Feb. 4, 2009
By Larry Watts
With eight teams ranked among the top 20, headed by Iowa's grasp at No. 1, the Big Ten can easily lay claim having the toughest wrestling conference in the nation.
And it doesn't get much tougher than the 133-pound bracket, where the Midwest grapplers hold down five of the top six positions.
After recently dropping a 6-5 decision to Minnesota's Jayson Ness, Michigan State's Franklin Gomez, last year's third-place winner at the NCAA Championships, dropped to sixth in the rankings. It was the first loss of the season for the Spartan junior, who is now 13-1, but Gomez has had to overcome bigger obstacles in his life.
Born in the Dominican Republic, his father died of kidney stones when Gomez was 5.
"I never really knew the whole truth behind my father's death," says Gomez, who also has one brother three years older and another one year younger. "I just remember waking up in the middle of the night, hearing him screaming and he went to the hospital.
"All I know is we were broke and we didn't know anyone. It was maybe a year later when my mother decided to take us to San Jose, Puerto Rico and we moved in with a former friend of hers. But she also had two children, so there were eight of us living in that apartment."
It took a couple of months for his mother to finally find a job working security. Fortunately, the Gomez family was able to afford a condominium in San Juan or Franklin's life may have taken a different turn.
"It was pretty bad where we lived in San Jose," he says. "Kids my age were using drugs and shootings in my area were quite common."
While many boys his age were being introduced to boxing, Gomez came across wrestling entirely by accident.
"There was a playground near my home, and even though it was in the projects, we were always out there playing games," he says. "One day some guys brought a mat out there and started wrestling. The only wrestling I had ever seen was that fake wrestling, like the WWF or WWE, so this was all new to me. They explained some of the rules to me and it was a lot of fun.
"A couple of those guys had joined a wrestling club a few blocks away. I was 12 at the time and was always taking down a guy who was 80 pounds heavier, so they told me to come check out this wrestling club."
Little did Gomez know it, but his life was about to take a big change when he visited the club, which was run by Pedro Rojas.
"He sat me down and told me to watch. If I liked it, I could join, and if I didn't, I could walk away," Gomez says. "It was really intense in there, like a war. The guys were sweaty and bleeding, but I really liked it. I always considered myself a fast learner and pretty good at sports. This was like playing football on your knees."
It didn't take Rojas long to notice the ability of his new pupil. Before Gomez entered his sophomore year of high school, he encouraged him to go New Jersey, where he had a contact who would enroll him in a private school to learn English and face better wrestling competition.
"Coach Rojas always encouraged me to find better competition, not just in wrestling but in education as well," he says. "I was never one to take education seriously; I was satisfied to get Bs and Cs. But once I started wrestling, he challenged me to go after the As. He told me I had to go to the United States if I wanted to improve because the wrestling in Puerto Rico wasn't good enough."
But after one year in New Jersey, even though he was a high school All-American, Gomez had had enough of the cold weather and returned to Puerto Rico. However, Rojas was not about to let him stay and came up with another contact, Mike Joyce, in Tampa. For the next two years, Gomez would live with the Joyce family in Brandon, Fla.
"He (Joyce) was the best thing to ever happen to me," Gomez says. "He and his wife already had three kids, but they really accepted me. I couldn't believe how great that family was and they were always encouraging me. And he knew how the wrestling system worked for college and how to make contacts."
All Gomez did at Brandon was win the "triple crown" of high school wrestling in 2005 -- the high school national championship, the junior freestyle national title and the junior Greco-Roman national crown. Amateur Wrestling News and WrestlingUSA magazine rated him as the top senior wrestler at 119 pounds after posting a 44-0 record. He concluded his prep career as a three-time All-American.
Joyce laid out the possibilities for Gomez, but it was up to the young wrestler to make his own decision. He took visits to Missouri, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Michigan State. Strangely, the young man who bolted from the cold of New Jersey wound up in East Lansing, Mich.
"Yes, it can be freezing up here and I thought I was going to run into polar bears," he says. "But the campus, the school and the people were all great. I figured if these people could take this weather, I could take it too. I wanted to be at a place where I really liked the people."
After spending his first year wrestling unattached and compiling a 23-3 record, Gomez was ready for his first taste of Big Ten action.
"I really didn't know anything about it (the Big Ten competition) until two years ago," he says. "I just treated it like it was just another match and couldn't figure out why people were making such a big deal out of it. But I soon realized this is a really big thing. Not only are the teams very tough, but it seemed like I was facing an All-American every night."
As a redshirt freshman, Gomez was 31-8, posting a 5-3 record in Big Ten action. He handed No. 8 Gabe Flores of Illinois his first loss of the season and also knocked off No. 10 Mark McKnight of Penn State after dropping two earlier decisions to the Nittany Lion.
Then came a spectacular 33-2 run as a sophomore. He went 8-0 in Big Ten dual meets and swept through three foes, including No. 4 Jimmy Slaton of Iowa and No. 3 James Kennedy of Illinois to claim the 133 crown at the Big Ten Championships, which earned him the nation's top ranking. But after three wins at the NCAA Championship, Gomez fell 4-2 to Slaton in the semifinals. He still managed to battle back with two more wins, including a 7-2 victory over Kennedy for third place.
"I'm focused on winning that NCAA title now and I won't relax," Gomez says. "I'm going to keep studying what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. But I also realize I have to be focused on doing my best in my schoolwork as well as my wrestling.
"I don't pay any attention to the rankings. I know I'm training against the best in the nation when I wrestle in the Big Ten. And that loss to Ness a couple of weeks ago is a lesson to me for when I don't perform at my best."