March 3, 2016
By Steve Kornacki
Michigan All-American wrestler Max Huntley has become the ultimate leader in program history. He's the first three-time captain for a school with a glorious grappling tradition that began in the 1920s under legendary Coach Cliff Keen and has spanned 94 seasons.
Now Huntley wants something else he's always dreamed of attaining -- an NCAA crown in his 197-pound weight class.
Making his quest all the more special is the unique path Huntley has taken to his final season as a collegiate wrestler. He was granted a medical redshirt season that enabled him to get a fourth full season of competition in his sixth year on campus, and is pursuing a postgraduate degree in the prestigious Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
Huntley nearly went in another direction last summer, though, following his father, Peter, into the Marine Corps with hopes of being accepted in officer training.
"It was looking like I was going to be accepted into that training," said Huntley, 24. "So, I was kind of at a crossroads after last year. I made All-American, which was a goal of mine. So, I could go to the Marines with my dad. And my brother (Oscar) is a Navy Seal."
The military is as big a part of his heritage as wrestling. His father competed in the sport at Old Dominion University, and his older brother nearly attained All-American status at the Naval Academy.
"I talked with our coaches and it was kind of a tough choice," said Huntley. "There are forks in your life where you ask, 'What if I had done this and gone in the Marines?' But an NCAA championship was also a goal I've had, and that was a big factor."
"I know I can work the rest of my life," continued Huntley, "but I only have a small window of time to compete and wrestle, which is something special.
"I've got one more chance at the go-round and taking another lap. It's a lot of stress, but I attained another goal of mine last year by becoming an All-American and placing in the top eight."
Huntley finished eighth in the NCAA Championships with a 3-2 record, placed fifth in the challenging Big Ten, and was 24-11 overall.
"And our Public Policy school is one of the top three in the country, possibly the world," said Huntley, an English major while attaining his first degree from Michigan. "So, I'll be able to finish that program when I'm 25 years old, and that will be nice. That was another big factor in my choice to stay.
"I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do in public policy, but I have an internship that's required in the summer to help there. I'm looking at doing something in national security or as a government agent. If I do something in the private sector, it'll be national security."
Huntley's father is a Marine colonel in charge of that military branch's version of Navy Seals. Max said his father didn't so much help him with wrestling as he did in guiding him to the personality traits such as "strong work ethic" and "leadership" that helped him and his brother, who is 15 months older, in the sport.
"I'm the first-ever three-time captain at Michigan," said Huntley. "My brother was a captain at Navy as well. It's about a mindset we have.
"The thing I'm the proudest of is being the captain of this team. You win some and you lose some. You can become an All-American, but if you get elected captain that's what means the most to me."
Max is part of a family with deep roots in the military as well as wrestling. His brother-in-law, Russell, is a volunteer coach at Michigan and was the NCAA champion at 141 pounds for the Wolverines in 2011 and 2012. Max is married to his twin sister, Shannon.
"A lot of military kids go into the military," said Max. "My brother and a lot of my friends growing up are in the Marines or Army now. It's a modern-day warrior culture, and it's the same with wrestling. If you wrestle, your kids wrestle. It's another warrior culture, and there isn't a lot like wrestling -- where it's one-on-one and a gladiator-type sport."
What most appeals to Huntley about the challenges of wrestling?
"It's something I'm good at," said Huntley, "and that's why I like wrestling."
Huntley said he didn't wrestle formally until high school because schools he attended didn't have programs. But as a senior he attended Blair Academy, a boarding school with a rich wrestling heritage in Blairstown, New Jersey.
"When I had an opportunity to wrestle at Michigan," said Huntley, "I couldn't think of any place better. Few, if any, schools combine the great academics and athletics we have here."
Huntley took the 189-pound title at the 2009 Prep Nationals and was a member of the Wrestling USA Dream Team that year, going 38-0 for Blair. He was the Virginia state champion in that same weight class for Colonial Forge High in 2008.
So, he came to Michigan with high hopes for a great freshman season. That all changed in his first match at the Eastern Michigan Open, when he had to default with a 7-2 lead after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"I was beating the kid pretty bad when something happened and I tore my ACL," said Huntley, pointing to the scars left from the surgery required to repair the ligament. "My very first college match! But I just kind of stepped on it weird and it tore."
He suffered another season-ending injury in 2013-14.
"I tore the (pectoral) muscle right off the bone," said Huntley. "So, I had to take another season off.
"I was winning both matches when I had my two worst injuries. So, you've got to enjoy what you do while you're doing it because you never know when something's going to happen to you. Wrestling's unpredictable that way. That's a lot of weight you're manipulating, and something can happen at any time. Every match could be your last match."
That's never been truer for Huntley than now. This will be his final season at Michigan.
For all he's been through, Huntley's now thriving in a prestigious graduate school with a shot to become a national champion.
"I've been lucky," said Huntley. "It doesn't always work out for people, but I'm thankful for what's happened and that it all worked out well.
"If you work hard, it can work out."