By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN – A little more than a year ago, Cooper Gunnells’ greatest dream was thwarted by what turned into a horrible nightmare.
A sophomore wrestler at Brooklyn Columbia Central at the time, Gunnells dreamed of qualifying for the MHSAA Division 3 Individual Finals at The Palace.
He never got the chance in 2015, but he will be there this year as a Regional champion – and his twin brother will be there, too, in the same weight division.
In January of 2015, an illness – paired with a freak wrestling injury – turned into a nearly two-month stay in the hospital that threatened Cooper’s life.
“At first, we thought we’d lose him for a couple of weeks. Then it was, ‘Oh shoot, we’re going to lose him for the year,’ and then it was, ‘He might die.’ It suddenly put everything into perspective. Wrestling just didn’t seem that important anymore.” – Columbia Central wrestling coach Ron Guernsey
Cooper said he had a slight cold early in January, but it didn’t keep him from wrestling as it wasn’t a big deal. However, what happened in one match turned into a very big deal.
“My throat was a little dry because of the cold,” he said. “I got put in a headlock, and I think I went to pry up on this guy’s elbow to get away from him, and I felt a little rip in my throat, but I didn’t think anything of it. I just kept on wrestling.”
As the days went on, Cooper began to have trouble breathing. He noticed it during some of his matches.
“It hit me hard,” he said. “When I was wrestling one kid, I felt very fatigued. I couldn’t get my breath back. I was looking at my coach like, ‘What is going on? I’m not usually like this.’”
It also affected his sleep, and the only way he could get a decent night of sleep was to sit in a chair with his arms folded on the top of the chair to provide a little relief in his lungs.
After two trips to the emergency room – both times he was told he had mononucleosis – things got worse.
“The moment I really started to feel like something was really serious was when I started having shallow breaths and couldn’t really breathe that well,” Cooper said. “My chest really, really hurt; it hurt to the touch.
“I called my dad and told him that something was really wrong; he needed to come get me, and we needed to go to the hospital now. It was like nine or 10 o’clock at night. They hooked me up to an EKG, and they looked at me, then looked at the machine again, and said, ‘You need to get to U of M pronto.’ I didn’t know what was going on.
“All I remember from that point on is they hooked me up to a morphine bag. They started pumping me full of morphine, and I just kind of dozed off to sleep. I was there, but I wasn’t. I remember like little periods of that whole incident.”
The “rip” he had felt in his throat was actually a tear in his esophagus, so when he ate or drank, everything spilled into his lungs and chest cavity, causing an infection.
“If we had waited another day or two, from what the doctor said, the outcome wouldn’t have been very good,” said Cooper’s father, Scott Gunnells.
Cooper was in the intensive care unit as the doctors battled the infection.
“It was just a weird set of circumstances that brought it about,” Guernsey said. “Once it got into his lungs, they had to go in two different times to scrape his lungs.
“It was a big deal. They were pumping him with antibiotics, and he went from 125 pounds to 100 pounds. It was hard to even look at him.”
Cooper’s twin brother, Keenan, had a similar feeling.
“It was really scary,” Keenan said. “I didn’t even want to go to the hospital to see my brother in the condition he was in. It was hard.”
As Cooper lay in the hospital, he really was unaware of his condition or the severity of it.
“At first, when I starting coming to, I was bloated full of fluids and had chest tubes in me,” he said. “I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I had a whole bunch of IVs in my arm. The doctors came in and told me I ripped my esophagus and everything I was eating and drinking was going to my chest cavity. It made this thick mucus inside my lungs, and then the pericardium (sac around your heart), that was full of fluids, too.
“I had tubes going in my neck down into my chest area and tubes from both sides of my chest that was draining out all of the junk that was inside of me.”
He also was incubated with a breathing tube.
“The thought came to my head that I might never wrestle again, but I really wanted to wrestle.” – Cooper Gunnells
When Cooper was first released about six weeks after going into the hospital, he returned after just eight hours and stayed another week.
While in the hospital, his spirits were lifted when the Michigan State University wrestling team sent a signed shirt, and three members of the University of Michigan wrestling team visited him in the hospital.
“That was really cool,” Cooper said. “I asked them about their go-to moves and stuff like that, and they said to ‘stick to the basics.’”
A return to wrestling was going to be a big step for a young man who had dropped 20 percent of his body weight from 125 to 100 pounds, and the doctors put him on a 4,000-calorie diet – maybe the only good thing that happened to Cooper during that time.
“It was great actually,” he said. “I splurged on ice cream and chocolate milk. They had these calorie bags that they would open and pour into my chocolate milk. It’s like 1,000 calories each.”
Cooper got out of the hospital in time to see his twin brother, Keenan, nearly advance to the MHSAA Tournament. He lost by one point in his final match in the Regional.
During the season, Keenan normally wrestles at a different weight class than Cooper so both can get into the lineup, but that was not necessary when Cooper was sidelined last season. But Keenan felt like he was wrestling for his stricken brother and made some changes to honor him.
“I was wrestling for him for sure,” Keenan said. “He made me try harder. Actually, at two tournaments, I bumped up to his weight class and took first at that level. I did it for him.”
Cooper never lost his desire to get back to wrestling. He returned to the mat near the end of the WAAAM (Wrestling Amateur Athletic Association) season.
“My dad told me I couldn’t wrestle at first,” Cooper said. “He just said, ‘We’ll see where you are in a couple of months.’ It was two weeks before WAAAM ended when I wrestled in WAAAM. I was huffing and puffing; it was hard to breathe.
“Keenan took first in WAAAM and I took eighth, but it was a learning process and had to start somewhere.”
Cooper played on the soccer team last fall to help build up his cardio, and he was relentless in his work to get back in wrestling shape.
“He worked so much harder when he got out of the hospital to get back where he is now,” Keenan said. “Those late-night runs, while I’m sitting on the couch doing cookie curls – eating cookies while he’s out running and busting his butt – just to know where he’s at now, I’m so proud of him.”
Cooper said he feels like he is 100 percent in all areas except endurance.
“I would say I’m 100 percent now strength-wise, but cardio-wise no,” he said. “Those months of being in bed – I couldn’t even walk down the hallway and back.”
Cooper is back. He is seeded first at 125 pounds in Division 2, and he brings in a record of 38-3.
But there remains one unique twist to the story.
“My little brother beat me.” – Keenan Gunnells, on losing to Cooper in the Regional Semifinals two weeks ago
Although Keenan had wrestled at 130 pounds most of the season, he dropped down to 125 for the Regional in an attempt to reach The Palace.
Obviously, that set up the possibility of the twin brothers meeting each other officially for the first time. It was a situation that was tough to face, and it ended up becoming a reality in the Regional Semifinals.
Not everybody wanted the match to take place.
“I told them not to do it,” Scott Gunnells said. “I didn’t want them to wrestle, just flip a coin and save the energy for someone else. Somebody had to lose anyway, and whoever loses has to wrestle harder to get back in.”
Cooper had similar thoughts.
“I really didn’t want to wrestle him because he’s my brother,” he said.
Keenan, who likes to remind Cooper that he is 4 minutes older, was a little more for settling things on the mat.
“It was hard, but it was fun,” Keenan said. “Coach Guernsey gave us the chance not to wrestle. I could have injury-defaulted out of the match and then dropped back down, but I wanted to take first or second to move on, so why not wrestle for it? Who’s the better wrestler?
“It went to overtime, and he got the last takedown, so my little brother beat me.”
While Cooper went on to win the Regional title, Keenan regrouped and finished third to earn a spot at the Finals with a 38-10 record. And a repeat meeting could happen again.
Both are seeded high, and a rematch could take place in the Semifinals or possibly even the Final. With a championship at stake, the twin brothers have a little different outlook.
“It’s a no-mercy kind of thing,” Cooper said. “That’s what we kind of did at Regionals, but now that we’re in states, we’re going to go at it if we meet.”
Keenan would love to reverse the outcome of the last meeting, but either way, he is really pleased to be there with Cooper.
“It’s kind of neat,” Keenan said. “Say Cooper and me both make it through our brackets, we could meet in the Finals. Twins in the Finals? I’m pretty sure everyone would be watching us and not caring about the other matches that are going on.
“I really wanted to make it to state, but it makes it 10 times better to know that my brother will be there with me on the mat while I’m wrestling.”
“I learned that you can’t take life for granted.” – Cooper Gunnells
Cooper said even he is surprised to be where he is today after the terrible ordeal.
“I would have thought it was going to take way longer for me to recover,” he said. “I was like 101 pounds.”
Scott Gunnells reflects on the past year and remembers the pain and worry. He also said he will never forget the support from the community.
“They had a big spaghetti dinner last year, and people showed up who I didn’t even know,” he said. “The community was great, and the outgiving of the community and the sacrifices of the coaches will always be in my mind.
“I don’t care who wins or loses. They are both coming home and both are going to eat at the same table. It doesn’t matter to me.”
The Gunnells brothers have another year to wrestle in high school, and wrestling in college is something both would like to do.
When asked if he had any colleges in mind, Cooper gave an insightful answer.
“I want to wrestle in college and I am hoping to go to Western Michigan because they have a nursing program,” he said. “After going through everything, I think it would be cool to be able to help people.
“You can’t take life for granted. Going through the ICU and seeing some people who were much worse than me, that was pretty painful, too.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brooklyn Columbia Central twins Cooper (left) and Keenan Gunnells wrestle during a Regional Semifinal at Williamston two weekends ago. (Middle) Cooper, below left, Keenan and their coach Ron Guernsey. (Below) Keenan Gunnells faces Alma's Alex Rosas in a third-place match at the Regional. (Top and below photos by HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)