FORT MADISON – There’s not much that stings worse than being so close to greatness, but watching it slip from your fingertips.
Fort Madison senior Teague Smith has been setting his whole life up for a shot at a state wrestling title but has seen his dream dashed repeatedly.
In this his final year as a Bloodhound, he hopes to grasp greatness with both hands.
Smith has had success wrestling at all different levels over the past dozen years. The son of Fort Madison Head Coach Ryan Smith, who wrestled for Dan Gable at the University of Iowa, has a treasure chest full of medals from youth tournaments in a variety of wrestling styles.
But the one medal that he really wants has painfully evaded him.
Smith had been poised to qualify for the Iowa High School Athletic Association State Wrestling tournament each year of high school wrestling. But a last-minute loss as a sophomore left him one spot out of the tournament, and then a severe injury to his left knee during a match early in the season ultimately derailed a run at the state title last season.
Smith had lost just two matches through the first part of the season as a junior and was ranked as high as 4th in the state at 170 lbs. before suffering the injury. Early thoughts were that Smith suffered a torn meniscus, which he tried to wrestle through.
“Last year, I think I was ranked 4th with two losses. At CR Jefferson I won my first match and in the second match I took a kid down and my knee popped, and I knew something wasn’t right,” Smith said.
"I finished the period, and my leg just didn’t feel right. I tried to grit it out and get the match done. I ended up losing that match and was in my head after that. We weren’t sure what happened, and I decided I was going to finish the year no matter what.”
After getting his knee drained and taking about a week and a half off, Smith braced up the knee and wrestled through the pain. His style changed from being an aggressor off the whistle to a more defensive approach with the knee always in the back of his mind.
He made it through the season at about 70% of what he normally would be, but that was good enough to get him through districts and onto the state meet, where he said he still thought he was going to win the whole thing.
“I got the job done at districts. It wasn’t pretty and I wrestled some sloppy matches, but I got to state and my mindset the whole time was I was going to win the title. I truly believed I was going to win that state title,” Smith said.
“A couple things happened, and things didn’t go my way. I wasn’t at my best and I think I was too in my head and worrying about the knee.”
Smith ended up losing his first two matches both by 2-1 scores and was eliminated on the second day.
Following the tournament an X-ray showed his knee was structurally okay, but an MRI later showed he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and partially tore the medial collateral ligament in the left knee.
“That was pretty devastating to hear. I didn’t think it would be possible to play football or wrestle again. I took a week off just mourning and then I got right back to work,” he said.
Smith was so determined to move on that he told his physical therapist he wanted to be back ready to play for his senior football season. Smith was ranked in the top 50 Iowa high school football players by the Des Moines Register, but precaution left him on the defensive side of the ball and the first time ever he hadn’t played on both sides.
Ryan Smith said the physical therapist was a little shocked at his son’s timeline.
“I just remember the first meeting with PT, [the doctor] kinda rolled his eyes when Teague said he wanted to be back for first game of football. He was a bit taken aback by that, but after a few sessions he was like ‘You might be right if you keep this pace’,” Smith said.
“I guess it’s a testament to his will to get out there [on the football field]. He was apprehensive at first and he went on the first down at Burlington and 10 games later, he didn’t come off the field for a snap of defense.
“He really wanted to be out there on offense, but I had to tell him to not push our luck.”
Smith followed the course set out by his physical therapist and Woodbury and credits them, along with Fort Madison Athletic Enhancement director and Head football Coach Derek Doherty, with getting him ready for competition in the fall. Which he was.
“I have to thank them. I wouldn’t be back ready to go it wasn’t for those guys,” Smith said.
“The week of Burlington, I remember sitting in the kitchen talking to Mom and telling her, “'Mom, I can do this. I can play against Burlington.' She was like, 'I don’t know, let’s call Dr. Woodbury', and he said I could test it. So I said ‘Let’s do it. I can’t have any fear.’ And that was the greatest feeling in the world - to run out on the field. I finally made it.”
The season caused Smith some additional emotional pain watching two of his teammates, Brody Cashman and Henry Wiseman, go down with the same injury.
“My heart broke for Brody and then when Henry Wiseman tore his, that really hit home with me. I grew up playing with him and I would give anything to get another second to play a sport with him,” Smith said.
Now, after sacrificing half of the football season by only playing on one side of the ball and avoiding the cutting, planting and hits to the lower body that certainly would have come from his traditional spot as fullback for the Hounds, Smith is ready for the mat.
And he wants to get back to the old Teague Smith, only better.
“I want to be better than I was, not just the same wrestler but better,” he said. “I wasn’t as good as I could’ve been last year. I can always build, so I can be better than that.
“State Title. That’s been my goal since I was in kindergarten. I’m at that point where I gotta get that done now.”
Smith wasn’t cleared to wrestle during the summer so he’s dealing with some cobwebs of sort as the Hounds have only had about four days of real practice.
“Wrestling this past week, I’m getting some rust off. I’ve been doing everything, feeling good but I gotta build that trust in the knee. I trusted it for football but wrestling is different.”
Ryan Smith said that trust will come with repetition.
“Wrestling’s a little different from football. Football practice, you can control things. We don’t do a lot of full speed like the old days. So in that regard it was a little easier to get a feel for how the knee is going to hold up. But live wrestling is live wrestling.”
Smith will start the year wearing a sleeve and knee brace, but said he hopes to be able to shed that at some point in the year.
Either way, he said it’s "go time”.
Smith will be wrestling at 190 lbs. to start the season. The Bloodhounds start the year Nov. 30 with a dual meet at home against Quincy.
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