It didn’t take long for Peyton Brooks to turn disappointment into motivation.
This past spring, he was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Division 3 at 152 pounds, but on the day before the Regional tournament, the Bullock Creek star had his junior season cut short because of a positive COVID-19 test on the team.
“I got home, and I was kind of disappointed and I was really down on myself for about a day,” Brooks said. “I saw no point in feeling that way, so I actually started using that feeling to better myself for the next year.”
It’s now next year, and Brooks – a Finals runner-up in 2020 – is focused on putting himself in a position to finish what he started and reach the top of the podium.
“I think I’ve been putting a little bit of extra work in, going harder in practice,” he said. “I want to make sure I do everything right. I know it’s my senior year, and it’s my last chance to win a state championship, so I want to do everything to make sure that happens.”
Brooks seemed to have done all he could a year ago, as well. He was 24-0 through the Individual District, and had helped lead Bullock Creek to its first Team District title in 10 years. In the District Final, he defeated Sanford Meridian’s Nick Dodman 5-2. Dodman went on to win the Individual Finals title at 152.
But as the Lancers were going through their final day of preparation for the Individual Regional, one team member’s rapid test came back positive. The timing meant there was no way for Brooks, or his teammates who were close contacts, to get cleared.
“Last year was a crazy year all the way around,” Bullock Creek coach Alan Curtis said. “There were a lot of other teams that got hit earlier in the season than we did. We just happened to catch it at the end of the season. It’s kind of like everybody was waiting for it to happen, but hoping it didn’t. There’s really not much you can say, and it’s really nobody’s fault. It is what it is. We kind of looked at every option we had to get him down there, but when it came down to it, our hands were tied.”
While Brooks was disappointed in how things ended, he remained positive about the season.
“Personally, I was just happy to have a season,” he said. “We started two or three months late – we started in February when the postseason would normally be – so I tried not to take any meet or anything for granted. I felt like I had a chance of not being able to compete at all.”
Not taking things for granted is something Brooks has carried into this winter. His work ethic has always been exemplary, Curtis said, but there is an added focus as Brooks prepares for his final wrestling season.
“Right from the first practice of the season, he stays after every practice – he gets guys to stay after and work with him,” Curtis said. “He goes through our whole practice, then he stays after another half hour with whoever he can get.”
Wrestling isn’t the only thing Brooks excels at, as he also was a standout running back and linebacker for the Bullock Creek football team. He said he’s keeping his options open in terms of playing at the next level, as he hasn’t decided which sport he will continue. Playing both, though, has been a benefit.
“I think they both helped me in both sports,” said Brooks, who also is a sprinter on the track team. “I think wrestling has helped me more with football. It’s made me a better athlete with my work ethic, athleticism, balance, speed and footwork. It’s really made me a better player.”
With his focus on football through the fall, there is the challenge of getting down to weight for Brooks. He plays at about 180 pounds on the gridiron but plans to wrestle at 160 for the majority of this season. A drop to 152 also isn’t out of the question.
“He’s one that I never have to worry about his weight,” Curtis said. “He knows what he needs to do, and he doesn’t starve himself. He does it the right way. He works out on his own at home. His work ethic is phenomenal.”
No matter the weight Brooks comes in at, he figures to be among the favorites to win an individual title. If he’s able to pull it off, he admitted the combination of it being his senior year and the events of a year ago would make it that much more special.
His coach agreed.
“I think it would be amazing,” Curtis said. “He doesn’t normally show a lot of emotion, but I think that would get to him, because he’s worked so hard.
“He should have had it last year. I don’t know if he feels like he was robbed, but he knows he should have won it last year. That’s going to give that extra drive this year to get it done.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Midland Bullock Creek’s Peyton Brooks, far right, raises his hand signifying a win last winter. (Middle) Brooks attempts to bring down an opponent during the 2020 Individual Finals. (Photos provided by the Bullock Creek wrestling program.)
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.)