Adversity is often considered one of the greatest motivational factors in sports.
If challenges and tragedy can fuel champions, wrestler Raufeon Stots experienced all he needed. And then some.
In his two seasons with the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Stots won consecutive Division II national championships at 149 pounds while helping the Lopers to back-to-back team titles.
He finished 30-6 his first season and 34-4 his senior year in being chosen as The World-Herald's Midlands college male athlete of the year. Schools sent in nominations and Stots was chosen by a committee of writers and editors.
His journey wasn't easy.
Growing up in Houston, his father was never in the picture. His mother died from pneumonia, leaving him in the care of his aunt. His surroundings didn't offer much solace.
“He comes from a very bad area of Houston: a drug-infested, crime-infested area,” UNK coach Marc Bauer said. “He would tell me if it weren't for wrestling, he'd probably be selling drugs or dead by now. It's a very, very tough situation.”
In Houston, dreams of stardom on the gridiron tend to stifle many of the other sports in high schools. That was the case for Stots, until his science teacher offered some extra credit.
The only stipulation? Try out for the wrestling team he coached.
Stots' road to Kearney was then aided by a chain of former Lopers.
Bauer heard about Stots from Brad Ewing, his coach at Klein Oak High School. Bauer then connected the wrestler to Joe Renfro, another former UNK All-American. Renfro helped develop Stots into an All-American at Labette Community College in Kansas before the jump to UNK.
Stots ran into his first roadblock as a wrestler when he tore his meniscus at Labette. After the battles at home, the injury was incredibly frustrating for Stots.
Then a handful of matches into his first season at Kearney, Stots dislocated his shoulder.
“I was in so much pain,” he said. “I was upset because I thought everything was moving so slow, and I couldn't get the pain to go away quick enough. I was pretty animated.”
He was out the rest of the season.
“It's tough to swallow that when you are young, when you have the ability and you want to go out and perform, but you're injured,” Bauer said. “Sports teach us how to deal with adversity. This was just the first thing that came his way, but in the long run, it's going to make him a better person.
“He's what I like to call a gamer. He wants to go out there and compete.”
The rehab process was long and hard for Stots. But it was just another barrier that he would push through.
After receiving a medical redshirt, he went into his 2011 campaign revitalized.
“I was feeling amazing,” Stots said. “I gave my arm that year to heal, and I could finally wrestle like I knew I could.”
In both of Stots' championship runs, his matches decided whether the Lopers would take the team title.
“The first one I had no idea. I knew that I was a factor, but I didn't know if I won my match it'd be over,” he said. “The second one, I knew it, but there was no way I was going to lose and let them down.”
Stots went into those matches with the same mindset. He emphasized the small parts of his performance versus the end-of-match possibilities.
Of course, his past gave him a drive that almost wouldn't let him lose. His mother loomed in his mind every time he took the mat.
“I feel like she's watching me,” Stots said. “I was always trying to make her proud. It keeps me grounded and helps me put things in perspective to do my best.”
His eligibility is done, but with another year left at UNK, he'll return to help Bauer coach the Lopers to a possible three-peat. He's going to apply the same passion he had for competing into making the team the best it can be.
“He's going to help them develop, keep their technique crisp and be an enormous asset,” Bauer said. “He's a delightful young man. He's got a great sense of humor. That's something our team fed off of: his genuine love for life and having a good time.
“It's something I'll always remember about Raufeon.”