Under Grayson Fries' yellow headgear there's a wrestler.

One of 896 who qualified for the state tournament. No different from anyone else.

And that's just the way he likes it.

The Grand Island Northwest freshman has been completely deaf since cochlear implant surgery at age 5.

Doctors told his family at the time that — in part because of thin skin — Fries shouldn't take part in contact sports.

But he was a wrestler before the operation and would be a wrestler after it.

Without his sport, he said, "I'd probably be on the couch begging to wrestle."

Thursday he lived a lifetime dream of competing on one of its biggest stages.

"This feels great," he said.

His hearing is about 75 percent with devices that are placed in each ear. When he takes them out, like he's forced to do on the mat, there is nothing.

So you can imagine the difficulty in a sport that has whistles blowing and coaches screaming from the corner.

That's where his disadvantage becomes an advantage. "He uses more feel," Northwest coach Brian Sybrandts said. "And he fights hard. He's so determined when he's out there."

That was apparent in Fries' match Thursday. After finishing fourth at Class B districts, he drew Trevor Fauver of Gretna, the top-ranked wrestler in the state at 106 pounds.

Fries came out aggressive, fighting off Fauver's takedown attempt early and settling into the match through the first period.

A headlock early in the second put him on the defensive for a majority of the period, but Fries battled from his back for almost 90 seconds. Fauver secured the pin with five seconds left in the period.

It was the perfect example of the way he's wrestled all season, Sybrandts said.

"He's done everything we've asked of him," he added. "And he doesn't use being deaf as a crutch. He takes things into his own hands."

When Fries can't see his coach, "I'm out there by myself," he said. "I just have to use what I've learned at practice or what my coaches teach me."

Fries was an "average wrestler" growing up, said his father, Kevin. But "something clicked over the summer."

He hit the weight room hard. He focused on the sport. And not surprisingly, he got better.

Fries has won 36 matches this season, exceeding even his goals. It's forced him to raise the bar for the future.

"My long-term goal," he said, "is to be a state champion."

Just like every other wrestler.

Contact the writer: 402-850-0781, nickrubek@gmail.com twitter.com/nickrubek

"If I can't see (Coach), I'm out there by myself. I just have to use what I've learned at practice or what my coaches teach me."

Freshman Grayson Fries

"He's done everything we've asked of him. And he doesn't use being deaf as a crutch. He takes things into his own hands."

Grand Island Northwest coach Brian Sybrandts

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