Josh Asper is hungry; most wrestlers are. But Asper's appetite leans less toward pizza than perfection on the mat. The Maryland senior craves an NCAA title this week, and his drive to win has awed his teammates.
During workouts, they shy away from pairing off with Asper, a Hereford alum who is ranked No. 2 in the country at 174 pounds.
"Nobody likes to drill with him because he goes 110 percent," said the Terps' Jimmy Sheptock, twice an Atlantic Coast Conference champ. "He'll take a billion shots to see what clicks. Wrestling a live match is less tiring than a practice with Josh."
"He's a machine, he's the Terminator," said Christian Boley, who also has two ACC titles. "Josh doesn't stop, and no one can really keep up with him."
A two-time All-American and the second-winningest wrestler in Maryland history, Asper never rests. He even competes in his sleep.
"I dream about winning the NCAAs," he said. "Usually, it's the end of the final match, I get a takedown at the buzzer to win it, and the crowd goes wild."
"I wake up."
Dreams can come true, say those who know Asper. A redshirt senior, he placed sixth in each of the past two NCAAs and is seeded fifth in this year's tourney, which begins its three-day run Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. Four other Maryland wrestlers qualified: Sheptock, Boley, Frank Goodwin and Geoffrey Alexander.
Only two Terps have won NCAA titles before: Gobel Kline (152 pounds) in 1969 and Bob Kopnisky (157) in 1965.
"Can Josh win it? No doubt," Maryland coach Kerry McCoy said. "Josh is the total package. He's got a motor, strong hands, great footwork and an extreme work ethic. His style is pound away, pound away, attack, attack, attack. He's non-stop, a grinder, like the Energizer bunny."
That Asper (19-1) missed six weeks with a neck injury may help his tournament chances, his coach said.
"That [layoff] might be a blessing in disguise," McCoy said. "Josh is still fresh, whereas other guys are starting to taper down."
At Maryland, Asper's 152 career victories trail only three-time All American Hudson Taylor (165). Injuries (knee, neck and thumb) have sidelined him every year, the coach said, or he'd be No. 1 in wins.
"We wish we could have had him on the mat more," McCoy said. "Josh could be more durable, but if he hadn't been hurt, we wouldn't have seen his resilience and perseverance."
Asper has bounced back all his life. At 6, while riding his bike, he was struck by a car, thrown to the ground and flown by helicopter to Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was released three days later with a cut on his forehead.
"He had unending endurance as a kid," said Glenda Asper, his mother. "He was a handful, fearless, quick on his feet and always moving. You couldn't take your eyes off him for a minute. He climbed out of his playpen and hit his head on cement. The scrapes and bruises never slowed him down."
Jeff Asper recalled finding his three-year-old son clinging to the top of the kitchen door trim by his fingers and toes "like a koala bear." Soon after, the boy scaled the family's seven-foot privacy fence and was perched on top, watching the neighbor's pit bulls, when hauled down.
"I've never been afraid of getting hurt," Asper said. "It's amazing that I haven't been hurt worse."
While in high school, during a three-day hike with friends on the Appalachian Trail, he sprained his ankle badly and hobbled the last 11 miles, up hills and down, while lugging a 40-pound backpack.
"It hurt like crap," he said. "But I sucked it up and thought about the cheesesteak sub waiting for me in Harper's Ferry."
Asper began wrestling in fifth grade and grew into it. Never mind that he never won a Maryland Junior League title, said Ron Causey, Hereford's coach.
"Given too much success too soon, kids lose their edge," Causey said. "Josh has never lost that edge because there has always been the next thing to keep him hungry.
"In high school, he wanted one state championship — then the second, third and fourth. And he remains hungry to this day."
At Hereford, Asper blossomed, going 151-7, winning his last 87 bouts and becoming one of only four wrestlers in Maryland public school history to win four state titles. He was The Baltimore Sun's co-Wrestler of the Year in 2008.
At Hereford, he also played football. A linebacker, Asper led the Bulls in tackles as a senior — a year in which he was pressured to forego football rather than risk injury and a wrestling scholarship.
Asper played anyway.
"I wasn't going to sideline myself for that," he said. "What's the point of living through your senior year if you're afraid of getting hurt?"
Hereford's football team reached the Class 3A state final that fall.
"His wrestling knowledge helped him make tackles in football," teammate Jason Fischer said. "Josh would put a double-leg takedown on anyone who was bigger than him."
Once, at summer football camp, three players ambushed Asper in a rec room to see how tough he really was.
"He pinned the biggest one, a lineman, real fast, with the other two guys hanging onto Josh," said Matt Hall, a buddy who saw it all. "Then he took care of them."
Asper took it in stride.
"He's a pretty mellow guy," said Fischer, a longtime friend. "We kid him about his skinny calves and call them chicken legs. I mean, he's got those big ol' thighs that could let him squat press a house, but when you get past his knees it's like, 'Where did your legs go?' He just laughs.
"It's difficult to rile him up, but push certain buttons and he'll get you."
In a junior league match, an opponent took Asper to the mat and tried to choke him. Asper answered with a two-point reversal. A high school match ended soon after a rival infuriated Asper with another dirty move.
"The kid stuck his thumb up Josh's butt," said Dan Fouts, one of Hereford's coaches. "That's the only time I've seen him flare up. Josh pinned him 15 seconds later."
Asper's intensity prompts him to dig deep.
"Whenever he lost a match in high school, Josh made himself go out and run a few miles," Jeff Asper said. "Once, he was gone for more than two hours. Turned out he'd run 15 miles, clear to Pennsylvania and back — and he wasn't breathing hard. It's like he has a third lung."
Given the chance, Asper would likely boss himself.
"I like working out on my own, more than at practice," he said. "Deep down, I don't like people telling me what to do. I want to be in charge. In most cases, I'm harder on myself."
Intensity aside, there's an impish side to Asper. Ask Sam Newton, one of his childhood friends and victim of a high school prank. Unbeknownst to Newton, Asper and several others made a copy of his car key and then — every day — proceded to move Newton's car around Hereford's parking lot.
"We had Sam going for a month, thinking he'd forgotten where he'd parked," Asper said. "He came into the lunchroom one day and said, 'Guys, I think I'm going crazy.'
"Finally, just before the holidays, we gave him the key in an envelope that said 'Merry Christmas.' "Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun