Playing the cards you’re dealt: Gabe Moreno’s challenging final season

Sophomore Gabe Moreno’s shoulder was injured during his match at the Big 12 Championships, likely costing him the match.

Curran Mclaughlin

Wrapped tightly in a cradle, Gabe Moreno couldn’t move.

The ref tapped the mat next to him and it was over. He was pinned. It was Moreno’s final match of his collegiate wrestling career.

He laid there for a moment on the mat and looked up to the ceiling while the 2017 Big 12 Championships continued.

Moreno sat up, looked over to the side of the mat and went to shake the hand of Grant LaMont of Utah Valley. He made his way to the locker room.

Michael Moreno, Gabe’s brother, joined him shortly after.

“[I] just said I loved him and it didn’t matter,” Michael said. “You gave your life to it and that’s all you can ask for.”

For most of Gabe’s life, he’s had a passion for wrestling.

When Gabe was a kid, he and his brother heard stories of their father, Mike Moreno, becoming an All-American for Iowa State wrestling in 1992.

It was Gabe’s dream to wrestle in cardinal and gold. A dream he got to live with his brother.

Michael has been there with Gabe every step of his career.

From being teammates all the way through college to Michael staying with the Iowa State wrestling team as a graduate assistant and eventually becoming an interim-assistant at the end of the season.

Michael was there for Gabe a year before when Gabe re-injured his shoulder during the Oklahoma State dual in 2016.

Knowing what lay ahead for Gabe, the two brothers sat in the locker room of Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

All Michael could do in that moment was be there for his younger brother during this emotional time.

“What if I never wrestle again?” Gabe asked.

“You did everything you could, man,” Michael said. “That’s all you can do. If you can’t wrestle again then it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, it’s the cards you were dealt.”

Gabe swears the pop from his shoulder could be heard from the seats in the Gallagher-Iba Arena. The pop was followed up with some colorful language.

It wasn’t so much the pain that bothered him in that moment, he felt frustration.

“I don’t know if I’ve been more upset about anything,” Gabe said. “I felt like I did all the right things the first time. Just because you did the right things that doesn’t guarantee nothing.”

Gabe’s second injury came from one of the simplest moves in wrestling, a collar tie.

Gabe reached up to snap his hand down on opponent Anthony Collica’s neck. Instead of a routine tie up, Gabe felt a pop and a familiar warm, numb pain.

In less than 10 seconds, the match was over and so was Gabe’s season, the second year in a row he ended his season with surgery.

Gabe suffered the initial shoulder injury during the 2015 Big 12 championships. He approached the first recovery process with dedication. Rehabbing everyday, working to get the strength back in his shoulder.

“[The first recovery] was really frustrating and really slow at times,” Gabe said. “It’s a month after surgery and all you’re doing is moving your hand [forward] and bringing it back.”

Eventually simple gestures became easier and more complicated exercises would be incorporated until Gabe eventually was doing light workouts.

The second time around wasn’t much different. This time Gabe knew what to expect having gone through the process one time already, but it seemed more exhausting.

“It’s like rewatching a bad movie,” Gabe said.

Gabe regularly watched his teammates practice after he’d finish doing his rehab for the day. While the other Cyclones were improving their technique, Gabe had to spend valuable training time focusing on just getting back to feeling normal.

“[There’s this] helpless feeling, you just have to wait,” Gabe’s father, Mike said. “Such a long healing process, you have to be patient.”

Being patient is easier said than done, especially for a competitor like Gabe.

Since childhood, Gabe has been passionate about doing well in sports.

“He’s always been really into winning,” Michael recalled watching his brother blow up over video games as a kid. “He doesn’t like to lose.”

Former interim coach Travis Paulson described Gabe as a perfectionist on the mat. Gabe said that perfectionist is one way to describe him, though it doesn’t apply to him outside of sports.

“If we’re keeping score in something that’s when the perfectionist [qualities] comes out because I want to be the best in anything we do,” Gabe said.

Mike said that caring about winning a valuable quality, but it can often work the other way. Gabe’s emotions were affecting his performance in matches.

During practices, Gabe tended to focus on little details. If Gabe didn’t get something exactly right, he’d endlessly work on his technique to correct it.

“[If] you got a plan in a match [and that] plan doesn’t work out, you gotta keep moving on and find a new way,” Mike said.

Paulson tried different ways to throw Gabe off as a way to get him to adapt in situations where a match may not go perfect. A lot of times that would mean pushing Gabe’s buttons in a way that would elicit a response from him.

“I either make it into a joke, so get him to laugh and calm or I raise the intensity a little bit,” Paulson said. “If he’s making a mistake, I’ll start coaching up the guy he’s wrestling and tell him to keep going and push him to see how he responds. He usually does a good job [handling] both [methods].”

Gabe acknowledges that his competitive streak is his greatest weakness. He said it turns into a vicious cycle where if something goes wrong, he doesn’t think clearly and then he messes up more.

This season felt like one big vicious cycle for Gabe.

In his final year as a Cyclone, Gabe finished the year with a 7-10 record.

Going down to the 141 weight class to start the year, Gabe missed the first two duals and the Harold Nichols Cyclone Open. Gabe missed at least another month after suffering a concussion at the Midlands Championships at the end of December. To add on, only a few weeks after the concussion, coach Kevin Jackson announced his resignation.

“I think the second shoulder surgery, combine that with his concussion and all the distractions from this crazy year,” Mike said. “I just don’t think he got to the point where he was hitting on all cylinders.”

Not only did Gabe have to worry about his injuries along with Iowa State’s lack of winning, Gabe also had to battle the pressure that he was putting on to himself.

Gabe qualified for the NCAA tournament his freshman and sophomore year. His second shoulder injury kept him out of the tournament his junior year.

But in the back of Gabe’s mind there was something more he needed to accomplish.

Gabe wanted to join his brother and father as an All-American.

“The first time [I made the NCAA tournament] I didn’t necessarily care if I was winning or losing, cause my freshman year, just making it was an accomplishment,” Gabe said.

Gabe expressed disappointment in the results tournament his sophomore year.

Gabe still tried to wrestle at the NCAAs despite tearing his shoulder, which popped in and out of the socket during his lone match in the 2015 Big 12 tournament. During his first match in the NCAA tournament Gabe’s shoulder continued to pop out of place, he wouldn’t compete the rest of the tournament.

With his last chance approaching, Gabe placed a heavy task on his shoulder being seeded No. 10 in the 2017 Big 12 tournament.

Gabe couldn’t stop thinking about qualifying. Despite returning back to 149 pounds after the injury to take away the challenge of weight cutting and telling himself that he just needs to take it all in, he couldn’t enjoy his last handful of matches.

“It’s hard to look back right now and see the positives,” Gabe said. “I came in [my freshman year] always thinking of wanting to a be a national champion. I always felt like I was going to be the best Moreno.

“I can’t be known as the Moreno that didn’t accomplish was set out to be accomplished.”

Gabe said he would of taken a less embarrassing elimination from the tournament.

Looking back on his career, Gabe would label himself a bust.

“The worst thing you can be [in sports] is a bust,” Gabe said.

Coming into college he was ranked higher as a recruit than his brother Michael and placed well at national tournaments as a high schooler.

Gabe watched Michael earn All-American honors twice.

“That’s a lot of pressure I put on myself,” Gabe said. “I didn’t want to be a bust.”

Both Michael and Mike told Gabe that they didn’t care whether he made it to All-American status, they just wanted to see effort on his part. But Gabe couldn’t put wrestling into perspective in the moment.

“I think it became a burden at some point,” Michael said. “I won’t say he wanted a way out cause he went and wrestled. He could have quit at any time.”

Mike was thankful to see his two sons wrestle together for his alma mater and that they got a good education.

Michael, on the other hand, couldn’t help but feel bad about how rough his brother’s career ended up being.

“I feel bad for even accomplishing things,” Michael said. “Wrestling’s hard enough as it is. You don’t need to add that pressure.”

Michael noted that Gabe’s attitude after finishing his career has been different.

He’s more outgoing, he jokes around more. Like a weight was lifted off him Michael said.

Gabe said what’s in the past is in the past and now it’s time for him to figure out how to live life now that his days of competition are over.

“[The ending is] disappointing, but at the same time he’s a smart kid, he’s grounded,” Mike said. “We’ve always been pretty grounded in the sport of wrestling in that you just go out and you do your best and whatever happens, happens.”

Mike said he’s never tried to make wrestling more than what it is, a sport.

Though his son had to struggle to get through his five years as an Iowa State athlete, he hopes that Gabe will carry the lessons he learned during that time into what will be much more important moments in his life.

“Whether you All-American or not, coffee at Starbucks is going to cost the same,” Mike said. “Your house payment is going to cost the same. You’re not getting any All-American checks.”

Mike thinks that Gabe understands that life is going to move on whether or not he gets the intended results.

“You’re dealt these cards in life and you play them,” Mike said. “You play them [to] the best of your ability. You know he did that, it just worked out the way it did. He’ll bounce back.”