By Mitchell A. Skurzewski, for Wausau Pilot & Review
There are a handful of terms you often hear when discussing a top athlete. You hear about their dedication. Their focus. Their determination.
But Mason Kauffman’s track record says it all. Kauffman, a talented wrestler, has seen the path to victory snatched from him not once, but twice. The first time was due to a health scare in high school. Then, he thought he may never wrestle again.
The second disappointment happened later, after finding what he thought was a home for his talents and his sport in college, at Eastern Michigan. But in Kauffman’s redshirt freshman year, in 2018, the school shuttered the wrestling program, closing yet another door for the Stratford native.
Now a senior at Northern Illinois, Kauffman seeks a return trip to the NCAA Wrestling Championships to cap off his winding journey at the sport’s biggest stage in collegiate wrestling. If Kauffman can do well at this weekend’s Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships, March 4-5 in Athens, Ohio, he can end his career in style.
“I wasn’t sure I’d wrestle again in high school,” Kauffman said. “I feel blessed and just grateful to have this chance and want to make the most of it.”
“I felt like my son was being taken from me”
High school wrestling was going according to plan through Kauffman’s first two years, including in his sophomore year in 2015, when he won a state championship at 126 pounds. But as his junior year of wrestling was in the early stages at Bi-State, a large wrestling tournament, something felt wrong.
Mason couldn’t pinpoint the problem. He was exhausted, struggling to get his breath back after matches. His strength was zapped. His parents were puzzled, too.
“He told me, ‘Dad, something’s wrong,’” Roland Kauffman recalled. “He said his body wasn’t responding. For Mason to say that, we knew something was going on. We just didn’t know what.”
The symptoms plaguing Mason only continued through his junior year. His parents thought it could be anything from growing pains to the flu. They took him to doctors, but nothing was found. Despite his body fighting him tooth and nail, Kauffman returned to Madison for the 2016 WIAA Individual State Wrestling Tournament. With the state tournament near, a bomb dropped: A mass was found on his lung.
Mason still wrestled.
After pulling off a narrow win in the semifinals, Kauffman was so spent he could hardly drag himself off the mat. His dad and an assistant coach helped him to the changing area.
“I couldn’t get my normal breathing back,” Mason said. “My legs hurt. I was just having trouble getting enough oxygen.”
Mason’s parents, Roland and Jennifer, wasted no time. They hustled Mason to the car and immediately took him to the emergency room at University of Wisconsin Hospital.
“Seeing him like that….I felt like my son was being taken away from me,” Roland said. “I looked at him, and his eyes had this glazed look. I was pretty scared.”
In an hour, tests came back that showed Mason had an infection in his bloodstream, leading to a devastating diagnosis: myocarditis and pericarditis of the heart.
According to Mayo Clinic, myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle, while pericarditis is inflammation of the structure that surrounds the heart, holding it in place. The signs and symptoms all made sense: chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath and rapid or irregular heartbeats.
Mason’s mother, Jenny, said her son was “like an 80-year-old in a 17-year-old boy’s body.” The doctors were amazed that Mason had a 37-0 wrestling record with a body that was, for lack of a better word, broken.
Despite his diagnosis, Mason continued to think he was going to wrestle for a state championship. His father tried reasoning with him, but Mason was pulling out tubes and wanted to get back to the hotel for weigh-ins early the next day.
“I definitely didn’t realize the magnitude of what was going on,” Mason said, “I had that tunnel vision where I wasn’t thinking about my health. I was focused on winning a state title. I didn’t realize the severity of it all.”
Roland pulled a trump card. He brought in Olympian Dennis Hall, who coaches area wrestlers in the Stevens Point area, to talk on the phone with Mason. His message: Live to fight another day. There were plenty of big moments on the mat for Mason. His long-term health had to come first.
“I needed to hear that,” It just calmed me down,” Mason said. “If I wrestled again I could have done significant long-term damage.”
Tough months ahead
The months that followed were tough for Mason. He really couldn’t do anything – literally. He had to slowly build his heart strength and for the first few months climbing a set of stairs wasn’t recommended. His heart was just too weak.
But soon, Mason went from being upset about not wrestling for a state championship to realizing the magnitude of his illness. The same holds true for his mom.
“Mason was and is always very in-tune with his body,” Jenny Kauffman said. “He went above and beyond, getting acupuncture, staying in shape.”
Jenny Kauffman said she didn’t really know, until the months following, just how serious Mason’s illness was. Seeing him struggle was unthinkable.
“I mean for Mason, a kid who was active, always working out,” she said. “It just was really hard seeing him that way and realizing he wrestled for four months and his body was that weak.”
There were many days that Mason wasn’t sure he’d ever wrestle again. But after regular checkups, he healed enough to move forward. Eventually, he was on the road to wrestling again.
Mason worked with trainer Joel Berens in Stevens Point on his body to get it back into shape. He placed fourth at a national tournament roughly nine months after his heart scare, restoring his confidence and his drive to succeed.
He went on to win a state title his senior year and committed to Eastern Michigan University to continue his wrestling career.
“I was blindsided”
Kauffman was excited to begin wrestling at Eastern Michigan. He was settling into life at college. He was bonding with his new teammates. But suddenly, there was a team meeting announced with the EMU brass.
While he was nervous about what was going on, he didn’t expect the announcement he heard next: EMU was cutting its wrestling program, along with several other sports.
“I was blindsided.,” he said. “It was tough because I felt I was just getting my feet under me. I had met some great friends, teammates and coaches. I had my future planned there. I felt like the rug was taken from under all of us.”
In addition to wrestling the school in 2018 cut programs for softball, women’s tennis and men’s swimming and diving. Kauffman and his teammates fought for the program to continue, but the school had made its decision.
“It sucked, but it all worked out,” Mason Kauffman said.
Kauffman found himself going through the recruiting process all over again. He wasn’t sure what his next step would be, and was contemplating even Division III schools.
“He talked with coaches and teammates and they all said you’re a D-I athlete,” Jenny Kauffman said.
Eventually, Kauffman committed to Northern Illinois after an official visit.
“First it really fit academically, it had my major (kinesiology),” he said. “The campus was nice and after meeting the guys on the team and the coaches, it just felt right. It was closer to home, probably half the trip to Eastern Michigan,so my parents were happy about that.”
Despite the challenges involved, moving to a new school was the right decision.
“I am really thankful for everything,” he said. “Even though it was tough with the program being cut at Eastern Michigan, I made some lifelong friendships there. And now, at Northern Illinois, I feel at home, have great coaches and great teammates. It’s been a journey, but I am thankful for it all because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to ever do it again after that (health scare).”
His first two years at NIU were pretty pedestrian by Kauffman’s standards, going 27-27. But then Kauffman made a switch to the 174-pound category, up from 157 pounds, and really started to see the results he was seeking. After that, he turned a corner, won four of six matchups in the Mid-American Conference Championships and qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a wild card entry last year.
He earned an overtime win in the consolation round, going 1-2 overall at the tournament following a 13-6 season. Kauffman said several factors played into the success that season.
“Just working on my techniques,” he said. “I didn’t have to focus on cutting weight before matches anymore because 174 is pretty close to a natural weight for me. I could completely focus on my matches. I was mentally able to lock in a lot more, prepare for my opponent and not be focused on cutting weight.”
For his work on the mat and in the classroom, Kauffman was named NIU’s first-ever Elite 90 award winner.
The Elite 90, an award founded by the NCAA, recognizes the true essence of the student athlete by honoring the individual who has reached the national championship level in his or her sport, while also achieving the highest academic standard possible. Kauffman carries a 4.0 grade point average and is driven and dedicated both in the classroom and on the wrestling mat.
Looking for a ‘storybook ending’
Now, Kauffman is preparing for a potential return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We are just so proud of him,” Jenny Kauffman said. “He never misses practice. He’s in a very difficult program for school. The NCAAs are some of the best wrestlers and it would just be a storybook ending if he makes it again, we get to cheer for him there and he finishes his career like he wants to.”
Kauffman (16-9 this year) has been forced to constantly reanalyze his goals throughout his wrestling career. For a bit, he just wanted to wrestle again, as simple as that. Then, he wanted to make the NCAA Tournament.
After winning a match at last year’s NCAA Tournament, he now aims to make an even deeper run.
“I have wrestled with some great teammates in high school, college, at nationals and some have never won an NCAA Tournament match,”he said. “I haven’t really had time to reflect on my career. I am still competing. Now, I want to just give it my all. It would be quite a way to end my journey in wrestling. I just have to take it one day at a time. I feel great. It’s about executing (in the MAC Tournament) and hopefully I can end my career at the Tournament.”