BROOKLYN – A little more than a year ago, Cooper Gunnells’ greatest dream was thwarted by what turned into a horrible nightmare.
A sophomore wrestler at Brooklyn Columbia Central at the time, Gunnells dreamed of qualifying for the MHSAA Division 3 Individual Finals at The Palace.
He never got the chance in 2015, but he will be there this year as a Regional champion – and his twin brother will be there, too, in the same weight division.
In January of 2015, an illness – paired with a freak wrestling injury – turned into a nearly two-month stay in the hospital that threatened Cooper’s life.
“At first, we thought we’d lose him for a couple of weeks. Then it was, ‘Oh shoot, we’re going to lose him for the year,’ and then it was, ‘He might die.’ It suddenly put everything into perspective. Wrestling just didn’t seem that important anymore.” – Columbia Central wrestling coach Ron Guernsey
Cooper said he had a slight cold early in January, but it didn’t keep him from wrestling as it wasn’t a big deal. However, what happened in one match turned into a very big deal.
“My throat was a little dry because of the cold,” he said. “I got put in a headlock, and I think I went to pry up on this guy’s elbow to get away from him, and I felt a little rip in my throat, but I didn’t think anything of it. I just kept on wrestling.”
As the days went on, Cooper began to have trouble breathing. He noticed it during some of his matches.
“It hit me hard,” he said. “When I was wrestling one kid, I felt very fatigued. I couldn’t get my breath back. I was looking at my coach like, ‘What is going on? I’m not usually like this.’”
It also affected his sleep, and the only way he could get a decent night of sleep was to sit in a chair with his arms folded on the top of the chair to provide a little relief in his lungs.
After two trips to the emergency room – both times he was told he had mononucleosis – things got worse.
“The moment I really started to feel like something was really serious was when I started having shallow breaths and couldn’t really breathe that well,” Cooper said. “My chest really, really hurt; it hurt to the touch.
“I called my dad and told him that something was really wrong; he needed to come get me, and we needed to go to the hospital now. It was like nine or 10 o’clock at night. They hooked me up to an EKG, and they looked at me, then looked at the machine again, and said, ‘You need to get to U of M pronto.’ I didn’t know what was going on.
“All I remember from that point on is they hooked me up to a morphine bag. They started pumping me full of morphine, and I just kind of dozed off to sleep. I was there, but I wasn’t. I remember like little periods of that whole incident.”
The “rip” he had felt in his throat was actually a tear in his esophagus, so when he ate or drank, everything spilled into his lungs and chest cavity, causing an infection.
“If we had waited another day or two, from what the doctor said, the outcome wouldn’t have been very good,” said Cooper’s father, Scott Gunnells.
Cooper was in the intensive care unit as the doctors battled the infection.
“It was just a weird set of circumstances that brought it about,” Guernsey said. “Once it got into his lungs, they had to go in two different times to scrape his lungs.
“It was a big deal. They were pumping him with antibiotics, and he went from 125 pounds to 100 pounds. It was hard to even look at him.”
Cooper’s twin brother, Keenan, had a similar feeling.
“It was really scary,” Keenan said. “I didn’t even want to go to the hospital to see my brother in the condition he was in. It was hard.”
As Cooper lay in the hospital, he really was unaware of his condition or the severity of it.
“At first, when I starting coming to, I was bloated full of fluids and had chest tubes in me,” he said. “I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I had a whole bunch of IVs in my arm. The doctors came in and told me I ripped my esophagus and everything I was eating and drinking was going to my chest cavity. It made this thick mucus inside my lungs, and then the pericardium (sac around your heart), that was full of fluids, too.
“I had tubes going in my neck down into my chest area and tubes from both sides of my chest that was draining out all of the junk that was inside of me.”
He also was incubated with a breathing tube.
“The thought came to my head that I might never wrestle again, but I really wanted to wrestle.” – Cooper Gunnells
When Cooper was first released about six weeks after going into the hospital, he returned after just eight hours and stayed another week.
While in the hospital, his spirits were lifted when the Michigan State University wrestling team sent a signed shirt, and three members of the University of Michigan wrestling team visited him in the hospital.
“That was really cool,” Cooper said. “I asked them about their go-to moves and stuff like that, and they said to ‘stick to the basics.’”
A return to wrestling was going to be a big step for a young man who had dropped 20 percent of his body weight from 125 to 100 pounds, and the doctors put him on a 4,000-calorie diet – maybe the only good thing that happened to Cooper during that time.
“It was great actually,” he said. “I splurged on ice cream and chocolate milk. They had these calorie bags that they would open and pour into my chocolate milk. It’s like 1,000 calories each.”
Cooper got out of the hospital in time to see his twin brother, Keenan, nearly advance to the MHSAA Tournament. He lost by one point in his final match in the Regional.
During the season, Keenan normally wrestles at a different weight class than Cooper so both can get into the lineup, but that was not necessary when Cooper was sidelined last season. But Keenan felt like he was wrestling for his stricken brother and made some changes to honor him.
“I was wrestling for him for sure,” Keenan said. “He made me try harder. Actually, at two tournaments, I bumped up to his weight class and took first at that level. I did it for him.”
Cooper never lost his desire to get back to wrestling. He returned to the mat near the end of the WAAAM (Wrestling Amateur Athletic Association) season.
“My dad told me I couldn’t wrestle at first,” Cooper said. “He just said, ‘We’ll see where you are in a couple of months.’ It was two weeks before WAAAM ended when I wrestled in WAAAM. I was huffing and puffing; it was hard to breathe.
“Keenan took first in WAAAM and I took eighth, but it was a learning process and had to start somewhere.”
Cooper played on the soccer team last fall to help build up his cardio, and he was relentless in his work to get back in wrestling shape.
“He worked so much harder when he got out of the hospital to get back where he is now,” Keenan said. “Those late-night runs, while I’m sitting on the couch doing cookie curls – eating cookies while he’s out running and busting his butt – just to know where he’s at now, I’m so proud of him.”
Cooper said he feels like he is 100 percent in all areas except endurance.
“I would say I’m 100 percent now strength-wise, but cardio-wise no,” he said. “Those months of being in bed – I couldn’t even walk down the hallway and back.”
Cooper is back. He is seeded first at 125 pounds in Division 2, and he brings in a record of 38-3.
But there remains one unique twist to the story.
“My little brother beat me.” – Keenan Gunnells, on losing to Cooper in the Regional Semifinals two weeks ago
Although Keenan had wrestled at 130 pounds most of the season, he dropped down to 125 for the Regional in an attempt to reach The Palace.
Obviously, that set up the possibility of the twin brothers meeting each other officially for the first time. It was a situation that was tough to face, and it ended up becoming a reality in the Regional Semifinals.
Not everybody wanted the match to take place.
“I told them not to do it,” Scott Gunnells said. “I didn’t want them to wrestle, just flip a coin and save the energy for someone else. Somebody had to lose anyway, and whoever loses has to wrestle harder to get back in.”
Cooper had similar thoughts.
“I really didn’t want to wrestle him because he’s my brother,” he said.
Keenan, who likes to remind Cooper that he is 4 minutes older, was a little more for settling things on the mat.
“It was hard, but it was fun,” Keenan said. “Coach Guernsey gave us the chance not to wrestle. I could have injury-defaulted out of the match and then dropped back down, but I wanted to take first or second to move on, so why not wrestle for it? Who’s the better wrestler?
“It went to overtime, and he got the last takedown, so my little brother beat me.”
While Cooper went on to win the Regional title, Keenan regrouped and finished third to earn a spot at the Finals with a 38-10 record. And a repeat meeting could happen again.
Both are seeded high, and a rematch could take place in the Semifinals or possibly even the Final. With a championship at stake, the twin brothers have a little different outlook.
“It’s a no-mercy kind of thing,” Cooper said. “That’s what we kind of did at Regionals, but now that we’re in states, we’re going to go at it if we meet.”
Keenan would love to reverse the outcome of the last meeting, but either way, he is really pleased to be there with Cooper.
“It’s kind of neat,” Keenan said. “Say Cooper and me both make it through our brackets, we could meet in the Finals. Twins in the Finals? I’m pretty sure everyone would be watching us and not caring about the other matches that are going on.
“I really wanted to make it to state, but it makes it 10 times better to know that my brother will be there with me on the mat while I’m wrestling.”
“I learned that you can’t take life for granted.” – Cooper Gunnells
Cooper said even he is surprised to be where he is today after the terrible ordeal.
“I would have thought it was going to take way longer for me to recover,” he said. “I was like 101 pounds.”
Scott Gunnells reflects on the past year and remembers the pain and worry. He also said he will never forget the support from the community.
“They had a big spaghetti dinner last year, and people showed up who I didn’t even know,” he said. “The community was great, and the outgiving of the community and the sacrifices of the coaches will always be in my mind.
“I don’t care who wins or loses. They are both coming home and both are going to eat at the same table. It doesn’t matter to me.”
The Gunnells brothers have another year to wrestle in high school, and wrestling in college is something both would like to do.
When asked if he had any colleges in mind, Cooper gave an insightful answer.
“I want to wrestle in college and I am hoping to go to Western Michigan because they have a nursing program,” he said. “After going through everything, I think it would be cool to be able to help people.
“You can’t take life for granted. Going through the ICU and seeing some people who were much worse than me, that was pretty painful, too.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brooklyn Columbia Central twins Cooper (left) and Keenan Gunnells wrestle during a Regional Semifinal at Williamston two weekends ago. (Middle) Cooper, below left, Keenan and their coach Ron Guernsey. (Below) Keenan Gunnells faces Alma's Alex Rosas in a third-place match at the Regional. (Top and below photos by HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”
Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.
Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.
“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”
Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.
He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.
“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.
“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”
After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.
However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.
That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.
“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.
“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.
“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”
Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.
“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”
After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.
“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”
Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.
Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.
Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.
“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.
“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”
The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.
“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.
“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”
Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.
“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.
“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”
The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.
“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”
Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.
“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.
“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”
Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.
“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”
Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.
“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.
“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”
Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.
“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)