HE DIDN'T want to be there. Still, he went. Cael Sanderson, an Iowa State junior and an emerging wrestling legend, was standing before 12,000 Cyclones basketball fans last Thursday night at Hilton Coliseum. Seventeenth-ranked Iowa State was in the process of blowing out Baylor, but the fans were on their feet at halftime to salute Sanderson, a six-foot, 184-pound wrestler from Heber City, Utah. Sanderson's coach, Bobby Douglas, was handing him some kind of plaque, and high above them the Diamond Vision scoreboard was showing a highlight clip of Sanderson while the public address announcer recited what everybody already knew, Sanderson's record: 105 wins, no losses.
Nobody has won that many straight, not even Dan Gable, the Iowa State wrestling icon who competed 30 years ago. Gable won 100 consecutive matches and then lost the final match of his collegiate career. Sanderson has known nothing but victory. He waved to the crowd, shoved his bony hands sheepishly into his pants pockets and thought, When will this be over?
His mind was where it always is during the wrestling season: on his next match. In 24 hours he would be back at Hilton, facing Oklahoma State senior Daniel Cormier in a Big 12 dual match. Sanderson, who is 21, was not relishing the prospect. Cormier is one of the few collegiate wrestlers with the strength, speed and guile to beat him. Someday, Sanderson knows, he will face his own Larry Owings, the Washington wrestler who defeated Gable in the 142-pound final of the 1970 NCAA finals. "A lot of people in wrestling probably don't know that name," Sanderson says later. "I do." His goal is to postpone that day—the day he meets his Owings—as long as he can.
He doesn't like to think about the streak and talks about it reluctantly. In the middle of a long, forced soliloquy on his wrestling philosophy, he pauses and says, "I don't know what I'm talking about." He tries hard not to take anything too seriously, himself or others. As a senior at Wasatch High in Heber City, on national letter-of-intent day, he took a phone call from the nervous Douglas and said, "Coach, I'm going to Oklahoma State." ( Douglas thought Cael's joke was hilarious.) Sanderson enjoys bragging about his awesome capacity to drink Mountain Dew. Ten cans in a night is nothing for him. He dotes lovingly on his pet snapping turtle, feeding it goldfish regularly, although in two years he hasn't come up with a name for the thing. He has a wide mellow streak. It just narrows during wrestling season.
The other day Sanderson and his girlfriend, Kelly Kinnard, a senior at Iowa State, were sitting in the living room of Sanderson's off-campus apartment, which is dominated by a wooden TV case with no TV in it and an unframed color picture of Jesus Christ. ( Sanderson is a semidevout Mormon who believes Jesus wrestled at 184 pounds but didn't go undefeated.) Kinnard is a waitress at a Pizza Hut in Ames, and she was telling Sanderson about a couple who had complained that their pizza was undercooked, ate it anyway while ordering a second one and ended up getting both pizzas on the house. "I'm telling him about this unbelievable situation with the free pizzas, and he's looking right at me, but he's got this faraway look in his eye," Kinnard says. "I say, 'Hey, where are you?' And he says, 'Oh, I'm right here.' But I knew he was thinking about wrestling. He's always thinking about wrestling. He's got wrestling on the brain."
Art, though, is in his heart. Sanderson is a visual studies major and is taking fine arts classes for the first time. "I like that one dude, Seurat," he says. "That other guy, Caravaggio, I like him a lot, too. I don't know the names of too many artists, because I don't pay attention in my art history class."
His bedroom doubles as his studio, and on a drafting table is a copy of a drawing by Gustave Courbet called Les Lutteurs. "It's French for The Wrestlers" Sanderson says. "I like the picture because it shows two big strong dudes, battling. You don't know what they're wrestling for. They might be wrestling for food. I'd like my art to be timeless like that."
One of his favorite subjects is his coach, whom he describes as "an old, ornery man." Douglas, 58, is hugely accomplished as a wrestler and as a coach, and many wrestling people are intimidated by him. Not Sanderson, who joins Douglas on fishing and hunting trips with visiting recruits. But no affection comes through in Sanderson's pencil drawings of his coach, just respect. In one drawing Douglas is sitting on a folding chair, perched forward while watching a match, his tie dangling between his knees, his lined face a study in dissatisfaction. He looks old and ornery all right.
Douglas has known Sanderson and his parents, Debbie and Steve, since Cael (pronounced kale) was a little boy winning state wrestling tides in Utah. Cael is the fourth Sanderson wrestler, in a line of four brothers and a wrestling dad. The oldest of the boys is Cody, who wrestled for four years at Iowa State as a lightweight before graduating last year. He's pursuing a masters in genetics and serving as a volunteer assistant to Douglas. Next comes Cole, a senior captain of the Cyclones who's ranked among the nation's top 10 wrestlers in the 157-pound class. Then comes Cael, who won NCAA titles as a freshman and a sophomore. Back home and already a state junior high champion is the fourth Sanderson child, 14-year-old Cyler (pronounced with a hard C). Douglas has had an eye on that kid since he was embryonic.
The three older boys were coached by their father at Wasatch High. Steve, who is now an assistant principal at Timpanogos High, is old-school. He wrestled at BYU in the 1970s, when working out in rubber suits and sweatboxes was a cruel ritual for making weight. As a coach he had his methods. Discipline was at the core of them. "He'd throw his key ring at us, and you know schoolteachers: They always have like 80 keys on their ring," says Cael, half joking.