In a season marked by injuries and disappointing losses, Duke has sought solace in the consistent success of one wrestler.
Immanuel Kerr-Brown had his collegiate wrestling career planned since before setting foot on campus, but even the most careful planning cannot stop the unexpected from intervening in a collegiate wrestling career.
Kerr-Brown’s 22 wins this season lead the team, as do his five wins in conference duals. And although the redshirt junior personifies the consummate student-athlete, it was taking a semester off from classes to focus on nothing but wrestling that allowed him to become one of the elite wrestlers in the ACC.
“Honestly, the reason I probably got a lot better, had a lot more success last year versus the year before, was because of that semester off,” Kerr-Brown said. “All I was doing was focusing on wrestling and working out, making sure my body was healthy and strong.”
In 2011, the Rome, Ga., native put on a Duke singlet for the first time after a year of unattached tournament competition. A redshirt year isn’t uncommon for wrestlers—more than half of the current Blue Devil roster sat out a year to compete individually in tournaments.
Similar to football, the gap between high school and collegiate competition in wrestling is largely predicated upon physical strength. Wrestling unattached for a year allows collegiate wrestlers to bridge that gap.
“It was definitely smart to take that redshirt freshman year,” Kerr-Brown said. “[You] get used to the school, and college level competition and everything.”
After notching only two wins in dual competition during his redshirt freshman season, Kerr-Brown took an unconventional step in his training: he transformed from a student-athlete to full-time athlete, taking a semester off from school to train.
The easy-going wrestler known to his teammates and coaches simply as "IKB" explained that he knew upon arriving at Duke that he would take an additional semester off before graduating. What he couldn’t have known was the effect it would have on his performance.
Wrestling at 149 and 157 pounds as a redshirt freshman, Kerr-Brown lost 11 matches, seven of them by pin. After wrestling unattached during the Fall semester in 2012, Kerr-Brown put his Duke singlet back on in the spring and posted a 9-6 dual record with three conference wins—earning the title of Duke's Most Improved Wrestler.
Kerr-Brown's return set him up perfectly for a promising redshirt junior season. Finally back into the routine of a student-athlete, Kerr-Brown had a full offseason to train and build on his progress. But a torn meniscus that summer gave Kerr-Brown’s collegiate story another unexpected twist.
“I actually probably got set back a little bit, compared to where I could have been,” Kerr-Brown said. “[But in] the time I did get to have in the offseason, we wrestled smart, practiced smart, did the right things… and just had a good time enjoying wrestling.”
After careful rehabilitation, Kerr-Brown returned to the place he expected to be before his injury. The 149-pounder claimed three wins against ranked opponents, including one against then-No. 13 Blaise Butler of Virginia en route to his second of five conference wins on the season.
After recovering from his own injury, injuries to his teammates forced the redshirt junior into the role of veteran leader on the mat after classmate Brandon Gambucci and lone senior Brian Self were knocked out of dual competition.
“I definitely know I’m a leader on the team, but I don’t feel the pressure of it,” Kerr-Brown said. “I’ve never been a very vocal leader or anything like that…. As long as I know I’m doing what I think is right and getting all the workouts in, then I think I’m doing a good job as a leader.”
Lanham has recognized the upperclassman’s leadership, giving him the title of team captain for the 2013-14 campaign.
“He’s a leader on and off the mat. He does what he’s supposed to do, he’s a hard worker,” head coach Glen Lanham said. “I take being a team captain very seriously, and he obviously fits the bill.”
The wrestler takes his leadership skills outside the gym as well, serving as on the First-Year Advisory executive board for incoming students. Kerr-Brown devotes any leftover time to his studies as a mechanical engineer.
“[Being an athlete] is pretty similar to a regular student’s experience, just the fact that I have a little less time to get everything done,” Kerr-Brown said. “I’ve loved my experience at Duke. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to go anywhere else—I’d definitely do it all over again.”
As the Blue Devils get set to compete in the ACC Championships March 8, Lanham said that Kerr-Brown could accomplish something none of his wrestlers has before.
“I feel like he can be on top of the podium. I don’t say that about many people, but I feel like he’s just got to put some solid matches together,” Lanham said. “I’m excited—I feel like he can be my first ACC champ.”
But win or lose in postseason competition, Duke’s premiere wrestler still has another year to be a part of the sport—and the school—that he loves.
“I wouldn’t trade any other sport for it,” Kerr-Brown said. “I love it, and it’s definitely a way of life. If you can succeed in wrestling, you definitely can succeed in life.”