This can’t be the kid.
Pat Popolizio took one look at Nick Gwiazdowski in 2008 and couldn’t believe his own eyes.
He did not look like a wrestler who would grow up to become a two-time NCAA champion.
“He was a little chubby and he looked a little clumsy,” said Popolizio, now N.C. State’s wrestling coach.
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But the only unremarkable part of Gwiazdowski’s journey to N.C. State, and becoming one of the best wrestlers in ACC history in the process, is how it began.
The chubby kid from a tiny Albany suburb in central New York has turned into “The Gwiz,” a 255-pound Hulk with the country’s longest winning streak – 86 in a row after winning his first match Thursday at the NCAA championships in New York City – and two NCAA titles already under his belt.
Gwiazdowski (pronounced GWIZZ-dow-skee) is seeking to become only the second ACC wrestler to win three straight national titles. The fifth-year senior led the Wolfpack to a school-record 23 wins this season and its first ACC title since 2007.
N.C. State, ranked No. 2 in the country, has a chance by Saturday night’s final round to become the first ACC team to finish in the top four of the NCAA championships.
But before Gwiazdowski put the Wolfpack in position for an historic season, he was an eager-but-raw prospect who caught the eye of both Popolizio’s brother, Frank, a club coach in Schenectady, N.Y., and Joe Bena, a New York state high school coaching legend.
Popolizio’s brother and Bena both used the same descriptor in their scouting report of a young Gwiazdowski.
“As I watched him, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has something special,’” said Bena, Gwiazdowski’s high school coach.
And Frank Popolizio, whose Journeyman Wrestling Club is where Gwiazdowski got his start:
“He didn’t look like he does now but you could see in the way he moved he was going to be really special,” he said.
Actually, Frank made a prediction to his younger brother, Pat, who was the coach at Binghamton University at the time.
“I’m telling you right now, someday he’s going to win a national title,” Frank Popolizio said.
At 6-1 and 255 pounds, Gwiazdowski barely fits in the chair he’s sitting in at the lobby of the Weisiger-Brown building on N.C. State’s campus. He laughs at the memory of the first meeting with Pat Popolizio in 2008.
Gwiazdowski, known as a joker, comes out with a quick jab for his coach.
“Pat has a full head of hair,” he says, mentally cataloging the photo that was taken of the moment on Binghamton’s campus. “He was much younger looking.
“I look pretty bad, too.”
What I’ve learned is that if you give it your all when you’re out there, then there’s nothing to regret after.
NC State wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Gwiazdowski as anything other than the current wrecking-ball version of himself. With his dark eyebrows, deep features and muscles on top of muscles, he is straight from central casting of the old Eastern bloc Olympic factories. He wrestles like one, too.
Since coming to N.C. State after spending his freshman year at Binghamton, where Popolizio was his coach before being hired away by the Wolfpack, Gwiazdowski has won 108 of 110 matches. He took a 29-0 record into the preliminary rounds of the NCAA championships on Thursday. He went 35-0 as a junior and won the NCAA title at 285 pounds. He was 42-2 as a sophomore and won the NCAA title in the same weight class.
But don’t mistake Gwiazdowski’s personality for his wrestling persona. Don’t be fooled by the intimidating exterior, his mother, Suzanne, said.
“If you don’t know him, you would think that he’s all business,” his mom said. “But he can be funny.”
And is there a soft spot hidden underneath the “Hulk: Smash” routine?
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” she said.
Gwiazdowski’s streak has gained him some popularity on campus and in Raleigh. He does like to have a little fun with fans who ask him about his size or his strength-training regime.
He’s not above a quip to the media, either, when asked about what makes him so successful.
“My tan,” Gwiazdowski deadpanned.
There is more, of course, to it than that. Gwiazdowski is the rare combination of natural talent, size, strength, agility, hard work and intelligence.
“He’s got it all,” fellow senior Tommy Gantt said. “And people will say he moves well for a guy that big but there’s no need to qualify it. He can just move for a guy any size.”
Gwiazdowski is modest about his talent and accomplishments. The streak is not a topic he spends a lot of time pondering.
“It’s a cool number to look at,” Gwiazdowski said. “But when I step on the mat, I know what I’m capable of and I have had the regret of losing. There’s a ton of things you look at when you lose.
“What I’ve learned is that if you give it your all when you’re out there, then there’s nothing to regret after.”
Gwiazdowski hasn’t had many regrets at N.C. State. He hasn’t lost since Jan. 2, 2014. But there was a time when he did take his lumps.
He was only in eighth grade when he made Bena’s varsity team at Duanesburg High. Gwiazdowski actually lost more matches in five years of high school (24) than he has in four years of college (11).
Most younger wrestlers who make the high school varsity team do so at a lighter weight. Gwiazdowski jumped in at 152 pounds.
“It was tough,” Bena said. “He was up against older kids, stronger kids, and they got the best of him.
“The thing about Nick is he never got flustered. He never blamed anyone, either. He took the time to learn from his mistakes.”
If you put the work in, you earn the right to win. That’s what Nick has done. He has worked hard and he doesn’t want anybody to take it away from him.
Joe Bena, Nick Gwiazdowski’s high school coach
Those early losses were “a reality check,” Frank Popolizio said.
“When you’re that young, it forces you to adjust immediately,” Popolizio said. “You create survival skills.”
Gwiazdowski developed a mental edge that he never lost.
“He was never ever cocky,” Bena said, “but always confident.”
Bena sounds like he has a granola-sized gravel in his throat when he talks. Close your eyes and you would think you’re listening to Burgess Meredith’s character “Mickey” from the “Rocky” movies.
Instead of chasing chickens, Gwiazdowski has chased down the memory of those early losses. You learn from losses, Bena said, which has made the last three years somewhat of a challenge.
“Winners find a way to win,” Bena said.
Gwiazdowski did just that. He was the state champion by his junior year. Then he made a promise to Bena before his senior year.
“I’m going to pin everybody this year,” Gwiazdowski told his coach.
Bena doubted his star, not the will but the practical sense of the goal. The coach should have known better. Gwiazdowski had 50 matches his senior season, seven ended by forfeit. The other 43? Forty-three pins.
“If you put the work in, you earn the right to win,” Bena said. “That’s what Nick has done. He has worked hard and he doesn’t want anybody to take it away from him.”
Behind Gwiazdowski in the lobby of the Weisiger-Brown building, where N.C. State’s wrestling team practices, is the temporary display case for the athletics hall of fame.
The memories of the school’s all-time greats – David Thompson, Ted Brown, Torry Holt – will have a permanent home in a renovated Reynolds Coliseum by August.
Popolizio, the skeptic at first sight, has no doubt Gwiazdowski will have his own niche in the school’s hall of fame.
A third straight individual title would put Gwiazdowski in select company. Only three other heavyweights have pulled off that hat trick.
A top five team finish in the NCAAs might be Gwiazdowski’s lasting contribution. N.C. State’s best finish was seventh in 1993. North Carolina’s fifth-place finish in 1982 is the highest ever by an ACC team.
Popolizio laughs when he tells the story about meeting Gwiazdowski for the first time. He couldn’t have predicted this success.
“But it didn’t take me long to figure it out,” Popolizio said. “What he has done has been incredible. He absolutely belongs with the best who’ve ever competed here.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio