It started as a spat between brothers before it escalated into an incident that epitomized Derek St. John’s orneriness, ingenuity and ability to bail himself out of a mess.
Almost 10 years before he became Iowa’s 52nd NCAA wrestling champion, St. John was camping with a few friends when a quarrel with his younger brother, Hunter, led to a sibling exchange of BB fire — at least that’s what Derek led everyone to believe.
“He grabbed the BB gun, pointed it at Hunter’s (buttocks) and let it go,” longtime teammate and friend Nick Moore laughed last week as he recalled the scene. “Hunter squealed pretty loud. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. Derek was dying laughing.”
As the story goes, Derek cocked the gun and offered his brother a retaliation shot. Hunter pulled the trigger, Derek winced and hopped around, and to this day he still wonders if his brother really knows the truth.
“I didn’t put a BB in it,” Derek said. “I faked it so I never had to get shot.”
With his quiet, scrupulous and sometimes cantankerous persona, Derek St. John has wrestled his way into the pantheon of Iowa’s all-time greats with relative inconspicuousness. He enters the NCAA Championships as the No. 2 seed at 157 pounds and could become the 18th Hawkeye to achieve All-America status four times.
But few Iowa wrestlers have ever won more and talked less than the senior from Parnell.
Although he became the face of the program this season after Iowa put him on its poster and media guide, St. John never seemed comfortable with the idea of being a team spokesman. He’s the type who agrees to interview requests but, given a choice, might prefer a trip to the dentist over answering questions about his personal accomplishments.
“My wife and I took him out to eat last year for his birthday, and we couldn’t get him to say more than six or seven words through the whole meal. We’d ask him questions, and he’d nod or give one-word answers,” said Mark Reiland, who coached St. John to two state high school titles at Iowa City West. “We brought him in last year after he won (the national title) to run our club one night and had our little kids come in and get autographs and pictures. He was great with them. He took all the pictures and signed all the autographs, but you just can’t get him to talk.”
So who is Derek St. John when he unlaces his wrestling shoes and unsnaps his headgear?
He’s a business major who hunts, fishes and traps with the same meticulousness he devotes to wrestling. He’s a 23-year-old with an affinity for buying and selling old pickups — he estimates he’s gone through five in the last five years — and a habit of riling up his younger brothers and getting out of the way when a subsequent melee begins.
“He does all he can to get his brothers all wound up,” his father, Trent, said. “We took a family vacation last summer to Lake Michigan and all piled in one vehicle, and it was like a war in the Denali. He had them fighting and swinging.”
On the mat, St. John is an unflappable wrestler whose pendulum of emotion rarely swings far from center either way. He wins more with guts and brains than speed or strength.
“You don’t want to get in a fight with him,” said Reiland, who coached St. John and four other multi-time state champions who joined him at Iowa. “He’s tough. When those kids were in high school, (St. John) was the one guy they weren’t going to pick a fight with, and he was the one guy they wanted at their back.”
As a sophomore, St. John captured the Big Ten title and reached the NCAA finals after tearing a knee ligament midway through the season. He gritted through semifinal and championship victories last year at the national tournament without the benefit of a takedown.
When he walked off the stage for the first time as an NCAA champion, St. John offered a succinct response when asked about his rise to the top of college wrestling: “How ’bout it.” It became a catch phrase for Iowa’s preseason promotions.
“I didn’t really think much of it and then you’re seeing yourself on the poster and I’ve never really been in a spot like that or been the main thing,” St. John said. “I really don’t care if I am or I’m not. It’s a big deal to be the center of attention on a team when you’ve worked hard to get to that point, but whether you’re in the middle of the poster or not doesn’t change what you’re about or what you’re trying to do.”