Kilgore says the experience of being in the spotlight has not changed him at all or even taught him anything. To him, the attention is just something that will always be present and he has gotten used to dealing with it.
“It’s just another part of wrestling, it’s another aspect that I know will always be there as long as I’m competing,” Kilgore says.
When the cameras are flashing, the pens are gliding across a notepad, the kids are cheering, the crowd is roaring and the lights are on bright, “the greatest athlete in Kent State history” hopes to suit up in the conventional wrestling singlet emblazoned with the letters “U.S.A.” and coated with red, white and blue. On this international stage, with the spotlight shining in his direction, Kilgore dreams of once again raising his hand in victory.