Gopher Sports

Brett and Chris Pfarr

Gopher Sports
Brett and Chris Pfarr

Faith of Farmers

Brett and Chris Pfarr may not have imagined they’d wrestle together in the NCAA Championships while they were practicing on their family’s farm, but faith in the power of hard work has helped them accomplish their goals.

STORY BY JAKE RICKER


High above the banks of the Minnesota River, travelers heading southdown Highway 169 from the Twin Cities are welcomed to the river valley by the likeness of the Jolly Green Giant, the signature image of Le Sueur, Minn.

The town of 4,000-some has long been home to the Green Giant label, famous for adorning frozen vegetables for decades. It’s the perfect symbol for a town that could be the postcard for Minnesota’s agrarian tradition.

While Green Giant no longer cans its goods in Le Sueur – its agricultural research center still resides in the southwest Minnesota hamlet – statues and images of the brand’s towering mascot still dot the community.

In the shadow of the Giant, just a few miles out of town, the Pfarrs continue to farm land that has been in their family for generations. It’s not an easy lifestyle. The days are long, the work is hard, and unforeseen problems are part of the daily routine. Success is measured in seasonal increments. Faith that time and energy invested will pay off is paramount.

“We reap what we sow,” said Dave Pfarr, the patriarch of the family. It’s a reference to farming, but he quickly broadens its scope. “The discipline of the farm, the hard work and the adaptability [needed] day-to-day, it feeds well into a sport like wrestling.”

The entire family understands that connection. Dave and his wife Robyn raised four kids on the same 300-some-acre farm site on which Robyn grew up (the family also owns around 500 additional acres down the road, the farm where Dave was raised). The three Pfarr boys have wrestled since they were young.

“Our parents put us in all kinds of sports growing up. We played basketball, wrestling, soccer, baseball, we did everything,” said Chris, the youngest of the Pfarr children and a redshirt junior on the Gopher Wrestling team. “They threw us into everything and let us decide what we wanted. That’s the way you should do it. Wrestling is a sport that, if you force it upon someone, it’s easy to resent it really quickly because it’s emotional. But we fell in love with it as we grew up.”

“There are probably three things the boys did growing up. They were farming, they were training for wrestling and they were doing their homework,” said Dave.

Part of that was necessity. The farming needed to get done and many hands make for quicker work. Part of that was love. The boys loved wrestling. Part of it was growing up in a rural area. There just wasn’t a whole lot else to do, especially when the family didn’t get any channels on its television.

“One day the satellite went out. We didn’t get reception anymore and my dad said we didn’t need TV,” said Brett, the family’s middle son who recently completed his senior season wrestling for the Gophers. “Looking back now, I agree with him. At the time I was probably a little more upset about it but now I realize the value in our upbringing. I don’t spend a lot of time playing video games or watching TV. I invest my time in athletics and academics and cultivating relationships.”

That investment has paid off for Brett, who leaves the University of Minnesota as a two-time All-American at 197 pounds – one of 52 multiple-time All-Americans in program history – and one of the 20-winningest competitors to ever wear the Minnesota singlet. He’s also an Academic All-American with a collection of Big Ten academic awards.

Brett celebrates Chris’ meet-clinching win over Wisconsin on January 15.

Brett celebrates Chris’ meet-clinching win over Wisconsin on January 15.

Brett celebrates his 2017 NCAA semifinal win to advance to his first NCAA championship match.

Brett celebrates his 2017 NCAA semifinal win to advance to his first NCAA championship match.

Chris qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in 2017 at 174 pounds.

Chris qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in 2017 at 174 pounds.

Chris, just 11 months younger than Brett, has also seen the benefit of a life spent working hard. Like his (only slightly) older brother, Chris is an agricultural and food business management major in the U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), with a decorated academic record of his own. He has stepped into the lineup at three different weight classes during his career, catching on this season at 174 pounds and qualifying for his first career NCAA tournament.

While both attribute some of their success to family and farming, it’s the loving rivalry they have with each other that has helped them reach their current positions.

“We have always pushed each other academically and athletically,” said Brett, talking about his younger brother. That continues even now.

“We always have a lot of the same classes together, so we're always competing on who gets the best score. I've been beating him lately,” said Chris.

Brett chimed in by saying, “I get better test scores in our classes. I think that's where we're most competitive, we always want to get a better test score than the other.”

That pushing goes back to the beginning, and is more or less what led them to wrestle in the first place.

On first glance, it’s obvious that Brett and Chris are brothers. They share the same blond hair, blue eyes, broad nose and squared face. When they speak, they use some of the same expressions and intonations. Less than a year apart, it’s not surprising they would share some many similarities. But those first impressions can be deceiving. Their parents will tell you they’re not as similar as they may seem.

“Chris is a carbon copy of me,” said Dave. “He’s very fast to make decisions. He’s very aggressive.” By contract, “Brett is very gentle, he’s got a very gentle heart, even though he’s a fierce competitor on the mat.

Chris, the baby, would come after him and intimidate him. Robyn wanted her middle son to figure it out.”

So Robyn said she told Brett, “You just have to get back at him and put him in his place. I showed [Brett] how to fight.”

That brother aspect is big for a sport like wrestling, just to have that support, and some- one to do it with. I can’t imagine if it were just me, an only child ... I wouldn’t always have that partner that was helping me out.
— Brett Pfarr

It wasn’t just Brett, or just Brett and Chris, who learned to fight on the farm. Thanks to some ingenuity from their parents, the property came to include a wrestling room that welcomed a collection of young wrestlers to develop their craft.

No more than 20 yards from the front door to the Pfarr’s house, farm equipment had been repaired, rebuilt and refurbished for years inside the corrugated steel walls of an old machine shop. As the Pfarr kids grew, the long-held purpose of the machine shop began evolving into something new. New equipment began to appear in the shop, piece by piece, but it wasn’t the farming equipment that had littered the floor for so long. It was a wrestling mat. It was dumbbells. It was a rope to climb. The machine shop became a makeshift wrestling room.

“It’s all decked out. Anything workout-related we wanted, [our dad] was always there to get it for us and he was happy to get it. Our mom was always the one who thought he was spending too much money on the shop,” said Brett with a laugh.

“We have a corn stove that burns in the winter, so we could always train in there,” he added.

The convenience of training without having to travel was a rare and appreciated luxury for the Pfarr brothers. Normally, growing up on a farm would mean long treks to wrestling rooms at area high schools, eating up valuable time from the working day. Given the unpredictability of winter weather, especially in greater Minnesota, wrestling season could be the most difficult time of year to find a place to practice and a partner with whom to work.

A farmer’s mentality of creative problem-solving helped keep those challenges from reaching the Pfarrs. In another common trait among farming families, the Pfarrs shared with their neighbors.

“Brett has been a leader since about seventh grade. He would bring other wrestlers from different communities, competitors actually, into the room … and work with them, just for the love of the sport,” said Robyn.

When other wrestlers couldn’t make the journey, it didn’t matter. Brett had Chris and Chris had Brett.

“We were pretty close in size, so we wrestled quite a bit,” said Brett.

“That brother aspect is big for a sport like wrestling, just to have that support, and someone to do it with,” said Chris. “I can’t imagine if it were just me, an only child … I wouldn’t always have that partner that was helping me out.”

Brett and Chris will be the first to admit that neither were wrestling phenoms growing up. Don’tbe mistaken, both were good wrestlers. Both were multiple-time all-conference and all-state honorees by the end of their careers at Le Sueur-Henderson High School. Brett won Minnesota’s Class A state title at 182 pounds as a senior, a wonderful accomplishment but one that garnered only marginal interest from Division I programs.

Their older brother, Matthew, wrestled at Division III St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn., where he was an All-American. He encouraged Brett to pursue wrestling at a higher level. Among the Division I offers Brett had, his home state school had welcomed him to be a part of its program. It was a natural fit for Brett, whose father and all of his siblings either have or will hold a degree from the University of Minnesota.

“Since I was a young boy, being a Minnesota Gopher has been a dream of mine. The University means so much to my family,” said Brett.

For just one season, Brett’s freshman year at Minnesota and Chris’ senior year at Le Sueur-Henderson, they weren’t teammates. It was the first time either could remember wrestling for different teams. They reconnected one year later, when Chris walked-on at Minnesota.

“I knew I wanted to go to Minnesota to be in CFANS and I was already accepted. Brett encouraged me to walk on, and so did some of his teammates,” Chris said, admitting it took a good deal of convincing to get him down into the Gophers’ wrestling room. It’s a decision he does not regret.

Brett became a full-time starter as a redshirt sophomore. He reached the Big Ten tournament finals at 184 pounds but had a disappointing national tournament in which he did not place. That same year, Chris lettered by stepping in for an injured starter at 197, even though he barely weighed 180 pounds.

The next season, the two swapped. Brett made the move to 197 and had one of the greatest seasons by a Gopher wrestler in the past 20 years, compiling a 40-4 record and winning 25 matches with bonus points, wrestling vernacular for a variety of wins that show particular dominance over an opponent. He placed third at NCAAs to become an All-American. Chris dropped down to 184 and had a challenging season, with a record of 9-21. He did not qualify for the national tournament.

Brett finished his Gopher career as a two-time All-American, placing second in 2017 and third in 2016 at 197 pounds. Over those two years, he went 71-7 and was unbeaten in dual meets (30-0).

Brett finished his Gopher career as a two-time All-American, placing second in 2017 and third in 2016 at 197 pounds. Over those two years, he went 71-7 and was unbeaten in dual meets (30-0).

“Every weekend just felt like I was getting beat down and beat down. It was tough to keep my head up. By the Big Ten tournament, I just wanted to be done,” said Chris.

Their upbringing had taught the Pfarrs the value of hard work, of commitment, and a sense of trust that investment in the process would pay off long-term. Brett had seen that in the jump he made from his sophomore to junior year. Chris, living by those same values, also saw his fortunes improve this past year, his junior season.

While Brett remained one of the top wrestlers in the country at his weight class, marching all the way to the NCAA finals before falling to an Olympic bronze medalist, Chris found a home at 174 pounds. He defeated several ranked opponents, including a meet-clinching victory in January in the final match against rival Wisconsin, and qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in his career.

This March, in their final season together after a lifetime spent wrestling on the same team, the two brothers were able to compete side-by-side in the biggest event in college wrestling.

“I’m really proud of Chris,” said Brett. “He’s really shown a lot of improvement in the past few months. It’s incredible to see how much better he’s gotten.”

“Brett has always been there for me, so being able to go to NCAAs with Brett is like a dream come true,” said Chris. Then, showing the understated emotions only possible for a Midwestern farmer, he added, “It’s really cool for my parents, too. They’re pretty happy about it.”

Pfarr 9417.jpg

The Pfarr brothers are undeniably farmers. Ask Chris about farm technology or crop yields and he’ll start spitting out facts about soil management and time-tested numbers regarding seeding and growth per acre.

The Pfarr brothers are also undeniably wrestlers. Ask Brett about how to a certain shot (wrestling terminology for an attempt to get a takedown) and he’ll break down how to execute it successfully, or how to fend it off.

Beyond the labels of farmer or wrestler, the shared mindset of the two pursuits make up who each of the Pfarr brothers are at their core.

“Farming is one of the toughest lifestyles you can have,” said Brett. “Your whole livelihood is out there in the fields. Everything has to go right [and] bad things, they happen all the time. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That’s just like wrestling. You could have a career-ending injury or maybe your work doesn’t pay off in the end. For me, that kind of blind faith, you have to believe in it, work hard, and know it will work out.”

“There’s a saying that I heard once, ‘Have the faith of a farmer,’” said Chris. “You put in seed and have faith it will grow. It’s the same as wrestling. All the training you put it, you hope when the time is right, it will all pay off.”

Jake Ricker is an associate athletic communications director for Gopher Athletics. Contact him at rick0127@umn.edu.