Writing a letter of recommendation for senior Matt Brown was an honor, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson said, and hardly complicated.
“It’s a very easy letter to write, bullet points,” Sanderson said. “With his accolades, GPA, wrestling and all he’s accomplished, I add a few lines. What he’s done speaks for itself.”
The 25-year-old Utah native has served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proven himself to be a top student and he’s a soldier. He’s also a husband, soon-to-be father and a leader in his LDS branch.
Now the thick-shouldered, muscular Brown can add “national champion” to the growing list.
Brown, a three-time All-American, won his NCAA wrestling title in the 174-pound division last month with a thrilling last-second defeat of Pittsburgh’s Tyler Wilps, 5-4, at the NCAA finals in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brown, who finished his career with a record of 118-16, is believed to be the first returned missionary to win a Division I national wrestling championship.
“I’m pretty excited I was able to do it,” said Brown, who celebrated with his family by eating chocolate-covered animal crackers. “I remember waking up in the MTC (Missionary Training Center) and doing pushups. It’s been a goal for a long time. I’ve worked hard, and it was a relief that I finally did it.”
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Brown reflected on the highs and lows of his wrestling career; the big match; and how his mission, faith and family have sustained him along the way.
Brown’s journey began in West Valley City, where his parents, David and Cindy Brown, faithfully shuttled him to practices and instilled in him an “I can do anything” attitude.
“That attitude has served me in every aspect of my life,” Matt Brown said.
Armed with the right attitude, he went on to compile a record of 149-4 at Cyprus High School, win three state titles, and be twice named a high school All-American.
While competing at a summer wrestling camp in Heber City, Sanderson, then the coach at Iowa State, noticed Brown grappled with a higher intensity than other guys and possessed all the traits a wrestling coach likes to see in a recruit.
“He was hustling and focused. He caught my eye right away,” Sanderson said. “We went after him and were fortunate to get him to choose Iowa State at that time.”
Refreshed by a mission
Brown redshirted the 2008-09 season at Iowa State before departing on an LDS mission to Mozambique and Angola from 2009-2011. Not only did he wake up early and exercise regularly, but he also developed a talent for digging holes.
“We did a lot of service digging holes for trash and waste,” Brown said. “That helped keep me in shape.”
His mission was just what he needed at that time, Brown said, from a spiritual standpoint and from a wrestling standpoint.
“Every kid faces the challenge of burnout. I think my mission saved my career,” Brown said. “Because I hadn’t competed in over two years, I was fresh, I came back hungry and was able to find that passion again. People think missions will set you back professionally, academically or athletically, but that’s just not the case.”
In the spirit of missionary work, Brown named his Twitter account @StorminMormon_ so people would recognize his faith. Since winning his NCAA title, he’s gained a few hundred followers.
“It’s a fun way for people to know I’m a member of the church,” Brown said.
While Brown was in Africa, Sanderson became the coach at Penn State. Upon his return, Brown transferred there to be a Nittany Lion.
Sanderson was impressed with how Brown came to Penn State prepared to wrestle. Despite his two-year absence from the sport, he gave Ed Ruth, the Nittany Lions’ only three-time NCAA champion and one of the best college wrestlers of all-time, his toughest match of the year, Sanderson said.
“He was ready to go,” Sanderson said. “I was really surprised. When he left, he had the attitude, effort and work ethic but wasn’t there yet. When he came back, we were all super impressed because he had progressed in a lot of ways.”
In his sophomore season, Brown went all the way to the national finals before falling to Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry in a hard-fought 2-1 double-overtime loss. The defeat proved to be a turning point in his career, Brown said.
“It took a while to get over that. I felt I wrestled well enough to win, but it didn’t go my way,” Brown said. “But it gave me confidence that I’m a good wrestler and I could do it.”
The grappler from Utah finished in fifth place nationally as a junior before reaching the finals again this year. He trailed 4-3 in the final 20 seconds of the match but made a gripping comeback to win by a point.
Brown will leave Penn State in 11th place on the school's all-time wins list.
Conversion and marriage
Away from the wrestling mat, Brown became active in his local LDS young single adult branch and occasionally helped the full-time sister missionaries. That’s how he met his wife, Lauren Hemrick, who was meeting with the missionaries. She asked him to baptize her and within a month they started dating. They married in the Salt Lake Temple in December 2012.
Since then, Matt and Lauren have found their personalities complement each other quite well. He admires her capacity to serve others, while she appreciates his strong gospel example.
“Having somebody like Matt by my side strengthens my testimony and encourages me to be a better person,” Lauren Brown said.
He is driven and goal-oriented. She prefers to relax.
“He is very driven and motivated while I am just entirely too lazy for words,” she said. “I try to bring him down to the level of enjoying himself.”
“I couldn’t do it by myself, and I can get a little cranky,” Matt Brown said. “She puts up with me.”
Priorities and lists
As a master’s student in international studies, member of the Penn State Army ROTC, first counselor in the elders quorum presidency and a wrestler, Brown has learned to prioritize and plan out every hour of the day.
One key to being a good student is paying close attention in class so less work and time is required out of class. Another key is not wasting time with things such as video games, Brown said. His secret weapon is to createnumerous “to-do” lists.
“My wife will tell you that I have lists all over the place,” Brown said. “But it helps me keep track of everything.”
It works for Brown, who was recently named the top male student-athlete at Penn State. He is also a three-time academic All-American.
From time to time, Brown does take a break from everything. He enjoys reading, riding his motorcycle or going to a local shooting range with his handguns.
While his schedule may seem overwhelming to some, Brown says he is just grateful for the opportunities in his life.
“My mission helped me to be grateful for what I have. I can study at a great university, I can serve my country, I have a beautiful wife who is a strong member of the church. Wrestling is icing on the cake,” Brown said. “Whenever I do feel overwhelmed, I recognize I’m being selfish.”
For Brown and his wife, the future is full of more adventures.
From a family standpoint, the couple is expecting a little girl in August.
In May, Brown will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He expects to specialize in military intelligence with the Pennsylvania National Guard.
With his college wrestling career over, Brown plans to continue training with the Nittany Lions wrestling club with the hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Sanderson is excited to keep Brown around the program where he can inspire others.
"He’s a great example of the lifestyle and work ethic, plus he can do well. We want to keep him here as long as possible," Sanderson said. "He’s a tough kid. He has a real clear focus on what he wants to achieve, he holds himself accountable and doesn’t waver. Hopefully, he inspires some young wrestlers in the state of Utah."
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