When people look back at David McFadden’s freshman year wrestling at Virginia Tech in 2015-2016, they remember the 27-11 record. They remember the ACC Freshman of the Year accolade, and they remember the sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships to become an All-American. However, a lot of folks forget what it took to get to that point.
McFadden struggled at times in ACC competition, going just 1-4 against those opponents. He lost some matches that he said he shouldn’t have lost, but ultimately rallied at the end of the year, finishing third in the ACC Tournament to earn a trip to Nationals.
“I had my ups and downs my freshman year,” McFadden said. “I went on a little losing streak for a little while, but nothing really matters until March.”
At the NCAA Tournament in his first match, McFadden recalls feeling a pop in his knee. True to the toughness that has come to define wrestlers, McFadden persevered and won the match by fall over Northern Iowa’s Cooper Moore.
“We got in a weird scramble,” McFadden said. “I just felt my knee pop. I walked off the mat and knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know the extent of my injury. It was the national tournament, so I had to keep going.”
McFadden kept plugging along on his bum knee and lost in the second round to Ohio State’s Bo Jordan before rattling off four straight victories, ultimately finishing in sixth place. What makes McFadden’s run all that more impressive is that it was discovered afterwards that he wrestled the entire tournament with a torn ACL. Yes, you read that right. McFadden wrestled in eight matches in the NCAA Tournament with a torn ACL, going 5-3 in that span to become an All-American.
“We diagnosed it as just a hurt knee, and I really didn’t think too much of it,” McFadden said. “Knew it hurt a little, but everyone has to wrestle with some injuries. Just kind of kept going forward and took my mind off of it. After the tournament, I found out how bad it was. I took a step back and thought, ‘Wow, I accomplished something pretty cool.’ It’s pretty amazing to wrestle in a national tournament on one leg almost. Everything happens for a reason and it is what it is.”
After all the rejoicing that surrounded McFadden’s accomplishments at the NCAA Championships, he was now faced with a harsh reality. He had to recover from a torn ACL, a daunting task both physically and emotionally for any athlete.
“After I tore my ACL, I had surgery and that was one of the low points in my life,” McFadden said. “I just felt helpless. I had to pretty much relearn how to walk. I was in some serious pain right after. Sean [Collins], our trainer, was keeping me pretty positive about taking baby steps because I expected to be back right away. I had surgery and thought I’d be back in three or four months. But it was a really long and grueling process. I wasn’t being positive at all. The coaches and Sean were trying to keep me positive, telling me that I was making some serious gains. If it wasn’t for them, who knows where I’d be.”
Still, McFadden and many others thought that he could return mid-season last year, and provide a boost to the Virginia Tech roster that seemed destined for a run at the National Championship. Instead, it was decided that McFadden would redshirt and sit out the entire season. The decision was mutual between McFadden and the coaching staff, but that still didn’t make it any easier.
“I gained a different perspective of wrestling,” McFadden said. “Sitting back and watching your team wrestle, you gain a different insight on the sport. I feel like I became more knowledgeable. I just didn’t feel like it was the best choice to pull me midway through the season. It was a tough choice because I felt like I was letting the team down as well. They all had my back and I learned a lot, I got better, and with this staff I just keep improving. It sucked last year, but it’s part of the sport, it’s part of life.”
In his return this year after sitting out last season, McFadden has come out of the gates firing. So far, McFadden holds a 16-0 record and he has twice been named ACC Wrestler of the Week. This past weekend, McFadden came in first place in the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Collegiate Wrestling Invitational, an event where the Hokies came in sixth overall.
“Everyone is asking me, ‘How different is it from your freshman year?’ For me, it’s almost like I have a chip on my shoulder because I was out last year,” McFadden said. “I feel like people forgot about me a little bit. I’m hungry. I’m really hungry this year. I feel like I’m a lot better than I was and I’m just really hungry to compete every time I step on the mat. I think the biggest thing right now is to just keep doing what I’m doing. Don’t let my foot off the gas. Every time I step out on the mat, someone wants to beat me. I just have to be ready, prepared and good things will happen.”
Part of McFadden’s early season success can be found in the connection he’s been able to build with new coaching staff thus far. Coach Tony Robie, along with assistants Frank Molinaro and Jared Frayer, have been tasked with building an extremely young team into a National Championship contender. They’ve preached to McFadden and others to use each and every moment as a learning opportunity.
“It’s been a real blessing to have those guys, not only as coaches, but as mentors and really close people,” McFadden said. “We have a really good bond, me and the entire coaching staff. I’ve never learned so much wrestling in my life, and it makes it fun when you keep growing. Wrestling is a craft. We’re just expanding our knowledge. They’re expanding it for us. We’re just learning a lot of stuff and kind of picking and choosing what we like. It’s not like we have one or two things to choose from, we have 10-15 moves where we’ll go out and see what works for you.”
Ever since he was a senior in high school and McFadden had decided on Virginia Tech, he knew the goals that he had set forth for himself. He wanted to become the school’s first four-time All-American and first ever National Champion, and he wanted to break every record en route to becoming the best wrestler to wear orange and maroon.
Some would say those goals are a bit ambitious, but it only speaks to the supreme confidence he possesses. It’s the same confidence that he will show on the mat in his next match on Sunday against Princeton. This isn’t just any match, however, this is a match in New York City at Madison Square Garden, the same place where McFadden saw the conclusion of his freshman year.
“To finish how I did, under the circumstances that I did, being a freshman, it was pretty awesome, especially being right in New York City,” McFadden said. “Where I’m from in Jersey is right there. It was a pretty special moment for the team. We ended up finishing fourth. It was one of the coolest moments and one of the most humbled I’ve ever been by the sport of wrestling.”
McFadden will return to New York City, just a 35 minute drive for his parents in New Jersey. It’ll be a time of reflection thinking back to the rich history that McFadden has at Madison Square Garden and in the surrounding area in the northeast. But still, McFadden’s unshaken confidence will be on full display when he steps on the mat and looks to have his hand raised.
“I’m not too worried,” McFadden said. “I’m just more excited to wrestle in front of my family.”