Futrell heart and soul of Illini

Wrestler has overcome shoulder surgery and heart procedure to build All-American career

B.J. Futrell came back from surgery on a torn labrum and biceps tendon to become a wrestling All-America the next season. He has come back from surgery to repair a heart problem to become the third-ranked 141-pound wrestler in the country this season.

Both times, Futrell wrestled through pain before finally heading to the operating room, showing a commitment to helping the team that would endear him to any coach.

Futrell certainly is special to Illinois wrestling coach Jim Heffernan. But toughness is merely one of the qualities that make fourth-year head coach Heffernan, 48, gush over the 22-year-old from Park Forest.

"Sometimes I feel like a little kid around him," Heffernan said. "In 21 years with this program, he is at the top of the scale in terms of maturity and hard work. He sees the big picture of what wrestling is allowing him to achieve academically, but that's not saying he doesn't have big goals athletically."

You almost can hear Heffernan smile when he talks about Futrell's maturity. The sound comes from both pride and bemusement because the baby-faced Futrell looked about 12 when he arrived in Champaign after becoming a two-time undefeated state champion for Mount Carmel, where he had weighed just 86 pounds as a freshman.

Futrell attributes the maturity to both his upbringing and his faith in Christ. His father, Walter, a 1977 state wrestling champion at Bloom Trail, is a pastor (Twitter name: @GRAPPLINGwFAITH.) His mother, Robin, is a social worker. Two of his three sisters are Illinois grads.

Futrell received his undergraduate degree in kinesiology last May. Along the way, he lost interest in what seemed a path toward an eventual career in physical therapy, so he switched gears and has just finished the first 12 hours of a 32-hour master's program in education policy as he competes in his final season of college eligibility.

"I know I have a lot of leadership qualities," Futrell said. "I think I could do well in (school) administration."

That career and likely pursuit of a doctorate will have to wait. After Futrell finishes the master's work next summer, he will devote most of his energy toward a bid for the 2016 Olympic team.

"I think I can have more success in freestyle (Olympic) wrestling," he said. "It's more suited to my style, which is quick and explosive."

Futrell moved up to 141 pounds this season after wrestling at 125 and 133 earlier in his Illini career. He is 19-1, the only loss coming to the nation's top-ranked wrestler, Kendric Maple of Oklahoma, in the final of the Midlands Championship, where Illinois won the team title.

"I'm not surprised he has done so well after moving up," Heffernan said. "Athletically and experience-wise, there was no reason to expect anything else."

Health-wise, too.

Futrell competed all last season with bouts of fatigue and a racing heartbeat linked to a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia, which can reduce oxygen flow throughout the body. After it was diagnosed last fall, doctors cleared him to continue wrestling, but he never knew which days would be good or bad.

"It was kind of in the back of my mind all the time, but whether my heart was racing or not, I was going to give it my all," he said. "You can never let obstacles be an excuse."

Four days after finishing sixth at the NCAA championships, where he felt weak in his final matches, Futrell underwent an outpatient procedure to cauterize the area causing his problems. Even though his heart was involved, Futrell was much less anxious than before the shoulder surgery his second year at Illinois.

"Rehab from that is one of the toughest things I have done in my life," Futrell said.

He took a couple of months off after the heart procedure and returned with a new sense of confidence, knowing unexpected fatigue or an irregular heartbeat no longer would be issues. Moving up a weight class also helped by allowing him to gain strength through added muscle.

"He isn't done maturing physically, and you know he is going to train the right way and live the right way," Heffernan said. Those things are important if your goals are at the highest level.

"B.J.'s learning curve is still very high. But he already is far ahead of everybody in a lot of areas."

That all comes from being wise beyond his years.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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