CHAMPAIGN — He looks as healthy as anyone on the mats. There is no pain. No reason, from outside appearance, that B.J. Futrell shouldn’t be competing in the Big Ten wrestling championships.
Futrell had long dreamed about his return to the Assembly Hall, where he won a pair of state titles for Chicago Mount Carmel. This was to be the start of his last hurrah, a Big Ten title on the way to the NCAA meet.
There, he would add a national championship to go along with his two previous All-America honors.
“This was something I had trained my entire life for,” Futrell said. “I pictured myself winning a thousand times. I won state championships in that gym. I graduated from school in that gym. There’s a lot of history in the building. I worked every day of my life for it.”
Midway through the season, Futrell was on his way. He had a 19-2 record with eight pins. He won both the Northern Iowa and Cyclone Open titles and finished second at the prestigious Midlands. He was the star of Jim Heffernan’s team.
“I was having the best season of my career,” Futrell said.
But during a Jan. 12 workout, something didn’t feel right for Futrell. While lifting weights, he had a difficult time gripping the bar. He told the team’s trainer, Jeff Jahnel, and went to find out what went wrong.
Futrell was packing his bags for a trip to Nebraska and Minnesota when the call came. “You can’t go,” he was told. “You need to see a specialist.”
Good thing he was held back. Doctors discovered Futrell had a bulging disc in his neck, which was indenting his spinal column. Continuing to compete could have led to tragedy.
“I feel like there is purpose in everything and in every obstacle that we face in life,” Futrell said. “This is a time for me to grow in my faith and grow close to God.”
His doctor was amazed that Futrell didn’t feel any pain.
“I guess I have a high pain tolerance,” Futrell said. “He said I should be in a lot of pain. For some reason it wasn’t bothering me. Right now, I feel like a million bucks.”
Futrell is getting the problem fixed. On March 29, he will have surgery at Carle Foundation Hospital. If all goes as planned, he will be able to resume his wrestling career in three months.
But where? Technically, Futrell has wrestled too much of his final season to get another year back. But his coach is hoping for some NCAA help.
“There’s a chance, and we will go through the process,” Illinois coach Jim Heffernan said. “Really, the whole thing with this is the timing of it. He just didn’t have enough time to recover for the doctors to clear him.”
No matter what happens with the NCAA, Futrell will keep wrestling. He is pointing toward the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I’ll be able to compete again,” Futrell said. “It will be a difficult road back, but it’s not the first time I’ve had to face adversity in my life, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
The injury hasn’t kept Futrell away from Illinois wrestling. He is at every practice, offering encouragement to his teammates. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The thing about B.J. is he has a presence,” Heffernan said. “If he walks into a room, you know who he is. When he speaks, people listen. He’s a good example for our guys.”
“I can’t be so self-centered that I forget about my teammates and my responsibility to them to be a leader,” Futrell said. “Giving up and not coming around and only focusing on myself, that was never an option.”
You will see Futrell on the mat during today’s finals. He will present the awards to the winner at his weight, 141.
“It’s a special honor,” Futrell said.