Overcoming injury, Arlington wrestler Blake McPherson rises to the top
A severe knee injury nearly ended Blake McPherson's wrestling career. But with a little coaxing, and an unmatched work ethic, the Arlington High School senior has molded himself into a state-title contender.
Yet, at 5:37 a.m. there's Blake McPherson, running on a treadmill, getting his workout under way. McPherson has to hurry. Classes at Arlington High School start at 8 a.m.
The early-morning session, one of two McPherson puts in each week, comes a little over 24 hours before the start of the Class 4A regional wrestling tournament.
"We're going light today," McPherson's personal trainer and the owner of ProAction, Todd Aalbu, said.
He has to mention it. The casual observer would never know.
Herald writer David Krueger tried out Blake McPherson's workout ... and lived to tell about it
McPherson has been coming here for 13 months. He first came for physical therapy after undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a torn medial collateral ligament and a partially torn lateral collateral ligament. If that sounds bad, well, it is.
"You hear of people who say they 'blew out' their knee, that's exactly what Blake did," Aalbu said. "He literally blew out his knee. The ligaments that he tore severely impacts the level of stability his knee could obtain. Without repair he was likely done with his athletic career.
"It's pretty darn close to the worst-case scenario for a competitive athlete to do what he's done."
McPherson, Arlington's quarterback, injured his knee in the first football game of the 2010 season. He rolled out and planted his leg to pass. The upper half of the leg rotated, the lower half did not.
The injury was a first for McPherson, who had been healthy throughout his athletic career. He didn't know what to do so he did the unthinkable: He continued to play.
"I just thought to myself that it was probably a torn meniscus and just to tough it out," said McPherson, who put a brace on his leg and played four more games.
Four more games.
"I kept taping it up more, to the point where I couldn't even move my knee," he said.
When he finally went to the doctor, the doctor "couldn't believe I was walking on it."
Now, thanks largely to Aalbu, McPherson has healed and surpassed where he was before the injury. He missed the 2010-11 wrestling season, but competed in track last spring and was back on the football field this past fall.
Last week, he became the Class 4A district wrestling champion in the 195-pound weight class and improved his season record to 31-0. McPherson, ranked No. 3 in the state in Class 4A and No. 4 overall, heads into today's regional tournament as the favorite.
Three months ago, he wasn't even planning to wrestle. He didn't want to risk hurting his knee. He considered turning out for the Eagles' basketball team instead.
It took dinner and some wooing by Arlington's new wrestling coaches, Rick Iverson and Barry Knott, to change McPherson's mind
"It was pretty evident he was not going to do it," said Iverson, the Eagles' head coach. "I said, 'I'm not trying to take your other sports away, and I'm not trying to tell you this is the most important sport in the world. But I have a hunch this is going to be a good experience.'"
McPherson agreed to attend the first practice. He found it impossible to just sit on the edge of the mat.
"I went out for the first practice and I went right into the drills," he said. "I couldn't just sit there and watch. If I was going to be there, I was going to go all out."
And he hasn't stopped since.
McPherson says wrestling is his favorite sport. Iverson says he's an amazing athlete with an unparalleled drive to get better.
"Blake is not just the athlete of the year at Arlington, he's probably the athlete of the decade or two," Iverson said. "He's just a phenomenal athlete."
Paul McPherson, Blake's father, said his wife, Shaun, has a theory about the source of Blake's athleticism.
"She says the reason he's so athletic is she took golf lessons when she was pregnant with him," Paul McPherson said.
Strength seems to run in the McPherson family. Blake has an older brother who's a body builder, and another brother, Brad, currently studying at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Blake has decided to follow in Brad's footsteps. He'll compete in football and track for the Cadets.
A bit of sibling rivalry played a role in Blake McPherson's decision.
"Whatever he does I want to do," he said of his older brother. "I want to go there and do better than he did."
The competitiveness in the two goes back quite a while.
"It used to get out of control when we were younger," said Brad McPherson, a senior at Army. "Basically, we'd never finish any game. We would end up arguing or fighting over it."
These days, Brad sounds like Blake's biggest fan.
"I'm family, so I know I look through rose-colored glasses, but just how hard he's worked ... that's really not normal for a teenage kid," he said.
Brad said his younger brother will be successful at Army, if not in football, then at track, where he already has a leg -- or, rather, an arm -- up on the competition.
"He always rises to the top no matter what he does," Brad McPherson said. "The javelin thrower here for Army -- my little brother can throw 20 feet farther than him."
Blake McPherson will perform five years of service when he is done with school. He chose Army because it was one of the first to show interest in him, he can play two sports and the school has a reputation for building leadership.
"You get an awesome education there and you're life's pretty much set after that," he said. "There's no downside to it."
Paul McPherson stood in ProAction on Friday morning, watching his son whip a heavy rope around like it was a piece of licorice. The elder McPherson said he never worried that the knee injury would be the end of Blake's athletic career.
"If anybody can figure out how to compete with what he's got left, it's Blake," Paul McPherson said.
Aalbu, whose been a physical therapist for 12 years, said McPherson is "one of the most motivated individuals that I've worked with as far as a student athlete in a long time. He has a work ethic that I can't imagine."
That work ethic extends to the classroom. According to Brad McPherson, one A- is the only blemish on Blake's high school record
"A thing we always say is, 'I set up the dirt path but my little brother follows it and paves it gold,'" Brad McPherson said in an email. "Everything I have done he has done multiplied by a hundred. (Except I got the valedictorian, so I did beat him in something.)"
McPherson's wrestling career almost certainly will end with next week's state meet. Iverson said he hopes he can send his star athlete out on top.
"He probably won't wrestle after this. We hope that he ends up with a state title," Iverson said. "I think we'll be watching him on Saturdays playing football at West Point."
Arlington recruited Iverson, who retired in 1998 after coaching college and high school wrestling for 25 years, before the season started. Iverson is recognized in the state and national wrestling coaches hall of fames.
Iverson joked that he wished he could chalk up McPherson's accomplishments to "good coaching," but admitted that in the end, McPherson's drive is what made him successful.
"I don't want to take a lot of credit for what happened this year," Iverson said. "We were blessed to get to know this kid and we were blessed to get to know his family."
"This is one of my richest experiences I've ever had, is coming to Arlington this year and meeting this kid. He doesn't dominate the attention like he could in this position. ... It's just a pretty cool experience for me. I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of kids I've coached, but this is about the apex right here."
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