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Josh Budke Weighs In On ESPN’s The Season

Several years ago, ESPN produced a documentary about Iowa Hawkeye wrestling called “The Season.”  I find this documentary interesting, but at the same time, I feel they cherry-picked the footage they used to follow some sort of “doom and gloom” narrative they had in mind for Iowa before making the film. Primarily the tough love and tough breaks.They didn’t show any footage that wouldn’t scare off the average 8 year old from trying the sport out, especially at Iowa. I didn’t think  that documentary was good for the Iowa program’s reputation at the time. I mean, come on, they even went out of their way to mention how awful Iowa’s weather is to the sound of music that you would expect to hear on some sad Western movie where some guy’s horse died. Depressing. 

The wrestler who had the most negative experience with this documentary was Josh Budke. Budke was in his final season of college and struggling to make the lineup for the Iowa Hawkeyes at the time. The ESPN crew caught him at one of the most stressful phases of his life. And with the skits they cherrypicked, I mean chose to use for the documentary, they painted this picture of him as if he never won any of the matches he wrestled (which wasn’t the case) and as if he were feeling sorry for himself. The part of the documentary that stood out to fans was Tom Brands’s thoughts on Budke and his situation. Here is a short clip of it. Brands is at the end.:


Budke took a ton of crap for that. Internet badasses freely and regularly called him names, disrespected him, disregarded everything he had done prior to that, etc. Not to mention, the overwhelming majority of people who watched it, couldn’t stop talking about how cold and harsh Tom Brands came off when he made the “I don’t feel sorry for Josh Budke. You get what you earn” comment. This wasn’t fair to Tom Brands either, for everyone seemed to not hear the part where he said he would want nothing more than for Budke to succeed. So it’s not like the man was trying to be cold and harsh for the sake of being cold and harsh to Budke. It came off to me as a “tough love” approach, which was not how it was perceived by the masses at all. Sometimes when either Brands says something that is down to Earth and/or moderately sensitive, it goes totally unnoticed due to being upstaged by their own intensity.

You do get what you earn and because of that, there’s no need to feel sorry for Budke. It is pretty hard to dispute that logic from Brands. However, I will freely admit that I did and still do feel bad for Josh Budke for a couple of reasons. 1.) I feel bad that Budke’s career ended in such negative fashion that it gave him a bitter taste in his mouth about wrestling. Budke had a brilliant career that he should feel proud of. It is so unfortunate that something like this documentary would put a wrench in his personal feelings for the sport. He deserved a better send off than that. Ok, so maybe he wouldn’t make the lineup, but the embarrassment he endured as a result of a documentary that aired on ESPN and prompted tons of fans to ridicule him for years? Come on. He didn’t deserve that. And 2.) I feel bad for him because I don’t think he knew what he had gotten himself into when he agreed to be interviewed. I don’t think he had any idea that agreeing to simply be interviewed by them would result in his entire career and reputation being tarnished to those who didn’t know better. It’s not right that so many wrestlers end on a sour note that sticks with them especially considering the blood, sweat and tears they sacrificed for years.. My brother Justin had a great career and he couldn’t talk about wrestling for 10 years due to how bad his ending hurt his soul. It’s sad that so many wrestlers experience this. When a guy like Budke, a 3X state champ, calls it quits, he should feel proud of what he accomplished opposed to ashamed of himself because of how it ended, but that’s likely easier said than done in his case, for his situation was laid out in a manner in which constant reminders of the dark phase is a certainty.

Budke was always one of my favorite wrestlers growing up and I have always refused to let “The Season” affect the way I perceive Josh Budke because I was always pretty confident that there was a lot of B.S. included to create dramatic effect. I felt like the entire Hawkeyes squad was misrepresented to some degree. I knew that team… knew many of them personally. Saw them all the time at college opens when I was wrestling at Loras. The Hawkeye wrestlers could most certainly be a grouchy crew at these events, but I don’t blame them for not wanting to discuss some forgotten AAU match they had from 1993 with some spazzy D3 guy like me that they forgot about. Outside these events though, every one of them that I ran into were fun to be around and good people. Not nearly as “robot-caveman” as the filmmakers would like you to believe. 

Josh Budke was nice enough to provide an inside look at his experiences while interacting with the crew who put The Season together. Josh Budke… a guy who dedicated a large portion of his life to wrestling and was sent off with media-ringworm. I think this man’s voice deserves to be heard. 


ESPN’s documentary on the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling team called “The Season,” depicted you in a manner that I assume was not flattering to you.  What was your experience with that? Did you feel like it depicted you accurately?

JOSH BUDKE: Yeah, not flattering is a nice way to say it.  My wife and I do not watch reality TV the same way now, that is for sure.  It was an interesting experience to be part of the process and aspects were accurate, but they also did a great job of making it very dramatic.  I can honestly say I did not realize the camera had followed me a couple times and you get used to them being around, so you are not looking for it either.

Nothing was staged so it was all real, but the documentary material that was chosen was certainly used to forward the story lines they wanted and put forth a certain narrative.

I can say honestly that it has taken me years of processing my failures at Iowa to be ok discussing this, but my hope is to answer some of the questions and comments I have heard over the years and maybe add some insight.  

If you watched it, you would swear I never won a match that year! After the first few weeks of the season and before tryouts I was something like 12-2.  One bad loss at a Missouri tournament and I ended up 3rd.   At the Omaha tournament I lost to Dylan Long from UNI in the quarters or Semi’s and ended up 3rd again. Bad way to start the year when you are looking to earn the starting spot.

A couple weeks into the season and it was the day of tryouts.  This is when the documentary gets underway and when I first knew what was going on regarding ESPN.  That day I walked out into Carver (Hawkeye arena) by myself just to get acclimated to the lights and space before the matches got underway.  Carver was empty other than a couple guys sitting there talking in the front row.  I just wandered over to make small talk and had no idea who they were.  One guy asks me some questions about who I was, and I just keep answering and chatting these guys up trying to keep my nerves in check.  Next thing he says is “Hey, we are from ESPN and we are following the team around this year”  “Would you mind if we ask you a few questions sometime, and we may follow you around a little and get some footage”  As a 5th year Senior, I had been waiting for a long time to be the top guy as I had wrestled only a couple varsity matches as a Sophomore, otherwise I was sitting behind Schwab and Zadick and TJ Williams.  So, I agreed.  In my mind it was going to be my spot that year and I was going to be an All-American and how cool was it going to be to have that documented by ESPN.  I thought about Jesse Whitmer and I was going to do the same thing he did. Never crossed my mind that it could go the other way.

So, I lose a very close tryout to Moffit at 141.  Crushed by that I go up the room to blow off some steam on the bike.  Zero clue anyone was around as tryouts are still going on at that point. No idea they captured that footage.   Not long after that Zadick gets banged up so I get to travel out East with the team in case I need to wrestle 149.  Zalesky never really tells me if I am wrestling or not but just to be ready.  Really bad wrestling strategy on my part with a ranked guy from Penn. That ended up being a really long weekend with some interesting footage for the show.

As the season progresses, I had my opportunities.   Whether at Midlands or other open tournaments to make my case for the starting spot. I never did that.

One funny side note.  Right after we get married my wife and I were watching it live the summer as it came out (she has never watched it since).  The last episode is closing out and all of sudden we see footage from our wedding.  A few upset phone calls later we found out that while we were on our honeymoon, ESPN reached out to our family and one of our parents sent the ESPN crew our wedding tape.   We had no clue.


After being on The Season, did you feel like your legacy was affected by it? Were there any long-term effects from it, such as people bringing that up to you before they do the high points of your career that outnumber that one negative phase of your life?


JOSH BUDKE: I do think it affected and still affects how many in the wrestling community view me.  I am the guy who did not cut it at Iowa, quit and left the team, etc.  After it aired my family and I received negative notes and calls, and the internet message boards certainly crucified me.  Never a good idea to look at the message boards but I was smart enough not to respond back at least.

It has been 18 years since that season, and I do not regret my decisions.  I do regret my inability to win some of those close matches and the inability to mentally turn the corner regarding my wrestling.  I ended up being a better wrestler in the practice room than out and competing and that is painful to admit.  Plenty of excuses to give for that or reasons why, but at the end of the day I did not get it done and I have never blamed anyone for that but myself.  The great thing about this sport is you win or lose on your own merit.  Pretty simple.  Brutal at times but that is wrestling.

To this day I do not regret finishing my season/career when I did.  The coaches made a call to go with Moffit and not have me travel with the varsity any longer.  If I were owed anything (great quote by Brands by the way) I would have liked to have been included as part of that main travel team (they travel with more than just the 10 starters)  After nearly 5 years put into the program and the blood, sweat, and thousands of hours to at least continue to include me, even if it were not as THE guy would have been nice.  But back to Brand’s quote, you don’t deserve anything, and I had not earned that in their eyes, so it is what it is.  

At the end of this, Moffit went on to win the big ten tournament,so he was the best guy at the weight class, and I do not dispute that.  When that decision was made my season and career was essentially done so it was time to call it over.  I was mentally burnt out and I was not helping anyone, so it was time to move on with life.  The next morning was like a huge burden was off my back and I knew it was the right decision.  Many will disagree with me on that decision in not hanging in through the rest of the season and that is ok.  Part of my problem even thru college was searching for everyone else’s approval, and wanting to be accepted, liked and to have people proud of me.  Now that I am an old man, I am finally past that.

During my wrestling career I had my successes and I have some failures.  Some epic failures for everyone to see but I was in the fight and I do not regret my journey.  Again, no excuses.  I was there and lived it and failed.  It is not fun having it immortalized that way on ESPN but that is life.  You learn and move on.  You lose and decide how you are going to handle it.  I do not regret where I am at today and God had his plans for me, and I have accepted that.  I have 5 awesome healthy kids, a beautiful wife, and a career that has given me a lot. I have done my share of winning outside of wrestling now and I give wrestling a lot of credit for that.  It used to be hard to hear but I’m ok now seeing this “You don’t deserve anything.  The only thing you deserve is what you earn” I think Brands was right.

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