From event management to the wrestling mat: Ben Durbin’s adventure back to wrestling

Ben Durbin gets his picture taken as a Cyclone Regional Training Center member.

Trevor Holbrook

Nearly every senior level wrestler at the 2018 Marine Corps U.S. Open in Las Vegas had some sort of collegiate wrestling experience tied to their resumé.

For Cyclone Regional Training Center (C-RTC) athlete Ben Durbin, he didn’t have that luxury in his back pocket. After a highly decorated high school career, Durbin set aside wrestling, but the 29-year-old recently returned to the sport after a multiyear hiatus.

“Once it’s in the blood, it’s in the blood forever,” said Durbin’s mother, Jinjer, about wrestling.

Jinjer witnessed the wrestling passion ooze into her sons — Ben and Jake — through their father — Gregg — as they grew up.

Even with that passion for wrestling instilled in him early on, Durbin didn’t wrestle after high school graduation.

Durbin solidified himself at a respectable job after college, but boredom prompted him to return to his wrestling roots.

“I just got bored [working] and felt like I still had something to give athletically,” Durbin said. “I just quit everything, didn’t know anyone in the wrestling world and just walked in the wrestling room and asked if I could start training.”

After bouncing around different jobs, Durbin found his calling in Ames with wrestling and entrepreneurship. Nowadays, everyday before 5 a.m., Durbin can be found preparing for a full day ahead.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Durbin is scheduled to teach a fitness class to a group of moms at his workout facility.

After Durbin’s class with the moms wraps up, he shifts his attention to himself and his business.

“[I] work out in the morning, so I’m either strength training or running,” Durbin said. “After that, I’m either going to a location to train an athlete or a groups of athletes or I’m scheduling, I’m managing, I’m updating my website.”

Once the afternoon hits, Durbin typically trains with athletes of all ages, from elementary students to adults. When evening rolls around, Durbin is still working with more athletes, helping them improve on their craft.

Oh yeah, and somewhere sandwiched in his schedule, Durbin chisels his wrestling skills by scrapping with the No. 2 97-kg (213-pounds) wrestler in the U.S. and 2015 NCAA Champion, Kyven Gadson.

“He’s always busy training [for wrestling] at least four hours a day and then [he has] his business,” said Durbin’s girlfriend Bri Wilderman. “[He] doesn’t sleep as much as he should. He’ll be up til midnight and wake up before five in the morning everyday.”

The fuel that lights a fire in Durbin everyday is his athletic success. Durbin was added as a C-RTC member in the summer of 2017 after he was an All-American at the U.S. Open last season.

“He put on his mirror [that] he wanted to be a world champ,” said Durbin’s roommate, business partner and college teammate, Ernst Brun Jr. “He put his goals in his mirror. He woke up every morning with his goals on his mirror while we were [living] in Ankeny. Ever since then, he’s been a beast.”

While Durbin’s locked in on his wrestling career, wrestling wasn’t always his top priority. Durbin — a Gilbert High School graduate — participated in football, wrestling, soccer and track and field.

When the Friday night lights faded away for Durbin, he had a decision to make for his college career: football or wrestling.

“I had the option [to wrestle in college], but football presented full-ride scholarships, whereas wrestling is a lot of partial scholarships, so football was kind of a no-brainer,” Durbin said.

Durbin chose to be a Wyoming Cowboy, mostly because of the allure of Wyoming’s mountains.

At Wyoming, football and classes were Durbin’s primary responsibilities, but he still squeezed in time on the mat.

The only thing that chased Durbin away from the wrestling room was Wyoming’s football coach.

“When he was out at Wyoming, playing football, he was going into the wrestling room quite a bit to wrestle around,” Jinjer said. “The football coach found out he was doing that and put a stop to it [to prevent injury].”

Prior to Durbin’s final season of football eligibility, he faced another decision: to transfer or remain at Wyoming.

Wyoming underwent a coaching change and Durbin acquired his degree, so he had the option to be a graduate transfer and play immediately.

Along with being able to play right away, Durbin saw an opportunity to move closer to his family.

“It just made sense to come back to Iowa State and get my master’s,” Durbin said. “My parents didn’t have to drive 12 hours to come watch me or find some obscure television channel to watch me on T.V. My immediate family was pretty excited to have me come play my senior year closer to home.”

As a result, Durbin went from a 717-mile drive home in Wyoming to a little over a five-mile drive in Ames.

Wearing the cardinal and gold in 2012, Durbin played in all 13 games and totaled seven tackles. Durbin spent his final college season with the people he knows best, but he also made an important connection at Iowa State.

“[At Iowa State was] when we became cool, we became friends then,” said former Iowa State tight end Brun Jr. about Durbin. “We hung out a lot, went to parties [and] team activities.

“He was a defensive lineman and I was a tight end, so it was kind of a rivalry between both of us. Off the field we were fine.”

Once graduation came, Durbin and Brun Jr. kept in touch, but the two pursued different dreams.

Brun Jr. spent time with the Oakland Raiders out of college. Durbin originally managed the event staff at Iowa State football games.

After his time with Oakland, Brun Jr. ended up back in the Midwest with the Omaha Mammoths, a member of an experimental league called the FXFL.

“[In] 2015, I was playing for [the FXFL, and] the league stopped. They said ‘Hey guys we got to be out of here by Friday’. I was like ‘Man, I have nowhere to go’. I could’ve gone back to Atlanta, but I didn’t want to drive all the way back home, so I was calling around. Ben actually had an apartment in Ankeny with a room for me.”

With an open room, the college teammates reunited and moved in together. In August 2015, the Washington Redskins’ tight ends were hit with the injury bug, sending Niles Paul and Logan Paulson to the injured reserve list.

The pair of injuries opened the door for Brun Jr.; Washington signed Brun Jr., but he was later waived.

Meanwhile, Durbin wasn’t competing athletically, but he found a job that dealt with sports. After managing Iowa State football games, Durbin jumped deeper into event management.

“I was an event manager for three years,” Durbin said. “I managed concerts at Wells Fargo Arena, I helped manage the [Major League Baseball] World Series [and] I helped managed the Rose Bowl. My company was flying me all over the nation managing different events, and then I was teaching [and advising] at DMACC for about a year.

“Then, I just wanted to do something crazy, I guess.”

Durbin quit his job. He started training for wrestling again, but he didn’t receive any money to start out.

To generate some cash, Durbin utilized multiple tactics.

“I was doing crazy stuff,” Durbin said. “I had no income for a long time, so I was doing stuff like renting out my room to Craigslist people, working odd-end jobs and doing anything I could to make ends meet. I went from having a decent career to living very cheap and very poor.

“Everybody was saying ‘What are you doing?’. I never asked anyone for any handouts, and I’ve never been like that. A lot of questions in the family of ‘Hey Ben, maybe you should grow up’, but I don’t want to grow up.”

Durbin explored new opportunities and took a handful of risks, but he never lost the support of his parents, regardless of how hard it was for them.

“He was sacrificing quite a bit to see how well he would do in wrestling and pursue his dream,” Jinjer Durbin said. “It was hard to see that, but Gregg and I were trying to support him as much as we could, as well. It was not easy.”

With little income, Durbin and Brun Jr. brainstormed a new idea. The duo had an athletic background and connections with other athletes.

The state of Iowa has few companies focused on improving athletes through training, so Brun Jr. and Durbin looked to be trailblazers in a niche market.

“That was actually both of our ideas,” Brun Jr. said as he overlooks the construction of an upgraded facility for their company. “I came up with the idea from another place I worked at, and I told him that we should really do this. Ben really pushed it.”

The business the two started — Premier Athlete Training — assists athletes and non-athletes from elementary ages to Olympic and NFL athletes.

While Durbin helps other athletes grow, the job provides an opportunity to improve Durbin and his athletic skills, too.

“I’m in a mental state where I know what it takes to train at a high level, and it helps both ways,” Durbin said. “It helps when I’m coaching athletes at my facility. It also helps when you coach something, you retain that information better when you’re speaking it rather than just listening to someone else.”

At the end of April, Durbin had the chance to showcase the progress he’s made at the 2018 Marine Corps U.S. Open in Las Vegas. Durbin entered the event as the No. 8 ranked U.S. Senior Level 125-kg wrestler.

The night before he flew out to Las Vegas, Durbin was diagnosed with influenza. Even with the sickness, Durbin elected to compete.

Durbin started strong, but he hit a rough patch against 2018 NCAA runner-up Adam Coon. Initially, Durbin knocked off Damian Trujillo in his first match, 8-0. Next, Durbin lost to the eventual-champion Coon, 11-0.

In the consolation bracket, Durbin lost to Michael Hughes, 8-0.

Durbin’s wrestling skills have changed for the better, but the one consistency is his doubters.

“They still think I’m crazy,” Durbin said. “I’m pretty sure every person I ever talked to told me that I should quit or move on. I just haven’t accomplished enough in this sport to move on yet.

“Whatever I accomplish, as long as I feel like I’ve given it every ounce of effort, then I’ll be happy with it.”