IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nelson Brands’ mother, Michelle, chuckles at the question: What was it like for Nelson to grow up with Terry Brands as a dad?
She’s got lots of stories. Most are about how Terry, the father, isn’t the “mean guy” wrestler Iowans watched growing up. But she’s also got stories that are exactly what you’d expect.
Like when a young Nelson, in about third grade, wanted to see the new “Star Wars” movie on DVD. Terry Brands gave him an ultimatum: Give me 50 pull-ups, and you can watch.
He didn’t make it. When he got too tired, he refused to let go of the bar. He just hung there.
“So he couldn’t watch it,” Michelle Brands said.
It’s hard to imagine Brands now — a state wrestling champion and Class 3A’s top-ranked 152-pounder entering this week’s state meet — helplessly hanging from that bar with dead arms.
He’s come a long way since then.
That episode came 10 years ago in the Brands’ home in Woodland Park, Colo. Nine years ago, Brands moved to Iowa. Five years ago, his parents let him start wrestling competitively. Two years ago, he failed to reach Iowa’s state meet as a freshman at Iowa City West.
One short year later, he won the state title at 138 pounds.
Now, as a junior, Brands leads the state with 454 takedowns — 205 more than second place. He enters the state meet at 50-1 and as arguably Iowa’s best pound-for-pound wrestler.
And yes. The burgeoning 18-year-old is the son of Terry Brands, the nephew of Tom Brands, the ruthlessly competitive heir apparent in Iowa’s line of wrestling royalty.
He’s also a goofball whose off-the-mat, care-free persona belies his last name.
“He’s not Terry. He’s not Tom,” said West wrestling coach Mark Reiland, who grew up with and wrestled alongside both of those Brands at Iowa. “He’s not a world champion or an Olympic champion or an NCAA champion yet. He’s Nelson.”
Brands’ story is one of a struggle for autonomy in a wrestling mecca that dwells on his bloodline.
“I want to be like my dad, obviously, with his success and everything,” Brands said. “But no, I would say I’m my own person.”
Growing up as a Brands
Brands’ first babysitter was 2008 Olympic gold-medal wrestler Henry Cejudo. That’s what happens when your dad’s a coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
He grew up in Woodland Park, a hamlet in the mountains 20 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. He’d occasionally attend Olympic practices. He’d “roughhouse” with his dad and future Olympians such as Cejudo.
Brands quickly developed a competitive streak. By second grade, he said he wanted to be first in everything. Races, the lunch line, homework, chess.
His teacher didn’t appreciate that. One day, she made Brands stand up in front of the class and recite: “I will try not to always be first.”
He bawled the entire time, he said.
Terry Brands, a former NCAA champion and world champion wrestler, was furious. He raised Nelson to be independent and, until that point, had let his son navigate issues with teachers on his own.
Not this time.
“With that one, I had to get involved,” Terry Brands said. “Our philosophy is a little different. That was kind of a moment in his life of competition. He was confused. And I had to tell him, ‘You don’t ever apologize for winning. Never, ever, ever do you apologize for winning.’ And he understood, very clear, that it’s OK to be the best.
“You’ve got to earn your way through it all. That’s life, that’s wrestling, that’s school, that’s his social habits, everything.”
Hard work and humility characterized Nelson’s life growing up in a Brands house, where any reminder of Terry’s athletic success collects dust in the garage. Out of sight, out of mind.
Want to watch TV? Finish your homework.
Want to stay up 10 more minutes? Show me your grades.
Want to watch a movie? Here’s the pull-up bar.
“Just doing the right things,” Nelson said. “Sleeping, eating, homework, all the routines.”
Terry Brands said he avoided coaching Nelson to remain “Dad” first.
He directs Nelson toward Reiland for most wrestling questions. He stays quiet during Nelson’s matches. He wants Nelson’s relationship with wrestling to be purely his, not one influenced by his father.
“I’m hands-off,” he said. “I’ve got to be.”
Only once has Terry Brands “become vocal” during one of Nelson’s matches — his state title match last year. Nelson heard Terry sprinted in the halls of Wells Fargo Arena after he won.
‘I want to make my own career’
Nelson knows what people think when they see his last name, and he’s got an answer.
“It was an on-my-own-decision (to wrestle),” he said. “My dad didn’t make me, or anyone. I chose it myself.”
Such was the goal for Terry and Michelle Brands. They didn’t let Nelson wrestle competitively until sixth grade. They wanted him to fall in love with wrestling on his own, as well as wait until he was fully prepared.
“I don’t think he felt pressured,” Michelle Brands said. “In fact, I almost felt like we tried to go the opposite direction.”
Brands only competed in track, football and hockey as a youngster.
But, in reality, he and wrestling were always bound for each other. He grew up around Olympic wrestlers. He played football and card games with Iowa wrestlers. He had years of access to the Hawkeyes’ wrestling room.
“It’s the one I chose because it’s an independent sport,” Brands said. “You can’t blame it on someone else. You can’t blame your loss on someone else.”
Of course, wrestling in Iowa isn’t so simple when you’re a Brands.
“When we lived in Colorado, it was kind of nice because nobody knew what Terry had done, and nobody knew anything about him,” Michelle Brands said. “So I loved that part about it because that really gave Nelson an opportunity to be just who Nelson wanted to be.
“When he started (wrestling here) and I felt the eyes on him, and I just felt the expectation for Nelson to be good right away was a lot, and maybe (that) was more for me than it was for Nelson.”
Brands said he felt those eyes for a while, too. He still does, but less so since he won his first state title last year.
After that, he didn’t feel like Terry Brands’ kid on the mat. He felt like Nelson Brands.
“I think after last year, I put an exclamation point after my name,” Brands said. “And I’m really happy about that because I want to make my own career and not have to just rely on my dad’s last name or my last name.”
Currently Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina are all possible destinations for the next step of that career.
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Whose kid is that?
Games of Monopoly come with high stakes in the Brands family. Nelson, his younger sister Sydney, a sophomore at West, and their three cousins — Tom Brands’ kids — often spend full days around the game board.
Four uber-competitive Brandses can’t fathom walking away losers after each game, and they have to play again until they win. None more so than Nelson.
“Any game we play, he’ll get into it,” Sydney Brands said. “Even if he doesn’t necessarily like the game; he just wants to win.”
Terry and Nelson Brands share an animalistic dominance on the mat. But that must-win-everything attitude is about the only trait they share off the mat.
Michelle Brands remembers one day in Woodland Park when she and Terry drove past Nelson, in early elementary school at the time, entertaining a crowd of older students at the school bus stop.
“Terry turned to me and he (jokes), ‘Whose kid is that?’” Michelle said. “That was the beginning of, ‘Wow this kid, he loves to make people laugh.’ Terry tends to be more serious a little bit, or more reserved. Nelson, not at all.”
Terry Brands loves that about Nelson. He knows how tightly wound he was at Nelson’s age. He’s glad his son is different.
“He’s not like I am. He’s not,” Terry Brands said. “And I tell our club parents that, that you know what, there’s times when I’m like, ‘Gosh dang,’ but he’s a lot better off doing it his way because he’s happy.”
Reiland grew up with Terry Brands and coaches Nelson every day at practice. The difference is obvious to him, too.
“Outside of being in that room, being on that mat, he’s not as serious,” Reiland said. “He’s pretty easy-going, likes to joke. Sometimes you look at him and wonder how in the world he’s as good as he is. It’s unique. Tom and Terry were pretty strict in everything they did.
“Terry was a results-driven kid. Not that (Nelson’s) not results-driven, but he’s not as focused on, ‘If I don’t win this my world’s going to end.’”
At home, Nelson can often be found dancing around the hallways with headphones on, Sydney Brands said. That, or he’ll be attempting to persuade his parents that he can stay up as late as he wants.
That’s about the only thing he fails at right now.