A drive through a picturesque campus takes you past ancient stone buildings, tidy rows of houses, and vast athletic fields. All the while, the 15 MPH speed limit helps you avoid the groups and individual runners darting by in reflective jackets, sweats and shorts.
The difference here is that it’s 20 degrees out, and snowing sideways — hard. And it’s not yet 6 a.m.
Welcome to West Point, home of the United States Military Academy.
The morning begins as it always does at Army — with cadets trickling out of their housing units for formation at 6:30 a.m. Though it’s not Thursday, every cadet emerges dressed in green camouflage shirts and pants, a black fleece jacket, a black cap and thick tan boots — Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs). Once senior officers salute their commanders that everyone has been accounted for, the 4,400-person corps of cadets turns and heads in for breakfast.
Athletes sit with their company at breakfast, and their teams at lunch. All-American wrestler Matthew Kyler is part of Company F3, which includes cadets from all classes. Plebes (freshman) sit at one end of the table and start the meal by asking what everyone would like to drink. The meals are chosen daily by a nutritionist, and are served family-style.
It’s a very efficient system, and Cadet Kyler is a senior with a class at 7:30 p.m. So at the first opportunity to be excused, he quickly finishes his food and heads back to his room. On the way, he jokes with his roommate, fellow “firstie” (senior) Richard Niedbala, about being really efficient at cleaning their room in 5-10 minutes. You just never know when a random inspection might come, and they expect a clean room.
It would not be hyperbole to say that Kyler was destined to attend West Point.
“I wanted to come here when I was little,” says Kyler, who aspired to be a cadet all through grade school. “I got away from that when I got a little older. Then I came up here on a recruiting visit, really liked it and felt like I fit in real well with the team. I just felt at home here.”
At Clearfield (PA) Area High School, Kyler went 136-13 as a three-time state placewinner (state champ his junior year), a two-time national freestyle champion and a two-time Greco-Roman All-American. He was considering local powerhouses Penn State, Lehigh and Penn, when Army approached him.
That much was borne out in how quickly Matt adjusted to the West Point culture upon his arrival. He laughs as he tells the story of itching to get out on the mats during the weekly mass athletics period of BEAST (a month-long period of physical and academic training that all plebes go through before beginning freshman year at West Point).
“Once the academic year began when I was a plebe and I was busy and working out, I felt it was normal routine,” Kyler says. “I was going to school and wrestling, just like high school.” Then he grins and adds that wrestling practice is his favorite part of the day.
A soft snow falls on the partially frozen Hudson River as light haze settles over campus. A passing boat announces its presence with a horn blast that shakes the stillness of this late winter morning.
Normally, Cadet Kyler has 4-5 classes a day. Tuesday is a light day, however, with two early classes in the morning, and a lifting session and practice in the afternoon.
Being late to class here is a bad idea, so he trudges through the cold with other cadets to the engineering building for “Topics in Civil Engineering.” Civil Engineering is Matt’s major, and as any cadet on campus will tell you, one of the most academically rigorous. Today’s topic? China’s Expanding Economic Influence, and its Ramifications in the South China Sea.
“Academics here are pretty tough,” Kyler says. “I didn’t struggle too much until I got older and into my major. Civil engineering is a lot of work, and it can be tough balancing the wrestling and the school. The first two years here, I was really good at balancing all three. Now, I want to do well in wrestling and in school, and the military stuff… At West Point, it’s hard to balance all three [simultaneously] and do all three well.”
Still, Kyler has somehow managed to thrive in all three. His class schedule complete, he grabs a quick bagel with light cream cheese from a place where even the receipts read “Beat Navy” at the bottom.
Back in his room, Kyler jokes with Niedbala about the differences between the tiny rural hamlet of Clearfield and Niedbala’s native Geneva, IL, a sprawling suburban village west of Chicago. Kyler will make his first visit there when he attends Niedbala’s wedding in June.
He walks by the towering new $65 million, 148,000-square foot library (Thomas Jefferson Hall) on the way to Arvin Gym, home of the wrestling facilities. He passes through the maze of wooden lockers and forgoes the leather couches to settle into a desk chair in the wrestlers’ room for an interview while Sportscenter plays silently in the background.
After the interview, he’ll excuse himself to grab a quick bite to eat and study a bit before returning to Arvin for 4:30 p.m. practice.
“[Matt] knows exactly who he is and what he wants to be, and that’s partially why he’s been successful,” fellow senior co-captain Ryan Mergen says. “He knows he wants to be a national champion, so that’s what he works for. He is completely committed and doesn’t deviate from what he should be doing. He’s a good kid and a great example.”
As far as wrestling goes, Kyler’s impact on campus was felt immediately. As a freshman at 141 pounds, he went 31-12 and won the Mike Natvig Award (team OW) for the Black Knights, finishing second at EIWAs before losing two close matches at Nationals.
He bounced back in a big way as a sophomore, setting an Army single-season record for wins at 43-8 and claiming the EIWA title at 141. At Nationals in St. Louis, he thrilled a capacity crowd by beating four seeded wrestlers in comeback fashion, before eventually losing to Iowa State’s Nick Gallick in the fifth-place match. His 7-6 win over Cody Cleveland (UTC) ensured that he’d become another Army All-American.
“Matt just doesn’t accept losing,” Coach Barbee says. “He always believes that he can win and he’s willing to put in the effort to do so. He’s been a mat rat for four years; drilled, ran, lifted — done everything he can in the last four years to make himself as good as he could be.”
Kyler moved up to 149 pounds for his junior year, and won his third straight Mike Natvig Award by going 40-7 and reaching Nationals for a third time. He lost a heartbreaker to Navy’s Bryce Saddoris in the EIWA finals on a controversial call, then went 1-2 at Nationals to end his season.
Currently ranked No. 10 by InterMat at 149 pounds, Kyler has adjusted more to the weight class and sits at 27-3 heading into the EIWA Championships at Lehigh. He hoped to add to his career record of 141-30 by compiling his third straight season of 40+ wins, but sickness and some minor injuries have seemingly derailed that ambition. Still, he leads the team with 19 bonus point victories, and his coaches believe he looks more comfortable at the weight this year.
His goals in his senior year are straightforward: first win an EIWA title, then a National Championship at 149 pounds. No matter what happens, he will graduate as Army’s all-time leader in wins and one of the best wrestlers ever at West Point.
“When Matt walks out on the mat, he knows that he’s going to win and that his moves won’t be stopped,” senior 197-pounder Richard Starks says. “You can see it in his eyes.”
There’s no question that attending West Point changes an individual, almost always for the better.
Upon graduation, Cadet Matthew Kyler will spend the first part of next year doing military drills down at Fort Benning (Ga.), and the second part of the year as the wrestling coach at the US Military Prep School (USMAPS) in Fort Monmouth, NJ. An admittedly old school guy, Kyler says he will definitely don a suit for every match, regardless of opponent or importance.
After next year, Kyler must decide whether he wants to enter the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) and train in Colorado Springs for international wrestling competition like former Black Knights All-American Phil Simpson, or serve in the Army. In the Army, he would serve as an infantry officer for four years, then spend the next five in the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The decision about whether or go into WCAP or the Army is a lot more difficult now than I would have anticipated three years ago,” says Kyler, who adds that he feels obligated to repay the government for their investment into his military and academic education the past four years.
If anything, West Point has only reaffirmed values that Matt already had about proper conduct and virtuous behavior. The Honor code — which states, “a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do” — is the gold standard at Army.
“It’s a big part of West Point,” Kyler says. “People know that if you went to West Point, that you’ll be honest [and that] they can trust you at face value. That’s a very important thing and becoming a rare thing in America. It’s really one of the things that makes West Point a special place.”
Indeed, there are many parallels that one can draw between success as a cadet and as a wrestler. Starks says that you need to know how to apply those similar characteristics to each individual pursuit, and Kyler agrees.
“I’ve had multiple officers tell me that some of their best lieutenants were college wrestlers,” Kyler says. “They weren’t necessarily West Point guys, but they told me that they knew if they got a wrestler that he was going to be a tough, hard-nosed person who knew what hard work was, and they knew he was going to be fit and confident about his abilities. I think wrestlers work hard and are very self-driven [and] you need that to be successful in anything.”
No matter what path he chooses, Kyler is proud of his decision to attend the USMA, one that expanded his worldview and honed his leadership skills.
“When I first came here, I was just a [good wrestler] from a small town in PA,” Kyler says. “I got to West Point and met a lot of different people who came from all over. Wrestling was the No. 1 thing on my mind at all times. And wrestling is still very important now, but I also realize that there are things more important than wrestling. I’ve just grown up and become more responsible … I know exactly what I want in [wrestling and life].”