Dustin Fox used to get the strangest looks from other high school wrestlers when he introduced himself. Surely, they thought, this guy wasn't imposing enough to be the same Dustin Fox who was Ohio's top prep heavyweight and one of the nation's best.
Then he began his collegiate career at Northwestern and heard from the hecklers around the Big Ten. They looked at his build and long, dark-blond hair and wondered aloud if Fox had gotten lost on the way to a Chris Farley look-alike contest.
"I used to laugh pretty hard at that. That's pretty funny," Fox said. "I've heard some good ones. Everybody's like, 'For being so fat, you're really quick.' I look bigger than the kids I wrestle, but they look like bodybuilders. I don't know if I look that impressive."
His wrestling résumè certainly does.
Fox, a senior from Galion, Ohio, is 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country at heavyweight. He was an All-American last season and has been a pillar in the reconstruction of Northwestern's program.
The Wildcats were the worst team in the Big Ten for four consecutive seasons at the turn of the millennium. They were so far behind the rest of the conference, in fact, that the aggregate point total the Wildcats accumulated in the conference meets from 2001 through 2004 wouldn't have resulted in anything better than sixth-place finish in any of those tournaments.
Northwestern hit rock bottom in 2001 when it hosted the conference meet. The Wildcats scored only six team points -- the fewest for a squad at the Big Ten tournament since 1984 -- and failed to qualify any wrestlers for the NCAA championships.
"We had good kids on the team, it's just that we had a lot of kids get hurt," Northwestern coach Tim Cysewski said. "A lot of guys we were planning on being starters for three or four years got hurt and a lot of them had season-ending or career-ending injuries. That set us back a lot trying to recover from that. We had to depend on kids who weren't starters to begin with, and that's tough on any team, especially a team such as ours. Our depth will always be an issue."
Cysewski has learned how to deal with roster impediments. He coaches a sport that has more starters per team (10) than the NCAA allows scholarships (the NCAA maximum is 9.9). He works at a school that costs students $43,000 annually to attend. Those circumstances have led the Wildcats to disburse their scholarship allotment in larger chunks than most of their competitors.
It's not an ideal situation for constructing a national contender. But Cysewski -- a junior on the 1975 Iowa team that won the first of the school's 20 NCAA titles -- has sold top recruits on the idea of getting a good education while building a tradition for Northwestern wrestling.
The first pieces of the reconstruction process snapped into place in 2003 when the Wildcats landed a pair of blue-chip recruits: four-time Ohio state champion Ryan Lang and Pennsylvania state champ Jake Herbert. Lang's and Herbert's commitments were instrumental in helping Northwestern lure Fox the following year.
"It was just common sense knowing Jake and Lang were going to do very well at the college level," said Fox, who also considered Stanford, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Princeton and Virginia. "I saw an opportunity to build a team from scratch."
Northwestern surged from a 50th-place finish at the 2004 NCAA meet to 14th the following year when Fox was a freshman. The Wildcats matched a school-best finish last season when they placed fourth, collecting the bulk of their points from Herbert (the NCAA champion at 184), Lang (the runner-up at 141) and Fox (third at heavyweight).
Northwestern, currently ranked 10th, might have been a legitimate national championship threat this season with Herbert in the lineup. But he is taking the year off from college wrestling to train for the Olympic trials in freestyle and will return to the Wildcats in the fall for his senior season.
Nevertheless, Northwestern appears to be set for success after Fox, Lang and third-ranked 197-pounder Mike Tamillow exhaust their eligibility in March. The Wildcats added Mike Benefiel, one of the nation's top prospects last year, and signed Jason Welch, the top-recruit in the country this year.
Much like the program he wrestles for, Fox has made significant improvement since his arrival in Evanston. He went 33-5 as a junior after compiling a 47-23 record during his first two seasons.
"I'm a lot less nervous before matches and I don't waste as much energy on being nervous," he said. "It's not necessarily because I respect my opponents any less, but I realize that all I can do is wrestle as hard as I can and then let the chips fall where they may. I wouldn't say I'm lucky, but I happen to win."
Fox's success, however, is hardly an accident. He's better at riding opponents than he was when he got to college. He's stronger and quicker, too. After missing the first month of the season while getting down to the 285-pound weight limit, he's getting into better shape -- Fox said he was "a svelte 335" during the summer before losing 50 pounds -- and he's always been adept at, well, outfoxing his adversaries.
"He's a smart kid with a lot of things going for him," Cysewski said. "It's going to be exciting to see how he develops in the next 10 or 15 years. He might be the next billionaire. Anything he gets himself into and wants to focus in on, he's going to be really successful.
Fox isn't completely sure yet about his career path. He might train for the Olympic trials. He might utilize the Mandarin language classes he has taken at Northwestern to pursue a business career in China. He might use what he has learned in film studies to get into online video distribution.
But for now, Fox's concentration is centered on scripting the right ending to his college wrestling career.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.