Northern Iowa senior Joe Colon takes charge in his win over Iowa State. Photo by Roland Ferrie, University of Northern Iowa media relations.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Joe Colon doesn’t hesitate when asked about the best lesson he’s learned in life.
“If you get knocked down,” Colon said, “get back up and try again.”
Colon would know.
The University of Northern Iowa senior has become the comeback story of the year in college wrestling.
Dismissed from the team after qualifying for the 2012 NCAA Championships, Colon sat out the entire 2012-13 season.
Now Colon’s back with a vengeance. He’s stormed to a 25-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking at 133 pounds. He’s won his last 15 matches.
“It means a lot to be back – words can’t really describe what it’s like to be back,” Colon said. “I missed out on a whole season and it was heartbreaking. To get the second chance to be with my teammates and coaches here, it’s been awesome. I love it.”
What Colon has done this season is remarkable when you consider he missed an entire season of competitive wrestling.
Colon opened a few eyes early in the year by downing then-No. 2 Tyler Graff of Wisconsin 6-0. He followed with a stunning first-period pin over returning NCAA runner-up Tony Ramos of Iowa in the Midlands finals.
Colon charged out aggressively in the win over Ramos, who started the season ranked No. 1 and was the clear-cut favorite to win a national title this season.
“That was a big confidence booster,” Colon said, “but now I have to go back out there and do it again.”
Colon won two Iowa state titles for Clear Lake High School before capturing a junior-college national title for Iowa Central.
Colon transferred to Northern Iowa and qualified for the NCAA tournament as a sophomore. The No. 5 seed, Colon advanced to the quarterfinals but lost his next two matches to fall short of placing.
He dropped a wild 13-10 decision to sixth-seeded Devin Carter of Virginia Tech in the wrestlebacks to fall one win short of All-American honors.
“I can definitely build off that experience,” said Colon, who finished 27-4 that season. “I had a heartbreaking loss in the round of 12. I learned a lot from that match. You just can’t panic out there. You have to keep wrestling hard and keep going.”
Colon then missed his entire junior season after UNI coach Doug Schwab dismissed him from the squad.
“When I got dismissed from the team, I wanted to be done,” Colon said. “My heart wasn’t in it, and I just wanted to get away from wrestling. I wanted to give up and take the easy way out. There were a lot of things going on, and some off-the-mat issues.”
But those feelings eventually changed. Colon was given a second chance by Schwab, an Olympian and NCAA champion, to return to the Northern Iowa team.
“I really appreciate Doug giving me another chance,” Colon said. “He’s stuck with me and pushed me. He’s been great.”
Colon has made the most of his opportunity to return to the UNI squad.
“Joe deserves a lot of credit for working his way back into the program,” Schwab said. “He’s a better student and he’s doing well for us. He’s responded well and he’s grown from it.”
Colon’s strong, physical style, where he has excelled with upper-body attacks, has enabled him to score bonus points in 15 wins this season. He has collected nine technical falls, three falls and three major decisions.
Colon won by technical fall in No. 5 UNI’s 24-13 win over No. 17 Iowa State on Saturday at home. The Panthers had lost the previous 10 duals to the Cyclones.
“It’s been a long time,” Colon said. “I was looking at the record book before the dual. They had beaten us 55 times to our 16, now 17, times. For us to get that win was huge for our program. We took out an in-state rival. We want to let people know we’re here and we’re ready to wrestle, and we’re ready to take over in the state of Iowa.”
The Panthers have one of the country’s best 1-2-3 punches at the start of their lineup with Colon, fifth-ranked Dylan Peters at 125 and NCAA qualifier Joey Lazor at 141. The talented trio is unbeaten in duals this season.
“That’s big for your team when you are able to put together so much momentum with your first three weight classes,” Colon said. “Those guys are awesome wrestlers who are doing a great job. They have given our team a big boost.”
Northern Iowa is on course to complete its first unbeaten dual season since 1956. The Panthers have enjoyed a significant home-mat advantage while wrestling in front of boisterous sellout crowds of just over 2,000 fans in the West Gym.
“It’s something else, being able to wrestle in this kind of atmosphere here,” Colon said after the win over ISU. “The crowd is really loud, and it’s compact and it gets hot in here. Our fans get on the opponents and that’s awesome. They are knowledgeable fans. They know what’s going on in a match and they get our guys going.”
Colon’s lone setback this season was a 6-2 loss to Ohio State’s Johnny DiJulius at December’s Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas. Colon placed third in Vegas. DiJulius is ranked ninth nationally.
“He kind of clamped down on me – I needed to move him and get to my underhooks,” Colon said. “I needed to change levels and just go out with more intensity.”
Colon said the Panther coaching staff, which also features assistants Mark Schwab, Randy Pugh and Tolly Thompson, has made a huge difference in Cedar Falls.
“We have awesome coaches,” Colon said. “They are so energetic. When it’s time to get to work, they get to work. They have also have fun with it, too. They’ve brought the whole team together – we’re all extremely close. It’s been great to be a part of it.”
The Panthers have their sights set on a strong finish at the NCAA Championships.
"We definitely want to go into the NCAAs and win a team trophy," Colon said. "That would be huge for our program. That would put our name out there that UNI is for real."
Colon’s dominance on the mat isn’t the only thing that has drawn attention to him this season. He features one of the best moustaches in wrestling.
“I grew it out at the beginning of the season,” Colon said. “Then I lost a match in Vegas and I shaved it. But I haven’t shaved since.”
So what’s it going to take for Colon to keep his moustache and reach the top of the NCAA podium next month in Oklahoma City?
“No matter who I face, I just have to go out there and compete and be ready to go,” Colon said. “Since I’ve been there once, I know what to expect and I got the nerves out of the way. I’ve competed at that high of a level and on that kind of a stage. I will be ready to go this time.”