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October 28, 2013

Column: Ruth's and Taylor's final act

There's a punching bag that sometimes hangs in Penn State's wrestling complex. Once in a while, you can spot Ed Ruth standing next to it pummeling away. "I don't know who keeps putting it up," coach Cael Sanderson said, "but you'll see him back there punching it and kicking it."

A two-time national champ and three-time All-American, Ruth is entering his final season at Penn State. He has Olympic freestyle hopes for after graduation, but could a career in mixed martial arts be the epilogue to his wrestling career? He's recently been hitting the speed bag in the football building, too, so he's at least entertaining the idea.

"I definitely think about it," Ruth told me this off-season, "but it definitely comes after the Olympics -- not before that. I want to shoot for a world title, an Olympic title. I want to do all that first. Then if I feel like going into MMA, I might take a shot at it."

Sanderson thinks Ruth has the talent to pull it off. "I could see him going MMA," he said. "He's got good speed and his hands are huge."

But for now, Ruth, his teammates and coaches are focused on the upcoming wrestling season. Health is always key, but Sanderson is getting set to field what could be the most powerful starting lineup of his five-year tenure at Penn State -- thanks in large part to Ruth, who is ranked atop the 184-pound weight class, and classmate David Taylor, who is No. 1 at 165.

Considering their contributions to Penn State's three consecutive team titles, the fifth-year seniors could retire tomorrow, yet still have their careers go down as two of the most prestigious in school history. But retirement is years away, and national analysts are predicting another NCAA title for both in '14 -- and another team championship for Penn State. Not to jinx them, but when it's all said and done, Taylor's and Ruth's careers should rank alone at Penn State.

"I think David and Ed are remarkable," Sanderson said. "We hear a lot about the season tickets. It's hard to get into the matches, so we're [hosting] one match over at the Bryce Jordan Center this year to let everybody come."

This column is to urge readers to take advantage of that opportunity, or at least catch a glimpse of these two athletes before it's too late. Sanderson will win more team titles and sign more top recruits, but no matter how many blue-chippers choose Penn State, he will never find duplicates of David Taylor and Ed Ruth.

Practice officially started Oct. 10. On Tuesday afternoon, Penn State will have its wrestling media day. Sanderson will do his favorite part of the job, and answer questions from a room full of reporters. The official start of the season -- the last act of Ruth and Taylor -- begins Nov. 16. Although it gets more difficult to obtain home tickets by the season, there are a few other opportunities to see them in action before it's too late.

Their season opener at Rider airs live on Comcast Sportsnet, and a few others will air live on the Big Ten Network. Associate head coach Cody Sanderson also scheduled the meet vs. Pittsburgh in the BJC on Dec. 8. The coaches had been hesitant to move a match out of their beloved Rec Hall and into the 16,000-seat arena. So they hope the hoops venue fills to capacity and attracts new wrestling fans. If there was ever a reason to see your first match, Penn State has two of them: Taylor and Ruth.

I have been granted a unique vantage point from which to watch their college careers unfold. My first season covering the wrestling beat (2010-11) was also their first year of NCAA competition. I was in Philadelphia when they first tasted defeat in the NCAA tournament, but also helped propel Penn State to its first team championship in five decades. I was there when they both stood atop the podium in St. Louis -- Taylor with an irreversible grin, Ruth with half of his hair dyed bluish green. I've seen their best moments, but I've also been there for the lows.

But because of their individual efforts throughout the past three seasons, they have Penn State's program soaring at an all-time high. And they're not done yet.

Since Taylor fell short of title No. 2 last season, dude is on a mission now. Christian Pyles, an analyst for FloWrestling.com, recently stated that he thinks Taylor "is going to pin or tech fall everybody but [Oklahoma State's] Tyler Caldwell this year."

Taylor is a Rec Hall favorite. He's got passion like Pete Rose with Mariano Rivera-type integrity. He was a youth wrestling prodigy, the No. 1 recruit in the country, and he probably would own two titles like Ruth if he hadn't chosen the toughest road possible, attempting to conquer Cornell's Kyle Dake, who was in search of his historic fourth crown last season.

Ruth, meanwhile, is one of the sport's true characters. He is not a product of what he calls the "cookie-cutter mold." Rather, he's an enigmatic talent, a free spirit. While most wrestlers sprint, jog or walk to shake hands with their opponent, Ruth gingerly skips. He's respectful, but he's also dropped the Ali Shuffle during home bouts (and he's got the footwork to fit the part). He used to own a pet chipmunk, which he kept in a dresser drawer in his dorm room. And he holds a unique distinction as a Troy Sunderland recruit, one of the few remaining on the team.

Sunderland, who was Sanderson's precesessor, also recruited UFC star Phil Davis to Penn State. Davis currently holds a 12-1 record in professional MMA, and fans eagerly speculate whether Ruth will follow his path. They are, after all, both natives of Harrisburg, Pa., and national champs for the Nittany Lions.

But Ruth made two things clear during a sit-down this spring: 1.) The only path that he follows is Ed Ruth's; 2.) Any MMA venture comes after an attempt, or two, at an Olympic gold medal.

It's fun to imagine how the dynamic 184-pounder will handle himself inside the Octagon, and on the international stage, but there's no need to wish the days away. Treasure this final act.


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