By Courtney Baumann
As a sophomore in high school, Topher Carton found himself in uncharted territory. He was the new kid in school.
He had just transferred to Davenport Assumption but instead of waiting for people to come to him, he went up to every lunch table and introduced himself as “The New Kid.”
He shocked even his mother by his ability to adjust to what typically is a difficult situation for any high-school student.
But that’s Carton. He adjusts. He takes a tough situation and makes it work. He did it in high school, and he continued to do it throughout his years on the Iowa wrestling team.
* * *
Wrestling came naturally to Carton when he started at 5 years old, especially because he had plenty of experience on his feet. For two years before he took to the mat, Carton was on the stage, performing ballet.
He began dance classes when he was 3 because his older sister was
involved. One day at a photo shoot, the dance instructors and photographers wanted to use young Topher in a shot, but his mother, Margaret Carton, said she didn’t feel comfortable if he wasn’t actually a dancer.
They told her he could take lessons, and he did until he was 11. In fact, he danced with Ballet Quad Cities in The Nutcracker production for years before he turned his attention toward wrestling.
His experience dancing, Margaret said, translated into wrestling.
The first time she took her son to wrestling practice, he told her it was easy. When the coaches showed the kids how to move side to side without crossing their feet, they were just teaching him how to do chasses.
“Shh. Don’t use that word here; this isn’t ballet,” his mother told him.
Coaches noticed quickly that Carton, whose college career ended last week at the NCAA nationals, had a knack for wrestling. His father, Tony Carton, took over coaching duties throughout elementary and middle school. The two traveled mainly around Illinois and Iowa for tournaments.
When eighth grade rolled around, Tony started to notice visible changes in his son as a wrestler. His body started to mature, making him just as strong physically as he was mentally.
“We went to Chicago and wrestled those kids, and he beat a few who were pretty high-caliber kids, and that’s when we started to go, ‘OK, something’s happening here,’” Tony Carton said. “He’s a pretty smart kid and would spend a lot of time figuring things out, and then, when he physically got strong and really developed muscles, that’s when we noticed something special was happening.”
* * *
Wrestling wasn’t the only reason Carton chose to transfer from Alleman High School in Rock Island, to Assumption. At the time, he planned to go into the medical field, and the opportunity for a better science education at Assumption was hard to pass up.
There were more opportunities for Advanced Placement science classes at Assumption, as well as more science classes as a whole. At Alleman, there were no anatomy and physiology classes, which are vital for aspiring doctors.
Plus, Carton’s competitiveness didn’t vibe with Alleman’s.
“As a whole, at Alleman, there was just something missing. An edge was missing. Something where I wanted to be the best at whatever I did, it didn’t matter,” Carton said. “There were people who were like that, but it didn’t seem like everybody was willing to do what it took to be the best.”
Even the new parish atmosphere was an improvement.
Because of Iowa Catholic schools’ rules for open enrollment, Carton’s family had to transfer parishes for him to qualify. The Cartons switched to St. Anthony’s in Davenport. It’s been five years since Carton regularly went to Mass at St. Anthony’s, but Father Apo still remembers him and talks wrestling with him whenever they see each other.
At Assumption, Carton trained under a 1982 NCAA champion and three-time Big Ten champion for Iowa, Pete Bush. Assumption wrestling had the edge Carton was looking for, even in the summer. Carton had been used to having the entire room to himself during off-season training, but that was not the case at his new school. Now, he never had to worry about whether he would have someone to train with.
“It was 95 degrees out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Most guys would want to be at the pool, but there were 30 guys in the wrestling room in the summer,” Carton said. “When you’re trying to be the best — and you go from struggling to get people into the room to 30 guys working without a coach holding them to it — something draws you in.”
* * *
He grew up just over an hour away from Iowa City, but Carton had rarely been on Iowa’s campus other than what he’d seen on the drive to Carver-Hawkeye for a few wrestling meets. He hadn’t set foot on the Pentacrest, hadn’t waved his keys at Kinnick, or eaten in the Hillcrest Marketplace.
He didn’t need to, though, to know the University of Iowa was where he was meant to be.
It was an immediate, overwhelming feeling when he made his official visit. He met Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Alex Meyer, Sammy Brooks, and Nathan Burak for the first time. They did all the prospective athlete things — saw the campus, toured the facilities, practiced with the team, attended a football game, and had dinner at coach Tom Brands’ house.
“I took one visit. I didn’t even come twice. I didn’t need to. I knew right away. I stepped on campus, and it felt like home,” Carton said. “I had visited other campuses with my sister, and nothing really felt like home. It felt like school, it was welcoming, but it wasn’t home.”
Money and scholarships did not matter to Carton, who did not receive an athletics scholarship from Iowa until his senior season. Yet he knew things would work out even though he had to attend as an out-of-state student.
He would work more during the summer, save his money better than he had in the past.
When the Cartons were leaving Iowa City after that official visit, Margaret and Tony knew Topher had made up his mind.
“On the car ride home he was sitting in the back seat and just gave me that look that said, ‘OK, I know where I’m going,’” Tony said. “He’s that kind of kid, he’s very straightforward about what he wants. When he makes up his mind, that’s it. And that was it.”
Topher Carton was so dead set on Iowa that within days of leaving campus, he called Brands up to let him know he would be a Hawkeye.
He was the first wrestler in his class to commit.
“I just remember there being a lot of noise in the background. It was the middle of the day, so I think he was at school,” Brands said. “I think he was in the middle of a cafeteria or something, or maybe starting wrestling practice. He said, ‘I know that’s where I need to be.’ It’s kind of a funny story because there wasn’t much dialogue. It was just like, boom, he’s a Hawkeye.”
* * *
Like usual, it didn’t take Carton long to make friends once he got to college. He befriended his teammates but became particularly close to former Iowa 165-pounder Patrick Rhoads, with whom he had a class, Sport and Film.
Carton and Rhoads lived with each other for much of their college careers. Rhoads said it was the perfect fit. He, like Carton, did not earn his starting spot in the Hawkeye lineup until his senior season. It was easy for the two to relate as the second-string guys.
The two didn’t go out much. They were homebodies who stayed in and watched movies — action and thriller were their go-to genres. They started watching “Breaking Bad” together, too. Rhoads admitted he was usually the one to watch first and pretend to not know what was happening.
When the two went out, they liked to eat. They liked Stella for burgers and Formosa for sushi. The burgers were more of an off-season thing, but they got Formosa regularly even though the cream cheese and tempura in the Las Vegas roll weren’t in their diet plans.
Rhoads recently got engaged, and although he and his fiancée, Bailey Banach, plan to have a long engagement, he already knows Carton will be his best man.
Now in Kansas City, Rhoads works as a civil engineer, and he has helped out as a coach at his alma mater, Staley High. He’s been trying to persuade Carton to move near him after the latter graduates.
“He has just this loyalty. Our friendship and bond got so tight over the years we were both at Iowa,” Rhoads said. “He fights in the wrestling room, and he lives the same lifestyle. He’s a good friend and a loyal guy.”
* * *
He didn’t like it, but Carton had to be patient while waiting his turn in the Hawkeye lineup. He got a taste his sophomore year when he saw some dual-meet time at the Iowa City Duals. He wrestled at 149 because Brandon Sorensen was at a different tournament. He weighed in at 141, though, and won all three matches.
The Michigan State dual was the other chance Carton got that season. He won that match as well.
Another opportunity presented itself last season when Brody Grothus was injured.
Carton wrestled five Big Ten dual meets, posting a 3-2 record. Both losses came against ranked opponents: No. 2 Anthony Ashnault and No. 20 Anthony Abidin.
The last time Carton got to wrestle that season was late January. After returning from injury, Grothus, a senior, took over as the 141-pounder.
Looking back, Brands said he isn’t sure he made the right decision.
“We probably should’ve had a wrestle-off last year,” Brands said. “Off the record, he probably could’ve beaten Grothus, but I made a mistake there. Actually, put that on the record. I think I made a mistake not having a wrestle-off at 141 last year.”
Part of that decision, though, came from Carton just not seeming ready enough. There was something missing from his game that appeared this season. Something was different.
It’s hard for either Brands or his brother, associate head coach Terry Brands, to pinpoint an exact time when Carton turned the corner, but it probably happened over the summer, when he realized he could be the guy at 141.
“I think he sees a vision at the end now, where maybe before he couldn’t with the way that the lineup was shaking out in his head,” Terry Brands said. “He’s grown up and become mentally aware that he is the guy, and he is a contender. It took him four years to get to the point where he believes that, and he believes that now.”
Carton could have had plenty of opportunities at other schools to be a three- or four-year starter, but the idea of transferring never crossed his mind.
Iowa City was home.
“Even if things aren’t going your way at home, you don’t just run away. You stick your nose [to] the grindstone and get done what you want to get done,” Carton said. “This is my family. How could I walk out on 35 brothers?”
* * *
Carton is unsure what he wants to do now that wrestling is over. He watched his goal of becoming a national champion slip away last week at the 2017 tournament in St. Louis, ending his college eligibility.
He will graduate in a couple of months with two degrees — one in interdepartmental business studies and workplace practices and the other in sport and recreation management. He will also receive an entrepreneurial certificate. He could see himself doing sports and event management.
More than likely, Carton will end up coaching.
His father and Rhoads assume so, and Carton acknowledged the possibility. He already has some experience. He helped out with the kid camps at Iowa and assisted with practices back home. He’s even shared his wisdom with younger Iowa athletes, Tom Brands said.
“I hear him talk to our underclassmen, especially our freshmen, and talk about, ‘Here’s why I think you need to think about what you’re doing, because I did it like that, and this is where I made these mistakes. I think I could’ve been better if I would’ve changed this, this, and that,’ ” Brands said. “He’s a good mentor, which is not always easy to be.”
The fact that his college career is done is still setting in. The wound is fresh. However, as with everything else, he is adjusting.
Carton knows that to dwell on what could have been is a mistake. It’s his turn to pass on the torch.
“Life goes on,” Carton said. “I’d like to give back to the sport that’s given me so much. I’d like to give back to this program in any way I can and to the people who have given me so much — the Brands brothers, and [Ryan] Morningstar, and everybody who’s helped me and touched my life along the way.
“I just want to express the most gratitude I can and do anything I can to repay them, because they’ve given me my dream.”