Duke

Jacob Kasper wrestled at Duke and the Olympics. Now he wants to join Wrestlemania.

Duke wrestler Jacob Kaster has set his sights on a career as a pro wrestler.
Duke wrestler Jacob Kaster has set his sights on a career as a pro wrestler. Duke Athletics

The WWE Hall of Fame wrestler had spotted many a top prospect in his nine years as a talent scout. This one wrestler, in particular, caught his eye.

Maybe it was the wildly designed wrestling shoes the prospect donned, a different pair for each of his matches over his final two collegiate seasons. Perhaps it was the wrestler’s persona, including a declaration aimed at his opponent in the NCAA championships semifinal match that he would “punch him in the mouth.” Or, maybe it was his long-held dream to one day attain star status as a WWE wrestler.

There was one catch.

“A lot of guys with the Duke and the Stanford and the Harvard and the Northwestern degrees, I kind of shy away from because I know that degree they have in hand is worth a lot of money,” says WWE talent scout Gerald Brisco. “So, I usually cautiously approach them if I like them and see if there is any interest from them.”

Oh, there was plenty of interest from Jacob Kasper, who twice earned All-America honors at Duke, captured the ACC heavyweight championship in 2018, won a program-record 37 matches in one season, and has three academic All-America plaques to hang on his wall.

This is the guy who joined his older and younger brothers in impersonating pro wrestlers by leaping off the shed outside the family’s Ohio home and onto a waiting trampoline. This guy tweeted in high school that “I’m going to be a WWE star someday” and “You know I’m going to headline WrestleMania.”

His boasts on Twitter ultimately led to a three-day NXT tryout this past summer in front of WWE talent scouts in Orlando.

Upon learning that Brisco was scouting heavyweights at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Kasper tweeted that he was “way better, faster, stronger, better looking and better on the (microphone) than anybody he was looking at.”

Brisco has thousands of followers on Twitter. Nevertheless, that one tweet stood out. So, he called one of Kasper’s former teammates at Duke who was in medical school in Kentucky.

“What kind of kid is this Jacob Kasper guy?” Brisco asked Dylan Ryan, who had lost his heavyweight spot to Kasper in the Duke lineup when Kasper was a freshman.

“He’s a great guy,” Ryan immediately responded.

Pro wrestling

Kasper returned from the Olympic experience with a new outlook on college athletics as an avenue to a career in pro wrestling. Kasper says he was raised in what he calls the MTV Cribs era that explores off-field lives of professional athletes. Not so much in amateur sports such as wrestling.

Just ask Kasper . . . and turn on your tape recorder because it is quite a soliloquy:

“The amateur wrestling community is very modest and humble. We come from blue-collar situations, not unlike myself. A lot of wrestlers’ parents are coal miners or steel workers, they work hard, they get up early, they come home late. Ultimately, they pass along those personal beliefs and the way to behave on to their kids.

“There was nobody with any flare. So, I decided that the amateur wrestling NCAA tournament is as much of a show as anything out there as the Super Bowl, NBA Finals or the World Series. So, I was going to do my best with the platform I was given to make a big impact, to try to set a trend moving forward for other amateur wrestlers that hope to express themselves.”

The shark tank

Glen Lanham, who counts six seasons as Duke’s head coach, recognized from the outset of Kasper’s college career that he had something different, if not special.

As a tactful way of weeding out those first-year wrestlers (Duke does not offer scholarships in wrestling) who lack the drive to compete, Lanham and assistant coach Ben Wissel organized a shark tank. The object is to see how long one wrestler can extend the exercise against the coaches and two other wrestlers who alternate spots in the ring.

“To come back in (after that drill) and be ready to train just as hard the next day,” Lanham says, “I knew there was something different about him.”

Kasper admits it was a defining moment for him as well.

“It was like living a normal life for 18 years and then one day somebody pushed me off a cliff and I found out I could fly,” Kasper says. “The possibilities were endless, who I was and what I could be was so much different.”

Lanham says Kasper wrestled at Duke with a chip on his shoulder, determined to surpass a high school career in Lexington, Ohio, that did not include a state championship. The more success he had at Duke, including a Blue Devil first in capturing a Southern Scuffle tournament title, the more confident and brash Kasper became.

Brisco took note and attended Kasper’s Senior Night match against Appalachian State. The match was the culmination of Kasper’s transformation in his Duke career from a thin and lanky middleweight to a 6-foot-3, 230-pound block of a heavyweight. Kasper arrived at Duke as shy and reserved and departed as a cocksure showman.

Kasper’s metamorphosis was best documented in the progression of mug shots used each year in the Duke wrestling media guide. As a freshman, Kasper wore a modest yellow tie and maroon blazer. As a senior, he was decked out in a colorful gold and black-splashed jacket with matching bow tie.

‘Mardi Gras’ look

For his WWE tryout in Orlando, Kasper arrived in his “Mardi Gras” look, replete with a mix of gold, green and purple shoes and sequined studs; slim, tapered black pants that broke at the ankle; a black leather belt with gold tiger buckle; and a purple-and-wine colored shirt buttoned to the top.

Mark Henry, a WWE Hall of Famer, pulled Kasper aside to marvel at the prospect’s outfit and his confidence in wearing it.

VIDEO: NC State's Nick Gwiazdowski talks about his victory by technical fall over Missouri's James Romero to give the Wolfpack wrestling team a 18-17 victory over #5 Missouri at the State Fairgrounds' Holshouser Building in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday,

Kasper hopes to have made a similar impression on the talent scouts in Orlando, enough so to stand out from the other 50 or so prospects. Anywhere from six to 10 will next be invited to WWE headquarters in Stanford, Conn., and undergo extensive interviews, physical exams and background checks.

Brisco says the WWE is well aware that Kasper wants to compete in the 2020 Olympics, and a schedule could be worked out to meet those needs.

To no one’s surprise, Kasper is not idly sitting by waiting for a phone call from the WWE. He assisted former N.C. State wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski in preparation for the recent World Championships. He also plans to take tumbling, public speaking and acting classes following his first season as a full-time assistant coach at Duke.

All in an attempt to fulfill his WWE dream.

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