If there's one thing Terry Dawson has learned, it's that life isn't always fair. His time with the Brandon High wrestling team has made that clear.
It's been one adverse situation after another for Dawson during his three-plus seasons with the Eagles. He's dealt with injuries. He's experienced the heartbreak of coming up just short of his dream of becoming a state champion. He's also dealt with the devastation of losing an entire season at chasing that dream again, even though he was healthy.
Dawson, now a senior, is back on the mat with one final chance of making his dream come true. Although he can't help but shake his head a bit before starting to talk about his high school career, he believes it's all happened for a reason.
"I think everything is a learning experience, honestly," Dawson said. "You've got to go through some stuff. It makes you a better person."
Dawson has been on the mat virtually his entire life. He began wrestling at the age of 5 while he lived in Pennsylvania, and when he moved to Florida four years later he continued to hone his skills in the youth program run by current Brandon coach Russ Cozart. Dawson showed talent and promise, enough so that he entered his freshman season at Brandon in 2006-07 with high hopes and high expectations, especially considering he'd placed third in the state in Class 1A at 103 pounds the previous season wrestling for Temple Heights.
Dawson put together a good first season with the Eagles, going 37-2, and qualified for the state tournament in Lakeland. On the eve of the event, he went for a routine jog. The result was anything but routine.
"I was just running, had my headphones on, and I just wasn't paying attention," Dawson said. He tripped and hurt his knee. "I couldn't stand back up, so I knew something was wrong."
The diagnosis was a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee. The final leg in his quest for a state title was over before it began.
Dawson was back on the mat the next season, however, and was performing like he hadn't missed a beat. He again qualified for the state tournament, entering with a 50-4 record. He won his first three matches to reach the Class 2A 112-pound title match, putting him on the cusp of making his dream come true. However, Dawson came up just short, falling 1-0 to Springstead's Schuyler Swanton.
As tough as the loss was, Dawson looked to the future. Next season, he thought, that state title would be his. He wrestled and trained hard during the summer. Everything was going well. Then, a wrestler from out of state, Ryan Renkey, transferred into the Brandon program.
Renkey also wrestled at 112 pounds, meaning he and Dawson would have to wrestle off for the chance to represent the Eagles' varsity team at that weight. They did. Dawson lost.
Suddenly Dawson, a returning state runner-up and a fixture in the lineup the previous two seasons, was on the outside looking in at Brandon's varsity squad. He admitted to thinking, albeit briefly, about walking away, but soon realized that wasn't the answer.
"I couldn't do that," Dawson said. "I've been in it too long to just walk away."
So Dawson continued to try. He squared off against Renkey a few more times in wrestleoffs for the 112-pound spot. Each time, he lost. He even tried to bump up a weight to take on then-freshman Rossi Bruno for the 119-pound spot. Again, though, he lost.
Dawson ended up watching both Renkey and Bruno go on to win Class 2A individual state crowns. While he was happy for his teammates, Dawson admits the entire season was "devastating."
His coach understood.
"It was a little traumatic for him and his family," Cozart said. "But in times of trouble, a lot of character comes out."
It did. Dawson said he learned during last season that wrestling wasn't everything. The extra time off the mat opened his eyes to the importance of academics. He'd never been as focused on his studies as he was on the sport, and he decided to change that.
"You need to have your grades in order to go on and become something in life," said Dawson, who said he's gone from being a C-D student to an A-B student.
And now, Dawson is back on the mat. Cozart sees a different wrestler; one with a purpose, and one with something to prove.
"We haven't talked much about (last year)," Cozart said, "but he never quit, and he never moved away. He stayed at it, and this is his year. This is his year."
One final year to make his dream come true.
"A state title. That's all I want," Dawson said. "If I don't accomplish any other goals this season, I just want that state title. That's all I'm looking for."