From Injury to Triumph: Robbie Howard’s Inspiring Journey For Penn State Wrestling

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Penn State Wrestling Head Coach Cael Sanderson (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

The start of Robbie Howard’s career for Penn State Wrestling in 2021 was a whirlwind of events filled with ups and downs in a very short period of time. There were two major factors at play, and for the life of me, I have no idea how Howard was able to navigate even one of them. Let alone both of them. Prior to Howard committing to Cael Sanderson and the Nittany Lions, he was an all-everything wrestler for Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey. While there, Robbie racked up a combined record of 133-10 and included appearances in the state finals all four years and two New Jersey state titles. And on the national stage, Howard was rivaled by very few grapplers in his weight class. Robbie became the first wrestler to win the Cadet National Championships three times, he competed with the Cadet World Team all three of these years, and he was a member of the 2018 Youth Olympic Team which went on to win a gold medal. Throwing all of those things together and combining it with a commitment to Penn State, it looked like Robbie was going to be a centerpiece for the Nittany Lions at 125 for many years to come. But this is where Howard’s story hit a pothole in the road.


Robbie Howard Overpowers Adversity

Leading into his senior year in high school, Robbie suffered a significant shoulder injury that included ligament tears. Rather than opting for surgery and therefore missing his senior year, Howard rehabbed his shoulder while training and wrestling through constant pain and discomfort. Somehow and someway Robbie was able to power through the shoulder pain, and at the conclusion of his senior year he was the lone gladiator at the center of the mat with his hand raised. Howard’s win crowned him a New Jersey state champion for the second time in his high school career. But the rehab and wrestling were too much for his shoulder and he opted to have surgery to repair the damage. Which meant his true freshman season in Happy Valley was in jeopardy of not happening at all. So that was factor No. 1. Factor No. 2 was the pandemic. Seemingly everyone’s lives were turned upside down in March 2020 and a high school student going through shoulder surgery while also trying to acclimate to their freshman year in college away from home, was no exception to this. The 2021 Big Ten Wrestling season was drastically shortened and Penn State only participated in six total dual meets. In the first three duals against Indiana, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions forfeited each of their matches at 125. With Howard’s shoulder surgery and uncertain timeframe to return, it looked like the Nittany Lions would have to punt the entire season at 125. But then in mid-January the Penn State Wrestling training staff cleared Howard to start wrestling. And in the Nittany Lions’ dual meet against Michigan on February 14th, Robert Howard made his Penn State debut by winning a decision against Jack Medley. Robbie then lost to Malik Heinselman (5-2) and pinned Zach Spencer in the remaining two duals of the season. Just like that, with only three collegiate matches under his belt, it was time for Howard to take part in his first ever Big Ten Wrestling Championships. Would Robbie be ready? Would his shoulder hold up? The answer to both questions would be a resounding “Yes” based on the circumstances laid down at his feat. Howard went a combined 3-3 in the 2021 Big Tens and he took down his first ranked grappler in Michigan’s Dylan Ragusin. Robbie’s performance was good enough for him to get into the 2021 NCAA Championships and it was a chance for him to prove to the country how good he could be. Robbie’s first round opponent was no other than Ohio State’s Malik Heinselman. At that point the talented Buckeye was a three-time NCAA qualifier and he had bested Howard on two other occasions that year. But this time Robbie was the one in control as he took Heiselman out in the opening round match to the tune of a 6-4 decision. Up next was Utah Valley’s Taylor LaMont who at that time was already a two-time NCAA qualifier. Howard gave LaMont everything he had, but in the end it just wasn’t enough as the youngster lost a heartbreaking 2-1 decision. Taylor LaMont ended up finishing as an All-American that year (5th place) so it was clear Robbie could compete with the best. Another two-time NCAA qualifier stood in Howard’s way in the consolation bracket, Chattanooga’s Fabian Gutierrez. And unfazed by the presence and experience of a seasoned grappler, Howard stuck to his game plan and knocked Gutierrez out of the 2021 NCAA Championships with a back-and-forth 9-7 decision. The win moved Robbie into the round of 12 in his first ever NCAA Championship and in only the 12th match of his college career. But as the Nittany Lion faithful know, this is where Howard’s Cinderella run came to an end as Minnesota’s Patrick McKee pinned him 2:04 into the match. And at the conclusion of the 2021 NCAA Championships three things were evident; Robert Howard is talented, his shoulder appeared to be fully healed, and the Nittany Lions would have a future contender at 125 pounds for the first time in a handful of years. The 2021-2022 season was going to be Robert Howard’s coming out party. Only the Howard-train never left the station.

Penn State Wrestling Road, a Rocky Start for Robbie Howard

Robbie Howard was nowhere to be seen in the Nittany Lions first dual meets of the year. Rumors began to circulate that his repaired shoulder was injured again and he could miss the entire 2021-2022 season. And once again the Penn State fans know what happened as the rumors turned out to be true and Howard did not suit up for a single match. One could definitely spin this into a positive as having a full year off would be a huge benefit to getting Robbie healthy and to hone his skills in the wrestling room. I for one had my sights squarely set on Howard being locked and loaded into the Nittany Lion starting lineup in the 2022-2023 season. But for the second straight season, disaster struck.


. Unfortunately, due to some health reasons I cannot compete in ’23. I tried to make it work but it requires a long term fix. Dreams are alive, eyes are forward. Eligibility is stacked up so don’t worry too much. YOU WILL SEE ME IN BLUE IN 24. Thanks for the notes of kindness

— Robert Howard (@Robbie__Howard) November 7, 2022

*Sigh* Thus Robbie has now missed each of the last two seasons and the last time he suited up in a blue and while singlet was back on March 18, 2021. But here’s the thing, Robert Howard is not a quitter and you better believe he’s been working his tail off to get back out there on the mat. But here’s another thing, the shoulder is the most complex joint in the human body. I bet you didn’t think you would be getting a novice anatomy class from a wrestling writer, did you? For all intents and purposes, the shoulder is basically a golf ball sitting on a tee. And when it gets damaged it can cause all kinds of issues in the future. I also know Howard is still a talented grappler and there’s no way he hasn’t improved mentally and physically over the last two years even though he never actually competed in a college match. Which is why I believe he will be back for Penn State this coming season and he will be looking to prove how good he can be on the Resilite. Look, he has nothing to prove to you or me, he owes nothing to anyone else. But if Robbie is like literally every other wrestler I’ve known, then he’s ultra-competitive and he wants to prove something to himself. And there’s nothing like seeing what an athlete can do when they’re fully motivated.

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Chris Snyder
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Chris Snyder

Expertise: College Wrestling, College Football, Lays Chips Education: Penn State University Location: State College, PA Even though he had no prior journalism experience, Chris has now covered Penn State Wrestling and Penn State Football for the past three years, including as the Penn State Wrestling Beat Writer for, part of the FanSided network. And it's clear he also likes constant torture as he's been a PSU Basketball fan for way too long. Several years back, Chris made the seamless transition from PGA Professional to computer programmer and thoroughly enjoys following and writing about all things related to Penn State sports during his spare time.