The Dean surname holds substantial weight on East Hill. Two-time NCAA Champion. Four-time All-American. Gabe Dean ’17 exhibited dominance at 184 pounds in collegiate wrestling and won’t be forgotten soon.
Gabe helped define part of Cornell wrestling’s dominance in recent years, but he has now graduated. And while he remains at the Friedman Wrestling Center as an assistant coach, he won’t be the Dean that fans of Cornell wrestling will be focusing on going forward.
Stepping right in and taking Gabe’s place on the Cornell wrestling roster at 184 is his younger brother, freshman No. 11 Max Dean. And as Gabe describes it, “It’s Max’s path now.”
Max has set himself apart early, sporting 25 wins — including 13 bonus point victories — and just two losses, a more than impressive record for a freshman. But despite his improbable rookie success, Max has large shoes to fill, and people have continually compared him to his older brother. But to Max, the comparisons are noise and nothing else.
“All of that is just a distraction,” Max said. “I take all of those things and set it aside. It’s a distraction. It has nothing to do with going out there and grabbing a guy’s leg and taking him down.”
As a two-time Michigan state champion, it’s not such a surprise that Max is finding early success at the collegiate level. And yet, many speculate whether Max will follow in Gabe’s footsteps and bring glory to Cornell wrestling. But according to Gabe, his accolades, for now, don’t matter.
“I’m done,” Gabe said. “[Max’s] needs are the most important in regards to wrestling and we don’t talk about [comparisons] because he’s a different person than I am, and when you start comparing, it’s a distraction from what he needs to do.”
Max credits head coach Rob Koll, associate head coach Damion Hahn and assistant coach Mike Grey ’11 for helping establish himself as his own person.
“They’ve never made me feel like I was [Gabe’s] little brother,” Max said. “I came here and we were going to focus on what I do while wrestling. I’ve always been my own person here and I think that’s part of why I love it here so much.”
Max’s struggle against comparisons to his brother did not start on East Hill. He’s had to deal with standing in Gabe’s shadow his entire life, long before joining his brother in Ithaca last year when he started training at the Finger Lakes Wrestling Center. Max and Gabe grew up in western Michigan, and both were successful athletes who participated in many of the same activities.
No matter where the parallels have been drawn, within or outside of their athletic endeavors, Max and Gabe have been dealing with it their whole lives. That’s just the way things are with siblings. However, Max has learned to focus on himself.
“Part of my growth mentally as a competitor and as a person off the mat … was realizing that [Gabe’s] his own person and that I am my own person,” Max said.
Gabe, on the other hand, came to Cornell with a fresh slate — a luxury Max has not been able to enjoy. The brothers’ father, David Dean, had wrestled for Minnesota in the late 1980’s and was a two-time All American. But no Dean family member had wrestled competitively for some time, and certainly not at Cornell, when Gabe started competing in college.
“My dad was a good wrestler but that was 100 years ago,” Gabe joked.
“When there’s a big gap like that, you don’t feel it,” he added. “But credit to a guy [Max’s] age being able to separate those things and being able to eliminate that type of distraction. Especially with it being so fresh.”
The love of the game
Growing up with a father who wrestled and later coached in the Big Ten, it was hard for the Dean brothers to avoid the world of wrestling. But both Max and Gabe feel that it was always their choice to pursue the sport themselves.
However, the two both feel that they were, to an extent, classically conditioned by their father to appreciate the sport to some degree.
“You knew that if you were going to wrestling practice you were going to 7-11 after for a Slurpee,” Gabe said.
And while it was never truly forced on them, the Dean brothers became grapplers at an early age.
“Not taking it real seriously, my dad wasn’t a crazy parent by any means, but I was going to … practices and rolling around since I can remember,” Max said.
The brothers wrestle because they grew to love the sport themselves, not because anybody else — their father or otherwise — forced them into it.
Max believes it’s this independent love for the game that has contributed to the Dean brothers’ success in their respective wrestling careers.
“I think the reason that we find success is that I know I don’t need to wrestle for my dad, I could call my dad and tell him I don’t want to wrestle anymore and he wouldn’t love me any differently,” he said.
Max and Gabe never wrestled against each other, being three years apart, and it was maybe for the best.
“I think it’s pretty healthy,” Gabe said. “I don’t think it’s ever good when you have two brothers who wrestle with each other all the time.”
As a result, they have been able to maintain a great relationship outside the wrestling room, acting as each other’s best friend.
Just like any pair of brothers or best friends would do, Max and Gabe off the mat hang out, eat snacks and play video games. Even though Max enjoys playing the hot new video game Fortnite and Gabe prefers Call of Duty, it’s evident the duo enjoys nothing more than simply spending time with each other.
“We try to stick to the rules,” Gabe said. “We leave the wrestling in here, and be goofballs and be regular kids outside the wrestling room.”
Max was more than happy to have his brother around when he started his new college life 10 hours away from Michigan.
“I definitely believe in myself as a person, but it definitely helped,” Max said. “As I said, I just love hanging out with him.”
And Gabe was more than happy to have his younger brother join him on the hill.
“[It’s] like Christmas every day having your brother out here; [it’s] phenomenal,” Gabe added.
Max’s time to shine
Gabe’s achievements will go down in the Cornell wrestling and athletics history. His name will forever hang in the rafters.
But as Gabe and the rest of the program will tell you, it’s Max’s time to shine. And no one in Max’s corner is a more ardent supporter of him than his older brother.
“I love and care about Max so much,” Gabe said. “I just want so badly for him to accomplish the things that he wants to accomplish for him, it’s not about me.”
The two-time national champion has found it mentally more difficult to watch from the corner than to compete on the nation’s biggest stage.
“I definitely get more butterflies from being a coach than a competitor,” Gabe said. “You’d think it would be the opposite. When you care about these guys so much and when your brother’s out there, you wrestle with them … in the corner.”
Max has unwavering emotional support that most young grapplers do not have the privilege of receiving when starting their collegiate wrestling careers. On top of that, Max has the opportunity to learn a thing or two about wrestling from his coach.
“There is nobody who knows more about winning at the 184-pound weight class in college than the guy I’ve got at my disposal here,” Max said. “[I try] to use him for the details, his expertise. I am going to wrestle a lot of the same guys he wrestled, he knows what they do, and the things I need to do in order to be successful.”
The support from Gabe and the rest of the team is paying off tremendously. Max is ranked 11th in the nation at 184 pounds and climbing. The freshman continues to win match after match for Cornell, offering the program high hopes for the remainder of the season and the years to come.
Max has made a name for himself, and with many more matches left to wrestle for the Red.
It’s no longer “Gabe Dean’s little brother”; it’s Max Dean.