Duke wrestling coach Glen Lanham had a question for his newest wrestler: “Fowler, what do you have in that shoebox?” The shoebox contained all of Brendan Fowler’s wrestling gear. A former Blue Devil lacrosse star, he’d been using it for two weeks during summer training, not wanting to ruffle any of his new teammates’ feathers by taking anybody’s locker.
“That was huge to me,” Lanham says. “It wasn’t about, ‘Hey Coach, when am I going to get a locker?’ It was about, ‘I’m going to come in here, I don’t want to offend anybody, I’m going to work hard.’”
In an era where kids begin to specialize in a single sport at a young age, Fowler has harked back to the days of former multisport Duke stars Ace Parker ’38 and Dick Groat ’53, following competition wherever it takes him—to the football field, the lacrosse field, and now, the wrestling mat.
As a high-school student in Wantagh, New York, Fowler excelled in all three sports and came to Duke as a recruited walk-on with the football team. His high-school lacrosse coach knew Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski and alerted him that his star face-off man would be on campus in the fall.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way I can do both of those. I’m worried about trying to step on the field in football,’ ” Fowler says, of his reaction after speaking with Danowski. Eventually he agreed to join both teams; head football coach David Cutcliffe and Danowski “were both cool with me playing the other sport.”
After sitting out the football season as a redshirt, Fowler got some playing time early in the year for Danowski’s Blue Devils as a freshman. As a sophomore, he played on special teams for Cutcliffe, recovering an onside kick against Florida State. He started to see more action on the lacrosse field, but a broken collarbone in the opening round of the NCAA tournament derailed the rest of his season and cost him the majority of the next year’s football campaign, which ended with a trip to the Belk Bowl.
Healthy by the spring of his junior year, Fowler stepped in to fill a void in the lacrosse face-off X for the Blue Devils, replacing the departed C.J. Costabile ’12 with historic success. By year’s end, Fowler had racked up 339 face-off victories, the most in a single season in NCAA history. Thirteen of those wins came consecutively on the sport’s biggest stage, as the former football walk-on won twenty of twenty-eight face-offs to give the Blue Devils possession after possession, ultimately claiming the 2013 NCAA national championship.
“I’d say it was just a good-timing day. You can ask any athlete, there are just days where you’re feeling it and you’re in the zone,” Fowler says. “It was a pretty good day to be in the zone for me. I was lucky that it landed on national championship day.”
What happened next was a product of his hard work. Danowski awarded Fowler a scholarship for his senior season, and the face-off specialist was named a team captain.
By accepting the scholarship, Fowler, following NCAA rules, became ineligible for his final season with Cutcliffe and the football program, meaning he could only watch as the Blue Devils captured the ACC Coastal Division title and suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
With one season of lacrosse remaining, Fowler again set the tone for the Blue Devils in the face-off X, winning 59 percent of his face-offs and helping Duke reach the Final Four for the eighth straight season. When Notre Dame tried to mount a comeback in the national title game, Fowler won a crucial face-off late in the fourth quarter to preserve an 11-9 win and graduate as a back-to-back national champion.
After graduating, Fowler spent half a season with the Charlotte Hounds of Major League Lacrosse. But he still wanted something to do in the offseason. He found his answer at the Fuqua School of Business, an answer that allowed him to pursue higher education and continue his athletic involvement.
He had learned about the Master of Management Studies program from other former lacrosse players. “Once I got in, I got some scholarship from the business school, which meant I couldn’t play football again [under NCAA rules], which I was hoping to.”
Instead, Fowler soon found his way onto the wrestling mat for a final season of NCAA eligibility. (The detailed eligibility rules allowed him to wrestle, even though they kept him off the football team.)
Lanham first crossed paths with Fowler during Fowler’s sophomore year, in a place frequented by wrestlers and lacrosse players alike—the weight room —where the face-off man expressed interest in wrestling later. Initially skeptical, Lanham invited him to join the team after he and Fowler reconnected when Fowler returned to campus for his studies at Fuqua.
Fowler spent time training with the wrestlers in the summer and has been working with the team all season. Slowed by a knee injury, he made his debut as a college wrestler in January, posting a win in his first match.
“Football and lacrosse, you can translate the running and stuff over, but wrestling is very different,” Fowler says. “In high school [wrestling] you can get away with just being a really good athlete and having a little bit of technique and be really successful. In college everyone has really good technique, and everyone in Division I is a pretty awesome athlete.”
The learning curve has been steep at times, but Lanham says Fowler is working hard to shake off five years’ worth of rust. Beyond that, he’s brought veteran experience to a program looking to turn the corner.
“He can show up and talk about experiences, highs, lows, what it means to be in games,” Lanham says. “A winner’s a winner, no matter what they do.”