RALEIGH — The first time N.C. State wrestling coach Pat Popolizio saw Nick Gwiazdowski the last thing that came to mind was a future NCAA champion.
Popolizio, who coached at Binghamton University before joining the Wolfpack in April 2012, recently recalled his initial encounter with the Delanson, N.Y., native.
“I met Nick when he was in seventh grade; that was the first time I saw him,” Popolizio said. “He was a little stubby kid with big feet and was a little chubby at the time. My brother (Frank) called me up and said, ‘Hey, I got this kid on my club and you’re going to want to talk to him. He’s actually really good. He doesn’t look like much right now, but trust me when he grows he’s going to be really good.’
“Sure enough, (Gwiazdowski) comes walking into my office and I called my brother and said, ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing sending kids like this to my office?’ He said, ‘Trust me he’s going to be a good one.’ Sure enough he was dead-on about it.”
Hopefully the thank-you card has been mailed by now.
That admittedly chubby teen transformed into a Cadillac-thick 6-foot-1, 250-pound premier athlete, who on March 22 topped Minnesota’s two-time defending heavyweight champion Tony Nelson, 4-2, in Oklahoma City to pin down his first national title as a redshirt sophomore.
Gwiazdowski, who en route to becoming the sixth individual champion in N.C. State’s history, racked up a 42-2 record to establish a single-season school mark for victories and picked up an ACC title along the way.
After locking up a grueling three-round victory over Nelson, Gwiazdowski then had to wrestle with his accomplishments.
“Just knowing that it was over and you’re the best guy. You look around that stadium and you look at that weight class across the country and you realize that you’re the best guy in the country,” Gwiazdowski said. “That’s something that takes a while to set in.”
It also took awhile to accomplish. Growing up in the quiet community of Delanson, about 30 minutes west of Albany in upstate New York, Gwiazdowski attended Duanesburg High, a school too small to field a football team. Though Gwiazdowski played some baseball and soccer as a kid, he quickly gravitated toward wrestling.
Not that he had much choice.
“Me and my brother would always fight in the house,” Gwiazdowski said of his older brother, Michael. “I wasn’t like the fastest kid when I was younger, I was kind of chunky, but, I was good at (wrestling). When I started wrestling I would do good at all the local tournaments and when you do well at something you want to keep doing it.”
He was years from refining the quick striking technique that helped him take down Nelson with roughly 40 seconds to go in the title match, but Gwiazdowski held his own against his brother, who had three years on him.
“They were back-and-forth. He was tall and skinny and I was kind of tall for my age and a little chunky … They were pretty intense, but I didn’t get my (butt) kicked, that’s for sure,” Gwiazdowski said.
Those sibling wars helped groom Gwiazdowski into a wrestling machine who left Duanesburgh as a two-time state champion and the No. 1 heavyweight prospect in the country.
Before long, the coach who thought his brother was crazy for sending a “little stubby kid with big feet” to his office was working like crazy to get him to stay. Luckily for Popilizio, that inside track helped sway Gwiazdowski to Binghamton.
“We were pretty familiar with each other all the way through and I got him to go to Binghamton, which was a major victory at the time because he was getting recruited by a lot of big schools,” Popolizio said. “I think he trusted myself and the system.”
Wolfpack gets package deal
He would be rewarded for his trust twice. As a true freshman at Binghamton, Gwiazdowski finished eighth in the country at nationals, where he lost to Nelson. He finished 30-9 and was named an All-American.
The duo’s success caught N.C. State’s eye. The Wolfpack offered Popolizio its head coaching job, and when he accepted, his first mission was to bring Gwiazdowski with him.
“The opportunity to come here came and I had to start the (recruiting) process pretty much all over again, which wasn’t easy,” Popolizio said. “It was a challenge, I’m not going to lie. He’s from upstate New York, it’s just a different lifestyle there and a different culture altogether.
“In the end I think he could see through all that and said, ‘Hey, I got three years to win a national title and accomplish my goals.’ I think in the end that’s what really got him to come down here. There were things that we were able to do here that we probably couldn’t do at Binghamton. That’s why I wanted to come here and that’s the reason why he wanted to come here.
“The system and the resources proved itself right and I’m very happy and thankful for that because I promised him we would do it together here.”
Gwiazdowski took his time making the transition, deciding to redshirt last season as he got accustomed to his new surroundings. It was another in a long line of good decisions.
“I wanted to get acclimated and it gave me another year to train and put on some size,” Gwiazdowski said. “I didn’t have too many friends my first year here … When I got here I didn’t know too many people, but I’m happy I’m here now. When you win a national championship it’s tough to say I regret making the decision.”
As for friends, the bruising sophomore said that after his victory in Oklahoma City he has, “A lot more now, I’ll tell you that much. I had a lot more friends that Sunday morning.”
What he wants is even more championships.
He came one spot from making the World team last year and will give it another go this season, but said his main focus is on bringing back more hardware to Raleigh.
“The next thing in my eyes is to win the next two (NCAA titles) because now that you have it, you don’t want to lose it. You don’t want someone else to take it from you,” Gwiazdowski said. “The next thing for me is to finish out my college career and win the next two championships and go undefeated. That’s something I have never done, I’ve never won all my matches.”
After college? He graduates in 2016 and knows there are no million-dollar signing bonuses awaiting wrestlers, but there are the Olympics or, perhaps, transitioning into an Ultimate Fighter.
“To do that you really have to be committed,” he said of the Olympics. “That’s what you do. That’s your job.”
Gwiazdowski said he was intrigued by becoming an Ultimate Fighter, as well as the prospects of coaching wrestling.
“If I didn’t wrestle I think I would like to be a coach somewhere,” Gwiazdowski said. “But I would consider Ultimate Fighting because wrestlers have a lot of success in it.”