When Jordan Blanton hit the skids, when he lost five of six matches to the some of the Big Ten's top 176-pound wrestlers, calling his career good easily could have been an option.
Blanton, a former three-time state champion at Richmond-Burton, had witnessed college seniors travel down one of two paths. They would either finish strong, pushing through the abuse their bodies had taken over a four-year stretch or they would decide they had endured enough and coast out the rest of their careers, counting the days until it's over.
He had seen it before. But he had never felt it himself. Until this year.
"I'm not going to lie," Blanton said. "I was at that crossroad."
There were days when, after a lifetime of pushing himself to be the best, Blanton wondered if he could take any more.
Outside of the Illinois program, few knew all the injuries Blanton worked through. They didn't hear the one-on-one conversations he had with Illini coach Jim Heffernen or with his father or R-B wrestling coach coach Bret Wojcik, all of whom told him to remember what had gotten him to this point and to keep pressing forward.
Ultimately, though, the choice would come down to Blanton, who decided to go out fighting.
"I finished where I wanted to finish and accomplished a huge goal," Blanton said. "But very easily, I think, it could have been a different story for sure."
Blanton finished his career as a three-time All-American, the first Illini wrestler to pull off the feat since 2009. But writing that final chapter required perseverance and a willingness to push through hardships Heffernen said may have forced others in Blanton's position to call it quits.
But Blanton, who admittedly has always been his own harshest critic, wouldn't allow himself to stop working. He kept battling, wrestling in a Big Ten weight class that produced a record six All-Americans. As tough as it would be, Blanton put him through a competitive wringer one more time, starting to see his career as a series of "lasts".
"My whole life, I knew [the end] was coming, but I never knew what that meant," Blanton said. "Once I figured my competitive career was over, my body started to wear down and basically, by the end of this year, I knew this would be my last go-round and it really changed my mindset."
Throughout his career, Blanton had used every match, every workout as a stepping stone to propel him to the next level. Even through some of the bumps he encountered during his senior year, Blanton never lost focus or sight of what he wanted to accomplish. Through every trial, he repeated the same mantra to see him through.
"He always says everything will work out," Heffernen said. "He could be hanging off a cliff and he'd be looking up at me saying, 'Everything will work out,' and I'd believe him."
Fast-forward to last weekend at the NCAA Championships when after being upset in the second round, Blanton faced Maryland's Josh Asper, another two-time All-American. Blanton and Asper split their first two matches of the season. But this match – in the NCAA's Round of 12 – would determine which wrestler captured a third All-American honor.
Asper struck first with a takedown. But Blanton, who trailed 4-3 heading into the third period, scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to pull out a 6-5 win. Afterwards, all of the emotion that had been bottled up inside Blanton for much of his career finally escaped.
"For me, it was nice to see all of that emotion and work and everything else come out of him," Heffernen said. "That's a pretty high-stress round and I was really pleased to see him show a little bit of emotion and get it out of his system. But he earned it."
Blanton's final victory came in the seventh-place match. The finish wasn't the one Blanton had hoped for when he left for his final collegiate tournament, but to earn All-American honors for the third time was something Blanton says he won't soon forget.
"I gave the sport my life and it gave me so much in return," Blanton said. "It was so worth it."
Now, Blanton adjusts to trying to discover life after wrestling. He's not sure of how smooth of a transition he'll face, having spent so many years training his body to remain among the state and country's elite wrestlers.
He will start small with a trip to northern Wisconsin this weekend, when he'll go snowboarding for the first time since he was a seventh-grader. He plans to rediscover Richmond, where he will start making up for all the holidays, birthdays and family trips he missed throughout his competitive career. Although he's unsure of what life after wrestling looks like, he won't look back, finally able to move away from the pressure he placed on himself for all these years.
"Just the sacrifice it took to be at this level is something I have a lot of respect for having done it - there's a huge sense of accomplishment," Blanton said. "From a state champion to an Olympic champion, everyone kind of has to go through the same thing and it's a huge commitment. But it's something I feel very proud I finished out with."