There is no glamor in the loading dock, not even in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
There are extra basketball goals, fork lifts, scattered Madison Square Garden security guards, a horde of jubilant Penn State wrestlers and fans and some lonely stacks of otherwise ignored folding tables in the back.
Nick Gwiazdowski parked his 6-1, 255-pound frame on a stack of those tables and tried to digest what had happened minutes before in front of a sellout crowd of more than 19,000 in the arena Willis Reed, Muhammad Ali, Mark Messier, Frank Sinatra and so many others made famous in midtown Manhattan.
The N.C. State senior had just lost his first match in 26 months. He was trying to remember the 88 straight wins before Saturday’s 7-5 loss to Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder in the 285-pound NCAA championship match.
“For some reason in this sport, you always remember the bad times,” Gwiazdowski said.
The only bad part of Saturday was the ending. For the first 6 and a half minutes of the 7-minute match, Gwiazdowski, the No. 1 seed and two-time defending NCAA champion, controlled Snyder, who is a certified wrestling prodigy.
But Gwiazdowski’s aggressiveness got the best of him. He could have stalled, and later admitted that would have been the right move, but he got lost in the moment.
He remained engaged with Snyder with a 5-3 lead and the Ohio State sophomore, who became the youngest American to win a world title in September, made one last shoot and scored a last-ditch, desperate takedown to tie the match with 22 seconds left in regulation.
Visually deflated and mentally kicking himself for not closing Snyder out, Gwiazdowski didn’t last long in what is called “sudden victory” overtime in wrestling parlance.
Snyder caught “The Gwiz” with his signature single-leg takedown for two points and the national title 15 seconds into extra time.
Match over. Streak over. Career over. Just like that.
Snyder raised both arms and embraced his coaches while the Ohio State contingent in the electrified building roared. Gwiazdowski, who almost forgot what it was like to lose since he hadn’t since Jan. 2, 2014, found his way to the loading dock.
Clear-eyed but dejected, Gwiazdowski was composed with the media afterward. He even made a point to thank his family, coaches and fans.
“Make sure you put in there a thank you to everyone who helped me get here,” Gwiazdowski said.
When I look back, I can’t be mad about anything. I’m not happy how it finished but I think I made the most of my four years, minus 20 seconds, maybe.
N.C. State wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski
Either he is a better actor than a wrestler or he wasn’t angry or emotionally devastated. There was a surreal sense to the loss. Respect was paid to Snyder but there was some regret.
“I’ll lose sleep over it for a couple of weeks,” Gwiazdowski said. “I’ll probably talk about it a lot because that’s how I get over things.”
So that’s what he did for the next 2 minutes and 54 seconds. He didn’t talk about the stalemate in the first period or his 3-0 lead in the second period.
You could see the wheels turning when he got to rehashing the end of regulation.
“I probably should have just ran and taken two stall calls,” Gwiazdowski said.
With a 5-3 lead and the clock in the final 30, Gwiazdowski could have “ran” or circled with Snyder and stalled. You get two stall calls before your opponent is awarded a point. Given the amount of time left, Gwiazdowski could have milked the clock and left the Garden with what would have been an historic 5-4 win over Snyder.
To Gwiazdowski’s credit, and detriment, he didn’t run. To Snyder’s credit, he made a great move.
“It’s not like (Nick) made mistakes,” N.C. State coach Pat Popolizio said. “He wrestled the best guy in the world.”
Snyder was only 19 when he won at the Senior World Championships in Las Vegas in September. He had planned on redshirting this college season to prepare for the Olympics but changed his mind in January.
He moved up in weight class, he was the runner-up at 197 pounds last year at the NCAAs, and did to Gwiazdowski what Gwiazdowski did to Minnesota’s Tony Nelson in 2014.
Nelson was a two-time NCAA champion who made it back to the final for a third straight year. Gwiazdowski was the upstart and scored late to take home his first NCAA title.
Gwiazdowski wanted to remember that win and those good times as the clock crept into Sunday morning. He tried not to think about what got away, rather what he accomplished in three years at N.C. State and his first year at Binghamton.
One hundred and 40 wins, four All-American finishes, three trips to the finals and two NCAA titles. He helped N.C. State go from nobodies to 11th place in the country in the process.
“What he has done is truly amazing,” Popolizio said. “He has helped put this program on the map. It was an honor to coach him.”
Perspective is tougher to find than glamor in the loading dock after your first loss in 807 days but Gwiazdowski tried.
“When I look back, I can’t be mad about anything,” he said. “I’m not happy how it finished but I think I made the most of my four years, minus 20 seconds, maybe.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio