A former KSU wrestler’s journey from despair to glory

Then a redshirt freshman, Kyle Conel wrestles against Jackson Lewis of Central Michigan on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Conel was one of three Kent State wrestlers to earn a victory during the Flashes’ loss at Eastern Michigan on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018.

Brandon Lewis

How Kyle Conel’s twisting yet spectacular career will conclude at Penn State.

In 2018, Kyle Conel placed third in the NCAA wrestling championship in one of the biggest upsets in Kent State wrestling history.

It would be his last great moment as a Kent State wrestler.

Conel came to Kent State as a highly sought after recruit and made the NCAA tournament in his first full year of competition. A year later he struggled with the depths of depression, then found his way back to the team and the NCAA tournament.

But his senior year at Kent State was cut short by an injury, and now he’s awaiting the paperwork to transfer to national champion Penn State for his last season.

Conel fell in love with the sport of wrestling when he was 10 years old.

“My brother, who was in middle school at the time, wrestled,” Conel said. “I went to almost all of his matches, and I fell in love with it right away. I couldn’t wait to try it out for myself.”

In Conel’s first season, he got pinned in almost every match, and he wanted to give up.

“My mother told me to give it one more year,” Conel said. “She told me if I did not like it after my second year I could quit, but she said people who quit after barely trying something haven’t really tried to do the activity to the fullest.”

The next season, Conel would have a new coach named Jerry Brady.

“If it was not for coach Brady, I do not think I would have wrestled past seventh grade,” Conel said. “He helped me reach my potential as a wrestler faster than I would have ever imagined. I look at him as a father figure to me because I could tell he cared about me the way coaches should care for their athletes.”

The first day Brady laid eyes on Conel, he knew Conel needed a lot of work, but he could become one of the best junior high wrestlers in the country. He had the prototype body of a wrestler.

“Even back then, you could tell Conel was born to wrestle,” Brady said. “In junior high, he was towering over the other kids, and he was the strongest out of all the 40 plus kids we had. The problem was Conel did not have great wrestling technique.

“We worked on everything, from stance, to takedowns, to top and bottom positions. Conel caught on real quick, and when he started winning, there was no stopping that train,” Brady said.

Conel went 53-2 in seventh and eighth grade and finished third in the eighth grade state championship. Conel went on to win a state championship in his junior year of high school under Brady, who had moved up to coaching high school in Conel’s sophomore year.

“I think the older Kyle became, the better he got,” Brady said.

Conel said Kent’s proximity to his home in Ashtabula led him to campus.

“Family is number one to me,” Conel said. “Kent State was the closest offer I got to home, and so I thought it was the perfect fit.”

Conel had also received offers from Penn, Virginia, Maryland and Old Dominion, but the only place he visited was Kent State.

Conel would redshirt his freshman year where he competed “unattached” in early season tournaments. He wrestled independently and finished with a record of 19-6.

In his redshirt freshman year, Conel would wrestle for the first time at 197 pounds, a class and 13 pounds heavier than he was in high school. He finished with a record of 28-8 and placed fifth in the MAC Championships, which qualified him for the NCAA Tournament. He went 2-2 at nationals.

That season Conel started having academic problems for the first time in his life.

“I failed at least two classes,” Conel said. “I finished 14th in my high school class, so I was not used to doing bad in the classroom. I did not really feel like doing anything but working out and wrestling.”

Conel had struggled with depression his whole life and it was getting worse. He doesn’t like to talk about it today, but in the FloWrestling documentary titled “The Highs and Lows of Kyle Conel” released last November, Conel told the story of his suicide attempt:

For many days, Conel said he would look in the mirror and ask, “Why are you here? You don’t deserve to be here.”

“So one day, I went into the bathroom. In the cabinet, I still had a lot of pain pills from a broken nose I suffered in high school. I opened up the bottle and swallowed the whole thing.”

But when he woke up the next morning, he remembered saying to himself, “Well, that did not work.”

“I was just going to get up and go along with my day and brush it off like nothing had happened,” Conel said. “Then I logged in to one of my classes and saw I failed another exam and said to myself, ‘Why did you try to kill yourself last night?’”

That morning before practice, Conel went to Angie Hull, the associate athletic director for student-athlete academic services. Conel and Hull had been having weekly sessions  about his depression, school work, wrestling and life in general. On this day, however, Hull knew something was very wrong.

“He came into my office bright and early and shut the door, which he almost never did,” Hull said. “That told me something bad had happened the night before.”

Conel told Hull about his suicide attempt. She was stunned.

“I did not know how bad it had gotten,” Hull said. “Conel’s like a teddy bear you wanted to hug as a kid. He does not have a mean bone in his body.  For him to tell me he tried to kill himself was devastating.”

Hull walked with Conel to DeWeese Health Center. From there, Conel was taken to a hospital, where he spent 10 days. The day after Conel was released, he returned to practice. His coaches and teammates embraced him with love.

“It meant a lot to me that they cared so much about me,” Conel said. “ I’m an emotional guy, so when they all surrounded me with love and positivity, it brought a tear to my eye.

“Not that nobody on the team had said anything negatively about me before, but I never felt loved like I did that day by a group of people. They made me feel wanted in the world again.”

However, the next season Conel never truly got back into wrestling. He started the next season on the team and placed sixth in one preseason tournament. But he was on and off the team throughout the season and wasn’t on the roster at the end of the year.

“I did not have that passion for wrestling that season,” Conel said. “I was still burnt out, I think mentally and physically from everything, and I wanted to help my family because we were going through a rough time.”

Conel helped raise his niece and nephews since he was 11. Conel and his older brother, Otis, have acted as father figures for the children of his other two brothers, who have had struggles of their own. Conel, his brother and the children still live together in a house at the Stow-Kent border.

“I want them to look up to me someday,” Conel said. “I want to lead by example and show them how to live life to the fullest.”

Conel took a job as a tech assistant at the University Library and worked to get back on track for his computer science degree. He didn’t think about wrestling for months until one day in the summer of 2017. Conel and Otis were playing basketball in their driveway when Otis asked Conel if he wanted to go to a trial class at a mixed martial arts gym in Akron.

At first, Conel said no; he wanted nothing to do with sports.

“Once I was there, I felt home,” Conel said.

Later that night, Conel texted Matt Hill, then an assistant coach, and told him he was coming back to practice the next day. When Conel arrived, he was again welcomed with open arms, and it was back to work as usual.

That season, Conel would go 4-1 in the MAC tournament and earned a spot in the “pigtail” round of the NCAA tournament — essentially having to win a preliminary round to make the main bracket of the championship. Conel won his pigtail match, then two more on the first day of the tournament.  

The next day he faced the national No. 1 wrestler, Kollin Moore of Ohio State. 27 seconds into the match, Conel pulled Moore off his feet and pinned him, bringing 16,000 fans at Quicken Loans Arena to their feet.

Conel went on to finish third in the tournament after beating Moore a second time and was named an all-American.

After all of his challenges the last two seasons, Conel felt he was on top of the mountain.

“There was no greater feeling than that moment,” Conel said. “I did everything I could to make sure I did not start crying like a baby.”

His brother, who was at Quicken Loans Arena that day, said he knew that Conel was going to do something special.

“As soon as Kyle started wrestling his first match, I knew the old Kyle was back,” Otis said. “He was just throwing guys around, and he looked like the best wrestler in the tournament.”

Brady was there, too.

“I would not have missed it for the world,” Brady said. “He’s like a son to me.”

Brady said fans behind him thought Conel’s win was a fluke.

“I wanted to turn around and laugh at them so hard,” Brady said, “Because if they only knew Kyle, they would know it was not a fluke. Yeah, 33 seeds are not supposed to finish third, But Kyle was no ordinary 33 seed.”

Otis said Conel’s success brought tears to his eyes.

“People come up to me all the time and ask me if I’m jealous of my brother’s success,” Otis said. “And I look at them like they’re crazy. Why would I be jealous of my brother? I love him to death, and I would do anything for him. I’ll cheer him on at whatever he’s doing.”

Heading into the 2018-2019 season, FloWrestling ranked Conel as the No. 2 wrestler in the country, but Conel’s season never really got off the ground.

One September practice, Conel was wrestling against teammate Colin McCracken when Conel went for an upper body throw. McCracken blocked Conel’s attempt with a throw of his own. Both wrestlers landed on Conel’s shoulder, and Conel heard a pop that eventually was diagnosed as a separated shoulder. He didn’t tell anyone about it at the time.

“I knew I should have gotten it looked at in September, but I wanted to continue wrestling because that’s what I love to do,” Conel said. “I wrestled basically with one arm. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I felt like I had to — for me, my family and my teammates.”

Conel would continue to wrestle until November. Over Thanksgiving break, Conel decided enough was enough.

“I was in a lot of pain, and it was not getting any better,” Conel said. “If I would have kept going, I would have lost my chance at a medical redshirt.”

Conel graduated in December, and in March, announced on Twitter that he planned to transfer to Penn State next season if he can get NCAA approval for a sixth year of eligibility.

His brother said he cannot wait to see what the future holds for Conel.

“Penn State is like the Golden State Warriors of the NCAA when it comes to wrestling,” Otis said. “Nothing against Kent State….They treated Kyle like family. But if Kyle has the opportunity to go to Penn State, that would be a great school to finish off a storybook college career and possibility represent them in the 2020 Olympics.”

Conel said the decision to go to Penn State was an easy one.

“My family and I went on about five different visits, but Penn State was the only one that stuck out,” Conel said. “It felt like my second home immediately.”

Conel said he is not worried about being a couple hours away from family.

“It’s only a three hour drive, and I’m in a much better place now,” Conel said. “But it’s not like I’m too far away. Our family life is a lot better now than it was two years ago. I feel more comfortable going a little farther away to go to such a wrestling-rich school.”

Hill, who is now the head coach of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, said no matter where Conel goes, he’ll be successful.

“Conel has a great story,” Hill said. “How he treats people is bar none. When I was at Kent, I was proud that Conel represented our team. He deserves all the credit he gets, and wherever he goes, I’ll be rooting for him.”

Conel says he’s grateful for his time at Kent.

“I met really great teammates,” he said. “But I truly believe it was time to move on, and I’m excited to see what I can do at Penn State in the fall.”

This story includes reporting from Kayla Proctor.

Brandon Lewis is a sports reporter. contact him at [email protected]