March 2, 2005
By Erin Myers, Purdue University
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Everyone should want to be a Wissel.
One would come to this conclusion by spending even a short amount of time with Purdue's junior 184-pounder Ben Wissel, who has a family support network beyond compare. Stories of this extensive network had been shared for years among members of the Purdue wrestling community, but unfortunately, no one had ever tried to find the truth behind the legend.
That is, until now.
Wissel's family is unlike any other, special and unique in so many ways. How many people would fly halfway across the world in order to see a brother wrestle? How many parents would practically adopt a son's roommate and treat him as one of their own, just to make him feel special and loved away from home? How many brothers would make the treacherous journey through driving winds and blinding snow so a single match would not be missed? How many mothers would take the time and care to write down a list of her son's best qualities in order not to forget a single detail of why he is so special to all who know him? How many siblings and parents would travel across the continental United States on a regular basis, just to show support for one of their own?
Was there truth behind the legend of the Wissel family or was it just a tall tale?
As it turned out, the stories were true.
Here a Wissel, there a Wissel, everywhere a Wissel ...
Ben Wissel is a lucky guy when it comes to having a large supportive family.
"I have the best family," Ben said. "They're so supportive of me, and I know I can count on them for anything. They're amazing."
In Ben's career as a Purdue wrestler, his family has been absent at only one wrestling event, the Lone Star Duals in Dallas, Texas. At least one Wissel has been spotted in the stands at meets across the country, including the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, the Virginia Duals, the Missouri Open and many other duals across the Midwest.
"The coaches and I mentioned that it felt so weird to not see a Wissel sitting in the stands in Dallas," said Purdue wrestling contact Mark Leddy. "We're just used to always seeing Ben's family at all the meets."
And "family" does not just mean parents and a sibling or two. In Wissel terms, "family" includes Ben's mother and father, Katha and Dick; three older brothers, Tom (36), Danny (34), and Greg (33); an older sister, Anne (29); brother- and sisters-in-law; 12 nieces and nephews; and other assorted family and friends who occasionally join the regular crew.
And every single one of them is crazy about Ben.
"(His family) couldn't ask for a better son, brother, grandson, uncle and friend," Katha said. "He's just awesome. We get compliments on him all the time, and it just makes me so proud."
Her husband agreed.
"He is the greatest kid you could ever imagine, and his nieces and nephews just can't get enough of him even though he teases them so much," Dick said. "Since he's the youngest in our family, I think he enjoys the fact that he gets to be the one to do the teasing."
Ben's sister, Anne, can sympathize with that feeling, and recalls her own joy upon Ben's arrival into the family in 1982.
"I have to admit, Ben was my joy when he was born because I finally had someone I could pick on," Anne said. "I'd had three older brothers tormenting me for so many years, and then it was finally my turn.
"But in all honesty, he was like our little baby instead of our little brother. We all took care of him and raised him."
With that shared responsibility of Ben's upbringing, his brothers did not always feel like brothers.
"Since we were so much older than him, we felt more like dads instead of brothers," Tom said. "Ben had four dads instead of a dad and three older brothers. We all brought him up."
Danny, who currently lives in Italy with his wife and children, remembers taking Ben along with him wherever he went, whether he was fishing or hanging out with his high school friends.
"I would take him with me to basketball games or when I'd go fishing with friends," Danny said. "I really like the outdoors, and he's followed in my footsteps. He'd go everywhere with me. And if I'd tell him to do something, he'd do it."
Ben's brother, Greg, gives him credit for a far greater accomplishment than just following some instructions. Greg said Ben has kept the family united throughout the years.
"It's not like the family wouldn't have stayed close, but with Ben being so much younger than all of us, his functions kept us seeing each other on a regular basis," Greg said. "With all of his games and meets, we all would come as much as possible and it kept us close-knit. So we have Ben to thank for keeping us together."
Katha and Dick agree, believing everything happens for a reason, whether it is immediately apparent or it takes several years to understand.
"My husband played minor league baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies for 12 years and was gone all the time, but then he got the opportunity to become an assistant coach with the team," Katha said. "When that fell through, we wondered why it didn't work out and what the reasoning was, but then Ben came along. I believe Ben was the reason that the coaching job didn't work out because he's brought so much joy to everyone who knows him."
Dick recalls his own memories of Ben's childhood with fondness.
"Since I played baseball while my other children were growing up, I didn't get to spend as much time with them," Dick said. "After playing with the pros, I had come to expect the best from everyone. But with Ben, I really got to be a dad and I had the chance to enjoy seeing the person he was becoming. I enjoyed being able to sit back and raise Ben and watch him grow up."
And he grew up fast.
"Ben could walk before he was 8 months old," Katha said. "And ever since then he's been on the go and working hard at whatever he does."
"The kid had abs when he was only 6 years old," Dick said. "He could do one-handed push-ups when he was only 7 or 8 years old. He developed such a great work ethic and began setting these amazing goals for himself. They were the kinds of goals that I would say, `Ben, are you sure you can do this?' and he would do it."
Ben set one extraordinary goal for himself during his senior year of high school on the football field. A fullback, Ben decided he was going to rush for 1,500 yards for his final season. Ignoring the doubts of those around him, Ben forged ahead and worked towards the 1,500-yard mark, and ended the season with 1,527 total yards rushing.
"He is unbelievable," Tom said. "He has the ability and the work ethic where he could do anything if he set his mind to it, as long as he stays focused."
A long way since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear ...
Katha can still remember Ben's first wrestling tournament and the single mix-up that will forever live on in Wissel family history.
"He was about 5 years old, and at that age for wrestling tournaments you either wear a blue or red singlet," Katha said. "His singlet was reversible, and when he ran onto the mat wearing the wrong color, he just stripped down to reverse and change it right on the mat, and he was wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear. Ben had no modesty, even then."
Ben looks back on his singlet strip show and laughs.
"I didn't really care about being modest," Ben said. "I had on the wrong color and needed to change it, so I did. But when everyone started laughing, I ran in a corner to finish putting it back on."
After that memorable first tournament, Ben wrestled off and on throughout elementary school in club wrestling in his hometown of Richmond, Ind., before seriously getting into the sport in middle school.
"Richmond didn't really have the best club wrestling programs and his high school wasn't really known for wrestling, but Ben seemed to excel at anything he did, no matter what," Katha said.
In high school, Ben went on to excel not only on the mat, but on the football field and the baseball diamond as well. In fact, he seriously considered playing football at the collegiate level. However, one little thing changed his mind: winning the 171-pound Indiana high school state title during his senior year by defeating current Indiana wrestler Brady Richardson in a 6-5 decision. Wissel ended the season with a perfect 43-0 record.
"I was only the second state champion from my high school," Ben recalled. "That's why it was such a big deal when I won the state title my senior year. Winning the title made me really want to wrestle in college."
Katha recalls looking into colleges both big and small for her son, but receiving a handwritten letter in the mail from Purdue assistant coach Scott Hinkel was what made the family decide to visit West Lafayette.
"I'll never forget getting that handwritten letter from coach (Scott) Hinkel," Katha said. "We just thought that was so great, and I remember thinking, `Wow, Ben has come a long way from wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear.'"
Ben remembers events a bit differently from his mom.
"The coaching staff was what made me decide to come to Purdue," Ben said. "My parents and I were only there for the day, but after meeting the whole coaching staff, I decided I wanted to go there. I'd always wanted to wrestle in the Big Ten, and that was my chance. I was going to take it."
Becoming a member of the Boilermaker wrestling family ...
As soon as he arrived in the Purdue wrestling room, everyone liked Ben Wissel and everyone knew he would accomplish great things as a Boilermaker.
"He's so laid-back and quiet, but he's willing to work hard," Reyes said. "That is the kind of person we need working out in the wrestling room to influence his teammates."
Purdue's heavyweight coach, Tom Erikson, works frequently with Ben in the wrestling room and admires his fierce work ethic and humility.
"Ben is a gifted individual," Erikson said. "He's one of the hardest-working and nicest guys on the entire team, and his energy level in the room is unbelievable. He's just a great guy to be around."
After finishing third at the Big Ten Championships and one win shy of earning All-America honors at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore last season, both Ben and his coaches were optimistic about this year. However, due to injuries sustained from constant wear and tear, Ben had to have knee surgery after the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December, keeping him out of the wrestling room for more than two weeks.
"The way I look at (my knee injury) is that it could've been worse than what it was," Ben said. "My knee surgery could have kept me out for the entire season, but luckily, it wasn't that serious and I had a good surgeon. I did what I was told while I was recovering, I had good rehabilitation and I got back on the mat within a few weeks."
After pushing himself hard in the wrestling room, Ben came back to wrestle in the dual against Penn on Jan. 5. He scored six takedowns against his opponent en route to a 16-5 major decision. Wissel looked like he was back on track for a successful season. He was.
Although the 184-pound weight class in the Big Ten is stacked with immense talent this year, Ben has dropped only two conference matches this season, both tight decisions.
"The Big Ten is just so close this year; Ben could be the Big Ten champion or who knows where?" Katha said. "It's a little nerve-wracking, knowing how evenly matched all the guys are in the weight class."
However, Ben does not worry about the difficult road ahead. Rather, he focuses on a goal he set for himself a long time ago.
"I want to be a Big Ten champion," Ben said. "And eventually, I want to be a national champion."
No one, either in his biological or Boilermaker wrestling family, doubts that Wissel is ýcapable of accomplishing those goals.
Blood and water share same thickness at Purdue
Upon arriving at Purdue, Ben discovered that blood and water were not so different.
One of the first people Ben met was his roommate and teammate, Doug Withstandley, a native of Jackson, N.J. Little did the two know that they would become more like brothers instead of just friends and frequent fishing partners.
"Doug was my roommate in the dorms my freshman year of college, and we've lived together ever since," Ben said. "I see him all the time and we never seem to get into arguments about stuff. We have a lot in common, including our love of fishing, and with his family halfway across the country, my family pretty much adopted him ever since I first came here."
Withstandley, the starting 149-pounder for the Boilermakers, is grateful for his new-found adoptive family and admires how close-knit the Wissels have remained, no matter the geographical distance.
"Ben's relationship with his family is indescribable; I've never seen groups of people as tight-knit as he is with his family," Doug said. "It's amazing the love and support they have for each other. I've been fortunate to have a lot of good things happen to me in my life, but one thing that I wish I had was more family to help me share the good moments."
Together known as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" by the Wissel family, Ben brought Doug home with him for the 2004 Christmas holiday. Katha recalled a touching moment with Doug as the family was in a circle, heads bowed in prayer before Christmas dinner.
"When we went around the circle before dinner and said what we were all thankful for in our lives, Doug said how appreciative he was of all of us and how we'd taken him in," Katha said. "It was just so touching. He's one of us, there's no doubt about it."
As an unofficially adopted member of the Wissel family, Doug hopes his extended "family" knows that if the situation was reversed, Ben would find the same love and support awaiting him in the Garden State.
"They've watched over me over the years and I am so appreciative and grateful," Doug said. "I hope they realize that if Ben was in my situation around my hometown that my mom and sister and I would show him the same kindness his family has shown me.
"His family is just ... amazing."
The journey in discovering the truth behind the legend of the Wissel family
So there you have it; the stories proved the legend to be true.
Loyalty, kindness, pride, stability, love ... the Wissels have it all.
Hopefully the stories will continue to be passed along throughout the Purdue wrestling community, keeping the legend of the Wissel family alive to inspire for years to come.