Future Illini's fun-loving approach makes him one of a kind

Future Illini's fun-loving approach makes him one of a kind

URBANA — Luke Luffman is "an anomaly," according to his high school wrestling coach of the last four seasons.

Chuck Trabaris isn't wrong when he says this. The Urbana coach is talking about a three-time IHSA Class 2A state champion — Luffman's most recent coming as a senior at 285 pounds last month to cap off an unbeaten 33-0 season, earning him News-Gazette All-Area Wrestler of the Year status in the process.

Luffman hasn't lost in prep competition the last two years. He's grappled both nationally and internationally, earning more hardware along the way.

Yes, the University of Illinois wrestling signee is unique.

But listing Luffman's athletic accomplishments doesn't fully explain just why he's an anomaly.

Like ...

— Luffman's approach to each of his matches, which differs significantly from what is seen out of most his age.

— The reality that his biggest priority when hitting a mat is to make sure he's having fun.

— The fact he passes time waiting for bouts by performing card tricks and completing backflips.

Luke Luffman is not like the wrestlers who preceded him, nor is there likely to be someone similar to him down the line. And the reason is about more than his accomplishments.

"It's not like any other sport I've done," Luffman said. "It's just always been about having a good time."

★ ★ ★

Luffman has wrestled since he was 7 years old, with current St. Thomas More coach Mark Mammen suggesting the grade-schooler give it a shot alongside baseball and football.

Luffman was drawn to the sport by not having to depend on a team to see his hard work pay off.

"The thing about Luke is that everybody he wrestles gets better," Trabaris said. "We had a pretty good culture, I think, and then Luke came in his freshman year and that culture just got elevated by about tenfold."

Beyond Luffman's talent and work ethic, he simply wanted Urbana to look good despite not always boasting the biggest roster.

For example, when Luffman was a sophomore, Trabaris recalls the 10th-grader being in the process of winning by technical fall against an opponent from Hoopeston Area when the Tigers needed a pin to even qualify for a rare dual meet victory.

So Luffman altered his approach and achieved that result.

Urbana went on to win the event.

"That's the kind of kid Luke is," Trabaris said. "He'll push the pace and he'll push himself for the betterment of the team."

★ ★ ★

Like making that abrupt change to score a pin versus a tech fall, Luffman also had to figure out earlier in his career just how he wanted to approach matches.

"I used to listen to music," Luffman said, "but I just found that I would get too wound up and my head would be way too into the match."

Luffman said he used to vomit after each of his efforts simply because there was too much emotion tied to what he was doing.

Even if Luffman was succeeding in the win-loss column, his overhyping what was to come wasn't doing him any favors health-wise.

So he doesn't pop in headphones and zone out. He doesn't sit up in a gymnasium's bleachers and avoid human contact. He doesn't pace back and forth for hours on end.

He talks with coaches, family and wrestling pals. He engages in some of the most well-known forms of humor.

"Even when he was a freshman, I remember him and I would joke back and forth," Trabaris said. "And they weren't funny jokes. Some of them were quite lame. But it was enough to break the ice."

Most recently, Luffman has turned to magic.

He looked up YouTube videos of basic card tricks to show off to those around him at meets, including IHSA postseason competitions. Yes, while many of his cohorts were pondering the next big match, Luffman was trying to find out which of 52 playing cards Trabaris had just selected and placed back into the stack.

"I can give you the deck, and you can mix it up as much as you want, but I can still find it," said Luffman, declining to reveal his secret. "I also like showing other wrestlers the tricks, just to kind of keep their minds off of what they're doing."

★ ★ ★

Don't take this to mean Luffman is goofing around while relying upon natural ability to steer through his list of opponents.

"At the same time, he's always extremely competitive," Trabaris said. "(If) it's doing the dishes after dinner, he wants to be the best dish-washer around. If he writes a paper, he wants to write the best paper around."

At some point during his grappling development, Luffman simply decided to stop stressing and merely live in the moment.

Trabaris doesn't think that was entirely necessary for Luffman to reach the heights he has, but added it likely didn't hurt.

"He would've had the success. I don't think he would've been as dominant," Trabaris said. "His mindset definitely helps him out in big matches."

It also explains why Luffman wanted to teach himself the art of the backflip.

Even at a resting weight of 255 pounds, Luffman said there's really not much that goes into going head over heels.

"You've just got to get over the fear," Luffman said. "Then once you get over the fear, it's just getting your feet square, and sticking it that's the hard part."

Next up on Luffman's non-wrestling checklist is learning how to juggle. Why?

"That gives me something to work toward," he said, "and it kind of shows that if I set my mind to something, I can achieve it."

★ ★ ★

Illini coach Jim Heffernan has to appreciate hearing that.

Luffman has been actively preparing since the start of this school year to join Heffernan's crew, which includes former Centennial standout Justin Cardani and ex-Rantoul star Demarius Smith.

Luffman wants to bring the fun to Illinois wrestling. He doesn't leave any doubt about that.

But, like when he was at the head of Urbana's program, he has other goals in mind as well.

"I'm really looking forward to getting in the room with some great coaches, great teammates, just kind of getting Illinois wrestling back to where it used to be," Luffman said. "I'm just looking forward to ... that new feeling."

Not much changed for Luffman in high school as far as results were concerned. After placing fifth at 2A 195 state as a freshman, he rarely stumbled en route to a pair of crowns at 2A 220 and this year at 2A 285.

The bad jokes, card tricks and backflips kept things fresh.

Heading just down the road to put on the orange and blue singlet at Huff Hall will do the same.

Don't be surprised if the prep success follows once he begins his college career.

"I'm actually looking forward to watching them in-house and at home," Trabaris said. "That'll be kind of cool, bring the (Urbana) team out and say, 'We used to wrestle with that kid, and now he's out at a D-I college-level program.'"

HONOR ROLL: News-Gazette All-Area Wrestlers of the Year

2019    Luke Luffman    Urbana
2018    Justin Cardani    Centennial
2017    Justin Cardani    Centennial
2016    Wesley Kibler    St. Joseph-Ogden
2015    Wesley Kibler    St. Joseph-Ogden
2014    Josh Wallick    GCMS/Fisher
2013    Cameron Mammen    Urbana
2012    Austin Armetta    Mahomet-Seymour
2011    Andy Hoselton    Prairie Central
2010    Guy Kirby    GCMS/Fisher
2009    Andrew Brewer    Mahomet-Seymour
2008    Kyle Dooley    Monticello
2007    Kyle Dooley    Monticello
2006    Billy Gallo    St. Joseph-Ogden
2005    Brian Lange    GCMS/Fisher