Wrestling a family business for Cullens

OAKWOOD HILLS – The small wrestling sanctuary occupies a tucked away corner of the basement. By comparison, the 20-foot-by-20-foot room, much like the four boys who trained inside, is undersized compared to what surrounds it.

The space is decorated in a hodgepodge of colors and wrestling memories. The floor is covered by a green wrestling mat imprinted with a yellow shamrock that pays homage to the Cullen family roots. The off-white walls partially are covered by purple padded mats, leaving the remaining space to be filled in by motivational quotes that are stenciled in red and blue paint.

A collection of medals attached to silk ribbons hangs by a hook on an ordinary wooden storage shelf that would be found in any other lower-level storage room inside any other normal suburban home.

But this area, like the collection of wrestling talent groomed here, is unique. It’s here where Michael Cullen, Sr. – a two-time state wrestling qualifier for Palatine – started the family wrestling business and handed it down to his boys, one son at a time.

It started with Brian, who started with the Crystal Lake Wizards before moving to the Wrestling Factory in Libertyville, and then to Overtime Wrestling School in Naperville. At Prairie Ridge, he became a three-time state qualifier and Class 2A state runner-up at 103 pounds before landing at the University of Illinois.

Michael came next, who in turn passed his knowledge down to younger twin brothers John and Sean. The youngest three Cullen brothers all are part of Cary-Grove’s varsity roster, intent now on carrying on the family name and tradition.

The responsibility is one each takes seriously. But it’s a duty that traces back to Michael, Sr., and that stems from a charge he passed down to the oldest three boys.

“If you are the older brother, your younger brother should be better than you,” Michael, Sr. has told Brian, Michael and John throughout their wrestling careers. “If he’s not, you haven’t done your job.”

• • •

Brian Cullen was 8 when his dad brought the wrestling mat home for the first time.

Like each of his brothers after him, Brian started out as a hockey player. Michael, Sr., grew up with hockey, too, before inheriting a hand-me-down pair of wrestling shoes outgrown by one of five brothers. It was a sign his future was in wrestling and not on the ice.

So when Brian saw his father haul the wrestling mat down the stairs that led to the basement and into the room that sits to the side of the large wooden bar, he too knew what competitive path he would follow.

The same went for his brothers.

“Wrestling is kind of the sport that defines who we are,” Brian said.

John and Sean, separated in age by only seven minutes, were just beginning to walk when the wrestling mat came home. Like Brian and Michael, the Cullen twins wrestled their way through the club ranks, coached by their father and relying on their brothers’ hand-me-down experiences and advice.

Having all four boys in wrestling made it easier logistically rather than forcing Michael and his wife, Barb, to split their time between hockey and wrestling tournaments. Each Sunday, the family would wake up at 5:30 a.m., pack up an assortment of cut-up fruit and vegetables and hit the road for any number of tournament destinations stretching between Marengo and Chicago’s South Side.

But watching all the boys competing in the same sport also created some challenges – especially for the twins, who throughout their careers would be thrown into awkward competitive situations that could force them to face off against one another.

There was the national championship meet in Reno, Nev., when John and Sean were headed for a title showdown. Rather than force his young sons – both undefeated in the tournament at the time – into an all-in-the-family title match, Michael, Sr., chose to flip the two-sided red and green coin used in wrestling matches to determine who would advance.

“People wanted to see the match, but it was one match I didn’t want to see,” Michael, Sr. said. “I told them they’d never have to compete head-to-head as long as I’m making that decision. But I told them they needed to practice hard with each other.

“As long as they could push each other in the (practice) room, you don’t have to compete in front of people to figure out who of the two of you guys is better, because that’s not necessary.”

The coin landed in Sean’s favor.

John’s reaction was classic Cullen.

“Now you need to win,” John told his younger brother.

Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Michael, Sr. knew that if his four boys watched out for each other, everything ultimately would work out.

“If I could get them to work with each other, wrestling goes beyond being a sport – it’s more than that,” Michael, Sr. said. “I’d like to think they could take that same logic to whatever they’ve learned and gotten good at, if they could share that with their brother, that would be good.”

• • •

In most cases, the lessons started in the basement wrestling room in the midst of the weight bench, speed bag, heavy bag and collection of posters bearing the image of college wrestling stars.

John was 10 or 11 the first time Brian taught him the dresser dump, a takedown in which one wrestler snaps the head of his opponent before reaching between his legs and quickly turning the move into a cradle and pinning combination.

The only way John would learn, Brian knew, is if he demonsrated one of his most reliable moves on his younger brother at full speed.

“It definitely hurt me and it didn’t feel good,” said John, who in turn passed his cross-face cradle onto Sean. “But if it doesn’t feel good to me, it’s not going to feel good to my opponents, either. So I knew it would work.”

Brian and Michael would wrestle in the basement space for hours at a time, picturing themselves locked in a grueling state championship match. To make the matches fair, Brian would wrestle on his knees and sometimes with one hand behind his back just to give his younger brother a fighting chance.

Brian’s size and experience gave him an advantage. But sometimes, without knowing it, he would allow Michael to earn points and gain the upper hand to instill confidence, giving him a taste of what having to fight from behind against a bigger opponent felt like.

The key, Brian said, was taking what he learned and translate it into wrestling success.

Their father took it a step farther.

Everything learned in this room, Michael, Sr. told his boys, could be carried over to life. But everything was built on a simple premise.

“You never lose a match until you quit trying,” Michael, Sr., told his sons. “As long as you go out and give me everything you’ve got, I’m OK no matter what the score is.”

• • •

Wrestling only fueled the Cullen’s competitiveness. It led to fights in the basement wrestling room. It also bled over into other endeavors, whether it was wall ball or basketball in the backyard pool.

Regardless of the activity, Brian and Sean routinely teamed up to face Michael and John. Like with every Sunday wrestling meet they traveled to growing up, each competition was documented, charted on paper to preserve the memory and the official result.

Nothing was done for fun.

“There were a lot of brackets,” Barb said.

“And,” Sean said, finishing his mother’s sentence, “there was always a winner.”

The brother’s competitiveness sparked its share of trash talking – more commonly referred to as “constructive criticism” by the boys’ father. The constructive criticism sometimes led to the fights, which Barb Cullen – who her boys refer to as “Coach” – calls “family therapy sessions.”

For the Cullen brothers, the scraps were par for the course. Grudges rarely lasted longer than a day. As testy as the boys could get, though, the reason behind the scraps in the basement followed a familiar theme.

“We’re all working toward one goal and that’s just to get better,” John said. “We’re always helping one another. You might think it’s dysfunctional, but we’re all working toward the same goal – we all want to be the best. It just clicks.”

• • •

What clicked at home has carried over to Cary-Grove, where Michael, John and Sean continue the family wrestling business. All three have been fixtures in the Trojans’ starting lineup, which has forced the Cullens to be flexible not only for the sake of their team, but for their brothers.

Despite all starting their freshman year weighing in around 106 pounds, the three remaining Cullens have adjusted.

Michael, a junior, wrestles closest to his natural weight and holds down the 113-pound spot in C-G’s starting lineup. Sean splits time with senior Logan Hanselmann at 122 pounds while John carries the most weight at 132 pounds.

Getting all three Cullens into the rotation has forced Trojans coach Ryan Ludwig to manage the three brothers differently than he would any of his other wrestlers.

Like their styles on the mat, Michael, John and Sean all have different personalities. Sean tends to be the most relaxed while John is the most serious. Michael falls somewhere in the middle, creating a unique dynamic for Ludwig and the rest of his team.

And like at home, overaggressiveness can sometimes take over in daily workouts, That has left Ludwig to sometimes rein in the three brothers. Although he allows Michael, John and Sean to train with and against one another on most occasions, he often separates them to maintain normalcy.

It’s not always easy.

“Sometimes, you just have to understand that they are brothers and they act a certain way,” Ludwig said. “But you have to monitor it. We let that brotherly competition go to a point, but you have to also make sure they’re getting the workouts they need.”

The brothers will depend on one another for the remainder of their wrestling careers. They continue to share moves and techniques that have worked for each in the past and that they believe will make each of the three brothers competitive in their respective weight classes.

Yet, although the brothers want the best for their siblings, they also look out for themselves. Brian’s second-place state finish remains the standard. At home, though, the boys’ parents insist, even though they want their sons to each reach their full potentials, they won’t define success by traditional means.

“It’s not about wins and losses for us,” Barb Cullen said. “It’s really not. You always want to win, but it’s about your performance. You never give up and you never give in.

“At the end of the day, I’d love to have a state champion in my house. But it’s really about being a good person. That’s all we really care about.”