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Marine Veteran Walk-On an Inspiration for Penn State Wrestlers

by and on November 19, 2016 5:00 AM

When the Penn State wrestling coaching staff asked Ethan Wissler if he wanted to make the trip to West Point for the Nittany Lions' season-opening dual meet, the heavyweight walk-on didn’t hesitate.

“They said, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Of course I want to go,’” Wissler said.

Those who aren’t familiar with his name — and only those closest to the program are — might wonder who he is. That’s natural since he’s only been on the team for a short time.

The 26-year-old agriculture systems management major is a former Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan.

When he had completed his military service he worked on the family farm, coached wrestling and attended Penn State York.

Since he had wrestled at Penn Manor High School in Millersville, Wissler approached the Penn State wrestling team when he transferred to University Park.

“I came to University Park and I had a lot of time,” he said. “They were my first stop.”

For coach Cael Sanderson and his staff, the decision to include him on the roster was an easy one.

“As long he’s going to work hard and do well in school, and it’s obvious he is, it’s a no-brainer. Any time we have a former Marine or military person, we’re going to give him a chance in our program,” he said. 

“The experience he brings and maturity, it’s priceless. We can’t really understand what he’s done, but we can certainly listen to him and appreciate him and give him every opportunity possible.”

It had been a long time since Wissler had snapped on a headgear and mixed it up on a wrestling mat. No matter. He said he’s having a blast.

“I love the sport. I love everything about it. I love the hard work. I get my butt kicked all the time. It’s part of the game. I haven’t wrestled competitively since 2008. I’ve improved, but I have a long way to go. I’m not even remotely close to beating these kids. I’ve definitely made some headway,” he said.

“The room is full of professionals. That’s what I love about it. When it’s time to go to work, we work. When it’s time to laugh and joke, we laugh and joke. That’s what makes it great.”

The symbolism of having a former Marine make the trip to the United States Military Academy, and on Veterans Day to boot, wasn’t lost on the Nittany Lions.

“I think, more than anything, it’s humbling. I couldn’t even really express the gratitude that I have and we have. We wouldn’t have NCAA wrestling if it wasn’t for our military and the freedom we enjoy in our country and the sacrifices that have been made throughout history and that are being made today,” Sanderson said. “Really, these are our brothers. It’s an honor to be here. We’d fight side by side with them if need be.”

The former Marine said he will always maintain an allegiance to the corps, but the day and the place resonated with him.

“This is great. I’m really excited I got to come along to experience this. It’s the Army and I’m Marine Corps and very biased. It’s really cool, just being around military guys on Veteran’s Day, watching wrestling, that’s awesome,” Wissler said.

Going forward, it’s a good bet that as much as Wissler will improve as a wrestler, his life experiences will improve the team around him even more. Sanderson said he’ll provide a daily reminder that the team’s trials and tribulations are trivial compared to the hardships of a military life.

“He brings a lot. He’s been in war, real war,” the coach said. “We think we have it tough when we’re wrestling in front of a big crowd or missing meals or sacrificing little things, but you’re talking about an individual who has put his life on the line to give you that opportunity to do those things that we think are tough.”

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Andly Elder covers Penn State wresting for The Centre County Gazette.
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