It’s an adjustment, college. Wrestling in college might be, as well; but when it is the lone bastion of familiarity for a young man, progression ceases to become a choice and instead offers the only comfort on which they can rely. The concept of development? It’s controllable. A “reap what you sow” deal. They knew the game, knew why they pressed the button for an option that, certainly in these United States, still drips with peculiarity.
All of the student athletes at Northern Michigan University stand out amid American wrestling’s crowded collegiate landscape. Full-time participants in a discipline that is underappreciated and perpetually occupies the back burner on the sport’s hot stove. But the best thing about Northern — each and every season — is that the newbies need not immerse themselves in such a jaded state of mind. There are too many more important matters at hand. Too much eagerness, not a lot of downtime, and just enough isolation from the mainstream. Most only witness the fruits of their labor when whistles blow and scores are tallied. Interested parties then notice them, asking next-step questions with raised voices.
Payton Jacobson (72 kg) had just begun to hear the noise some 20 months ago, well before he ever tossed his bags down on campus in Marquette late last spring. Aidan Nutter (60 kg), not so much, though his bloodline already implied expectations attached to his arrival.
Nutter and Jacobson are just two members of NMU’s loaded collection of young guns, though both have already felt the warmth of Greco’s smallish spotlight.
Prior to July, Nutter — younger brother of ’19 Junior World bronze Alston Nutter (67 kg, Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #5) — had never before competed in a Senior-level tournament. He was not recognized as a “Greco guy”, if such a thing can be objectively measured. Yet, he won. Impressively. It was the Last Chance Qualifier for the World Team Trials and Nutter attacked with a level of conviction that was startling given his general greenness. The Senior Trials tournament itself was supposed to be an uphill battle, which it was. Except, no one cares. Nutter’s 0-2 ledger from September fails to diminish his prospects in the eyes of hardcores as it was only his second top-tier event. “Last Chance proved he could wrestle with the Seniors,” Alston says. “Then once Senior Trials came along it was awesome to compete in the same tournament as him.”
Jacobson is currently beholden to a higher profile. ’19 was when his name began to circulate around the nation. As a member of the Topper Wrestling Club then hosted by Burlington Catholic Central (Wisconsin), Jacobson stormed to several medal-winning performances overseas — which quickly caught the eyes of those who understand what that could indicate going forward. Because the Americans are behind the curve developmentally from an international perspective, age-group tournament placings in foreign countries are no small matter. Jacobson, a neophyte to that side of the sport at the time, instantly gained stateside credibility. It was not solely about the golds, or the number of individual matches won. It was more about the investment. US athletes who find themselves overseas — from youths to Seniors — do not travel just for competition. They go abroad also to train; and training with foreigners tends to put wrestlers on a faster developmental track.
The evidence supporting Jacobson’s presumed impending surge is thus: he triumphed at the ’20 Junior Nationals, finished second to now-teammate Dominic Damon at the ’21 Junior Trials, and earned a silver at the Pan-Am Championships. Like Nutter, Jacobson competed in the Senior Trials this past September. He too did not place, and took it on the chin against Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP) in his maiden domestic Senior match. But after that initial defeat, Jacobson turned back fellow prospect Griffin Parriott (Minnesota Storm) and dropped a 1-1 criteria nod to recent National Teamer Jamel Johnson.
Close to the Situation
The thickest threads tying Nutter and Jacobson together, aside from their shared aspirations, are not difficult to spot. Alston Nutter is a slam dunk, obviously, and still teems with excitement regarding his reunion with Aidan in Marquette. Jacobson doesn’t have an “Alston”, but he does have a “Mr. Fantastic”. Benji Peak (72 kg, Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #2) has occupied a front-row seat to Jacobson’s rise dating back to their time coming up together in Wisconsin. The elder Nutter and Peak are notoriously close friends, as most are aware, which is one more patch in the quilt covering the inner dynamics among the foursome.
Plus — Aidan Nutter and Jacobson are, in fact, roommates on campus.
That is why it first pays to veer towards a non-partisan voice. NMU assistant coach Parker Betts patrols near the pair of sprites on a daily basis during practice inside of the (newly-revamped) Superior Dome and acknowledges their shared work ethic, even if it can be manifested a little differently.
“Aidan is pretty much a direct reflection of Alston,” says Betts. “He fits in really well and brings a good laid-back energy to the room when the guys need that. He is also very attentive and always willing to learn, asking questions and trying to improve everyday. Payton, he really has a motor on him. He loves grinding. During morning practices when everyone is pummeling, some guys are just going through the motions. Not Payton. He is always pummeling as if he is in a live match.”
Betts’ read on both athletes is not far off from most other early reports. Neither is it tethered to a longstanding emotional component. For that, we have Alston Nutter and Peak, with the duo unable to contain their enthusiasm when given the chance to expound upon the prospects of this piece’s two principle subjects.
“After high school I think Aidan just needed a little break,” the older Nutter begins. “Once he got into college he wasn’t constantly getting a competitive feel and I think he really missed that. He called me one day when him and my family were coming up for my birthday in Marquette and asked ‘do you think (NMU head coach Andy) Bisek would let me on the team?’ It really caught me off guard but I told him we’d love that. After that he came up here and talked to Bisek and he was set. I thought it was awesome. It made me really happy to see him catch some fire in his eyes and start chasing his dreams. As a big brother, I can’t tell you how cool that is.
“He has been a super-disciplined athlete, which I can say I’m really proud of that,” continued Alston. “Now he’s in the room with me everyday and it’s pretty special to have my brother on this ride with me. It’s awesome wrestling with your best friends, but nothing is better than sharing the mat with your blood. Aidan has come a long way. He has been wrestling with the best guys in the country and is showing that he is of that caliber. I think there are some big things coming for him, but like anything else it’s going to take work and time. I’m just really glad that I can work alongside him and watch it all happen.”
Peak — who, again, is playing the role of Jacobson’s familial watchdog — does not require quite as many words when it is his turn to provide an assessment. They aren’t necessary. The moment Jacobson is brought up in the conversation, Peak instantly becomes adrenalized and relies on various inflections to get his point across — as well as one bold declaration pertaining to this very season.
“Payton is the truth, the truth,” emphasizes Peak. “I want you to print it just that way. I am telling you. I’ve taught him everything I know, he listens to Bill (Kahle)… He is so freaking good. He’s a monster and has gotten so much stronger. Wait until you see what he is going to do at Juniors (Junior World Team Trials) this year. This is going to be the most dominant Junior performance you will see in our time. In the United States, if one guy makes it past the first minute against Payton then I will be very surprised. I’m that confident. I can’t even explain how good this dude is.”
Their Own Voices
It is clear that those closest to Nutter and Jacobson are pleased to have the tandem on campus engaged in the same passionate pursuit. Support, particularly in this early phase of their careers, is paramount. Even more so when the loudest cheerleaders can explain in vivid detail the terrain they are attempting to navigate.
But, as is custom, first-person perspectives are where the most value is gleaned. The efforts from Nutter and Jacobson have thus far not gone unnoticed, and much has already been wondered and verbalized with regards to their development. That they are going through this process together at the one place in the country most closely-associated with future Greco success is the biggest component. It’s just not the only one. How the duo observes their respective climbs towards the top, and discerns the differences between Greco and everything else, are important factors to consider, as well.
Aidan Nutter (63 kg, NMU/NTS)
Payton Jacobson (72 kg, NYAC/NTS)
5PM: You both had a very good idea of what going to NMU and living this kind of life would entail before ever enrolling at the school. That said, have there been any obstacles you didn’t expect?
Payton Jacobson: We didn’t have the (Superior Dome) room this past semester and had to practice in the dance studio. That kind of sucked. But next semester we’re getting our room back, so that’s exciting.
Aidan Nutter: And we had different times for practices. 55 to 67 (kilograms) would go at 3:00pm and the heavier guys would go at a later time. That was definitely a change for everyone in the room.
5PM: How about as far as classes go, academics?
AN: Payton and I had anatomy class together that we kind of struggled with. I actually had to miss a couple of practices for that towards the end of the semester. We’d have to stay up late and then get up early for practices. It was tough to balance that out but we got it done.
5PM: You’re both from Wisconsin and not strangers when it comes to cold weather, but the Upper Peninsula with the lake nearby and all that snow, whatever. How has it been since, say, November?
PJ: Right now there isn’t any snow, but it has been snowing in Marquette since the end of October. It seems like it never stops snowing.
5PM: Payton knew that he wanted to go to Northern for a while and do this sport full-time. Aidan, you came from a different path but you were involved via association due to your brother. Do you guys see the uniqueness of this all, being full-timers at NMU?
AN: For sure.
PJ: Yeah, as soon as you start going full-time you know there’s a difference immediately as far as training and how much better you can get.
AN: I feel like we persevere a lot more, too, with the way practices are and with the partners. You get your butt kicked some days but you know that each day you’re getting better. Personally, I just love the way that practices are set up and how they are run compared to folkstyle. Switching to Greco has made me love it that much more here with the way that it’s set up.
PJ: The coaches like to do a lot of live, and I like to compete a lot. I look forward to practice everyday.
AN: A couple of days could just be drilling and then a lift in the afternoon, and the other days we’re just grinding. I love that.
5PM: I’m sure you both have friends who wrestle in normal college programs. Well, I’m assuming Jacobson does. I could also picture him not…
5PM: The point is, you both know what it looks like for other college wrestlers but you guys are doing something different now. Do you ever talk to them to compare?
AN: We actually have a guy who transferred from West Virginia on our team who we’re good buddies with. He told us that it was just a constant grind. One day they’d run like 12 miles, and then on another day half the team is hurt. Stuff like that. We hear his perspective all the time and he loves wrestling now a lot more I feel like.
PJ: I have a few buddies who go to Minnesota. Talking to them and other guys on the folkstyle team, they just aren’t the same as Greco wrestlers.
5PM: What do you mean?
PJ: They have different goals. Their goals are all in the US while our goal is to win World medals. They have to make weight every week, and we only make weight for big tournaments.
AN: I feel like our personalities are a lot different, too. Greco is a lot more humbling and we don’t get the most credit we deserve all the time. I don’t know. I feel like Greco guys are just different people.
5PM: Do you sense that in the United States it is Greco versus everyone else? Or would you prefer there to be more unity between Greco and the other styles? Do you guys like that, how Greco is kind of separated into its own community?
PJ: Personally, I like how Greco guys are different. I don’t know how to put it into words.
AN: I agree with that. I like being separated because freestyle is completely different. A freestyle or folkstyle guy might think he knows Greco, but they don’t really know what we do. I don’t know. What Payton said. We are so different. I don’t know how to explain it.
PJ: We wrestle a different sport. It’s different.
5PM: Aidan, you’ve had a good vantage point for five years what NMU can do for someone, and not just with regards to wrestling. Did you ever picture yourself winding up at Northern eventually?
Aidan Nutter: Honestly, I never would have thought that I would come here. I didn’t think I’d be up here until we visited for my brother’s birthday. I had no intention whatsoever. Something just clicked in my brain and that was all she wrote.
5PM: How about you Payton? You knew you wanted to go to NMU for quite a while, but what if the pandemic never happened and the OTC (Olympic & Paralympic Training Center) never shut down? Do you ever look back and imagine yourself somewhere else, what that might look like?
Payton Jacobson: For Greco? Not really. I probably decided that I wanted to go to Northern when I decided to go to Topper because I knew how Lucas Steldt’s athletes, Benji and Alston, got so much better here. Then I wanted to go.
5PM: We treat overseas experience as a big deal and Payton earned medals, including a couple of golds, each time he traveled beginning in ’19. For you Aidan, is that sort of travel and international competition a major priority as well at this stage of your career?
AN: I definitely want to compete overseas, that is a huge goal of mine right now. I just want to see what I can do. I’m definitely excited to go over there and compete. It’s a huge thing in my mind.
5PM: Jacobson, when you wrestle Benji in practice, is that an older brother-younger brother psychological disadvantage for you?
PJ: (Laughs) A little bit. Yeah, it is. He is always teaching me stuff, too, though.
5PM: When you say “teaching you stuff”, like after a live go?
PJ: Usually after practice. When he was healthy, stuff he scored on me with. He’d help me out and tell me what I’m doing wrong. He is just always trying to get me better.
5PM: Nutter, do you wrestle with Alston in the room?
AN: Yeah, I do quite a bit.
5PM: How does that go for you?
AN: It goes alright. He will tell me what I did wrong, the positioning I need so that doesn’t happen. It helps a lot, actually.
5PM: Does it ever get heated?
AN: Honestly, not really. Sometimes maybe a little bit. Sometimes I’ll get mad and hit him in the nose or something (laughs). Nothing personal though, no. We’re pretty chill.
5PM: You both wrestled in the Senior Trials in September. Did that mean anything significant to you guys since it was a first-time experience?
AN: It definitely meant something to me. It was my first big Senior tournament. I had wrestled at Junior Trials, but this was Senior and I wanted to see where I stood against these guys. I just got put in par terre early and didn’t have a chance to do anything because things happen so fast in Greco. I would just like to go back to that tournament, but it’s over now. I have more to do. It was a cool experience, for sure. I just wish I had pummeled a lot more and didn’t get put down.
It was cool because I had went to Superior Camp my freshman year and actually wrestled Randon (Miranda) out there and he took me down in :10. I’ve known Randon since Alston has been up there. When I had him in the Senior Trials, it was just, Okay, let’s lay it all out on the table, but it didn’t turn out how I wanted. But it was good. It was a good learning experience for me.
PJ: For me it was big. I didn’t too bad. Didn’t wrestle well against (Michael) Hooker. Made a few adjustments after that and then had a close match with Jamel (Johnson). It really gave me confidence that I’m right there with the top guys. I just have to wrestle my best and keep getting better.
5PM: Do you think younger wrestlers, such as those in high school, look at athletes like yourselves as leaders based on the choice you made to pursue this route?
PJ: Yeah, definitely. But not as the top guys, though. I feel they look more towards Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock) being a Senior medalist, and Benji, Alston, and the other top young guys. Aidan and I are going to be up there soon. People who know that we are at Northern also know that we’re going through the process right now.
AN: Especially for me, for people to see me taking Greco off and then going to Northern. They can see what it can do. They can also see how much happier wrestling can be at Northern, the improvements. Seeing me on the big stage, like at a Senior tournament. I think a lot of kids could say, Oh, I can do something like that, too.
Plus, Northern changed my own view on wrestling so much. I hope a lot of people can follow that because it’s the best of both worlds.
5PM: Then what would you say to a 16 or 17-year-old who might be on the fence and is considering full-time Greco? Or maybe they aren’t considering it but you think they should? How would you approach that conversation?
PJ: I made the decision myself. I told my parents what I decided and they supported it. It was the best thing I’ve done. My wrestling has become so much better. If I went back to folkstyle now, I’d be 100 times better than I was before.
AN: My advice is that you have so much more time to critique stuff. It’s not like folkstyle where it is a constant grind during the season and you have no time to critique. With Greco, you have months to clean up and prepare. You don’t have to make weight all the time. It’s not that constant grind. It is more about loving the sport, and learning and learning about the sport. It is so technical, the improvements, the adjustments. That’s what I love.
That’s what I would tell someone. You learn to love wrestling a lot more by focusing on the little things and critiquing. By taking something and making it a strength.
5PM: You two are roommates. How do you like it?
AN: We like it.
PJ: We push each other. It’s good.
5PM: No quirks, no habits you find annoying in one another?
Payton Jacobson: No.
Aidan Nutter: No. We get in our little arguments, but no. Payton and I actually grew up wrestling together. When he was in eighth grade, we were on the same national team. I actually hit him up to be roommates here. It’s cool to go back that far and stay close. When he started focusing on Greco we stopped talking a little bit just because I was out of the loop. But it’s cool to look back now that we’re at Northern and see how far we’ve come.
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