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Guerin Emig: OSU's AJ Ferrari wins wrestling championships with nerve, steel and nitroglycerine, but first he puts in the work

Guerin Emig: OSU's AJ Ferrari wins wrestling championships with nerve, steel and nitroglycerine, but first he puts in the work

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Ferrari joins elite company at OSU with Richard Hutton in 1947 and Pat Smith in 1990 as the only true freshmen to win national titles.

A question to AJ Ferrari, Oklahoma State’s just-crowned national wrestling champion: You know Mike Gundy?

“Of course,” Ferrari answers. “I’m good friends with his son.”

Well then you should go tell Gundy you’ll be his short-yardage running back. Tell him to give you the ball and clear out of your way.

Ferrari considers the suggestion. Says he hasn’t played football in a long time.

Then comes a wrestling analogy because it’s always wrestling for this 19-year-old bundle of nerve, steel and nitroglycerine who tore through the 197-pound field at the recent NCAA Championships to become the third true freshman to win a title in OSU’s storied history.

Ferrari says something about double leg takedowns and tackling except you’re doing it on the mat, not the football field.

He decides he’d rather play middle linebacker, would rather hit than be hit.

And now what Ferrari tweeted after winning his championship is totally understood: “The quickest, slickest and fastest Ferrari ever built is coming through.”

“That’s what I believe. That’s always been my model. Everything to gain, nothing to lose,” he says. “Just put it on the line and leave it out on the mat.”

That’s the attitude that fueled Ferrari to wins over the No. 1 and 2 seeds at the Big 12 Conference Championship in Tulsa earlier this month en route to being named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the tournament. It’s what drove him to the national title March 21 as a No. 4 seed.

Ferrari says his OSU teammates asked if he was nervous before his final match against Pitt’s Nick Bonaccrosi.

“I was like, ‘Naw, man, I feel great,’” Ferrari recalls. “‘There’s nowhere I’d rather be than in this position. I signed up for this. This is why I wrestle. This is the stuff I dream about.’”

Ferrari went out and beat Bonaccrosi. He hopped up about 20 steps of the Enterprise Center in St. Louis to hug his parents, returned to the floor and lit up his post-match interview on ESPN.

He talked about Yoga and being able to do the splits. He talked about weightlifting and hitting his goal of a 600-pound squat.

This one day after his post-semifinal victory interview when he flexed like Schwarzenegger, declared “Six hundred sixty-five-pound dead lift baby!” and then raised his hands as pistols and hollered: “Let’s win a national title baby! Go Cowboys!”

After winning that national title, Ferrari told viewers: “We only get to live once, man. Have fun out there. I don’t know if you guys see me, I’m enjoying it. I’m having fun. I love this.”

We should all squeeze the maximum drops out out of our lives like Ferrari does his.

We should all work so hard so that we enjoy life’s fruits.

“My dad set an example for me at a young age. Then I put in the work,” Ferrari says. “People don’t understand. They see me and they’re like, ‘This dude is cocky.’ But they don’t see me friggin’ push myself in the room, pouring out exhaustion. They don’t see me doing the extra workouts.

“Whenever I go on the mat there’s no way the other dude has outworked me. It’s impossible.”

That’s the fiber we shouldn’t miss with this kid.

Ferrari’s attitude propelled him in Tulsa and St. Louis. It will propel him at the U.S. Olympic Trials this weekend in Fort Worth.

Just don’t miss his message through his muscle.

“You can’t have that confidence if you don’t know you put the extra work in,” Ferrari said during his post-championship interview.

That commitment gives Ferrari a fighting chance at the Olympic Trials as a 6-seed in his weight class, long as the odds appear. He’ll face older, more accomplished wrestlers like world champions Kyle Snyder and J’den Cox.

“It’s going to be a really, really tough tournament,” Ferrari says. “My goal has always been to be a world and Olympic champion. You’ve got to beat champions to have an opportunity to become champion. I’m going to have to beat these dudes eventually if I’m going to make the USA world and Olympic team. You might as well beat ’em now. Y’know? Why not?

“There’s not many fights I’ve gotten into in my life that I’ve lost. It’s going to be fun, y’know? To try to make an Olympic team after winning an NCAA title... Take this energy I have and channel all this inertia from winning and use it for this tournament.”

Ferrari’s energy could power Starfleet. He has that going for him. He has his work ethic. He has his faith. He has his family.

He is proud of those reserves equally.

“One of the reasons I came to Oklahoma State was coach (John) Smith. His motto was always God, a strong family and then wrestling,” Ferrari says. “That’s been my motto since I was a kid. God and my Italian-American family first, and then wrestling. I’ve always stayed true to that and not forgotten where I come from.

“At the end of the day, my family, my parents and most importantly my dad, those are the people that have gotten me where I am today.”

We’ll see where they take Ferrari from here, beginning this weekend at the Olympic Trials.

One thing we know based on what we have seen just this month — it should be one hell of a ride.

Photos: OSU and OU wrestlers at the NCAA championships


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Sports Columnist

I'm the proud father of Gretchen and Holden. Devoted husband to Christy, who has been my best friend since biology class at Booker T. Washington. I covered the OU Sooners for 15 years. That was both challenging and rewarding. Now I get to write columns.

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