Northwestern plays Nebraska Saturday in college football, the Wildcats’ first foray to Lincoln since the Cornhuskers were admitted to the Big Ten. The oddsmakers in Vegas have made Northwestern a decided underdog. “Northwestern by 50. Feeling confident,” said Jake Herbert, who graduated from Northwestern two years ago after winning two NCAA wrestling championships and the 2009 Hodge Trophy, given to the nation’s outstanding collegiate wrestler.
In the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens travel Sunday to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. Herbert grew up in North Allegheny, Pa. “You ask me how bad the Steelers are going to beat the Ravens? By 110.”
“I ooze confidence,” Herbert said, and this a couple days after winning gold in the 84 kilogram, or 185-pound, freestyle weight class at the Pan American Games.
All athletes have to be confident. Jake has to be super-confident. He is, without being ugly about it.
“Anything less than Olympic gold in my mind is failure,” he said. “I’m not training for bronze. I’m not training just to be in the Olympics. I’m not training for anything less.
“If there’s a little bit of doubt in your mind, that can be exploited. I’m there 100 percent to be getting the gold medal. I’m there to take it.”
Here’s why Jake has to have unshakeable belief in himself and what he’s doing:
Among others, Cael Sanderson is in his weight class.
Sanderson is the 2004 Olympic gold medalist. He is now coach at Penn State. He is the only undefeated four-time NCAA champion, compiling a record of 159-0 at Iowa State, so good he made the cover of a Wheaties box. He won the Hodge Trophy not just once but three times.
There are all kinds of hints that Sanderson is making a 2012 comeback.
It can’t be certain that Sanderson is, in fact, coming back.
But Herbert, like everyone, has to gear up as it if that’s the case. “I’m preparing like he’s going to be there,” Jake said.
American Olympic wrestling history is marked by a succession of dramatic episodes in which challengers have had to beat the best to be the best.
Going all the way back to the 1984 U.S. Trials, Dave Schultz had to beat three-time world champion Lee Kemp just to make the American team. He did, and went on to win Olympic gold.
In 1988, the tables were turned: Kenny Monday had to beat Schultz to make the U.S. team. Monday won, and then won Olympic gold in Seoul.
Also in 1988, John Smith had to beat 1984 Olympic champ Randy Lewis to make the team. Smith did, and won Olympic gold.
More recently, at the 2008 Trials, Henry Cejudo had to defeat Stephen Abas, the 2004 silver medalist, to make the team. Cejudo did, and won Olympic gold.
Jake knows all these stories, rattling them off in a phone call. “Why should it be any different for me?” he asked rhetorically, adding, “If I can beat Sanderson, I can beat anybody in the world, and I can win the Olympics.”
Since graduating from Northwestern, Jake has bulked up to about 200 pounds. He makes weight pretty easily — wrestlers drop a lot of water weight in a remarkably quick amount of time without losing strength — and said, “I’m a 200-pound man wrestling 185. That strength showed off in the Pan Ams. It’s great to feel stronger, tougher, better than your opponents.”
Perhaps just as important, “Mentally, I’m right there.”
Jake has recent wins over, among others, Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan and Mihail Ganev of Bulgaria.
Sharifov won the 2011 world gold medal. At those 2011 worlds, Sharifov defeated Sanderson.
Ganev is the 2010 world champ.
With his coach, Sean Bormet, Jake is now training in Ann Arbor. “This is the real stuff,” he said. “It’s physical chess. Position is always going to beat strength.”
There’s only one downside, for a Northwestern guy, to being in Ann Arbor: “It’s not just the college kids. It’s 60-year-old men and 3-year-old kids. They’re all wearing maize-and-blue.”
There’s only one antidote, he said: “I wear my Wildcat gear.”
Jake added, “My job now is — I have to put together the two best tournaments of my life. The Trials — go out there and make the team. Then — go out there and make the Olympics.”