Q&A: Max Dean

The 197-pounder went 23-1 last season after transferring from Cornell. He's back this winter looking to defend his NCAA title.

Max Dean in wrestling uniform by Cardoni

Q: What brought you to Penn State?
Dean: They canceled the season my junior year at Cornell because of the [COVID-19] pandemic. I stayed for a year and waited it out with my teammates. But ultimately, I got to a point where things weren’t making sense to me, and I wanted to wrestle. I decided to transfer. I didn’t know where I was going to go. I started exploring my options and I had my brother Gabe reach out to Penn State. Obviously, they do a lot of winning here. I had always respected Coach Cael [Sanderson] and the way he carries himself and the program, and then they were willing to let me come. At that point, it was obvious where I needed to be. I guess the rest is kind of history.

Q: Who is the toughest opponent you’ve faced?
: I’m not going to name anybody. I can’t do that. I can’t give them the satisfaction. There’s a lot of tough guys that wrestle in the Big Ten and I have a lot of respect for all my opponents. The toughest guys I wrestle are always in [our wrestling room], by far. It’s not close. But in terms of somebody I’m going to compete against, I can’t give them that.

Q: What’s your best move?
Dean: I think my best positions are probably hand fighting and on top. And then the fan favorite is the bow-and-arrow. I do love getting that. It’s a fun one to get in a match. I think the crowd likes it and it’s also good for putting someone on their back. The bow-and-arrow, if I were going to pick a move, would be my favorite.

Q: Do you have any pre-match routines, rituals, or superstitions?
: I don’t really believe in superstitions. Ritual and routine for sure. I don’t listen to any music. I like to just be calm and be present. Usually two matches before (I’m going to wrestle), I put my singlet on, and then one match before I put my headgear on. I like a good, hard high-five with my coaches before I go out. Other than that, just being calm and present and not taking myself too seriously. Just letting myself get focused.

Q: How has your family made you a better wrestler?
: There’s a bunch of obvious ways and a bunch of little ways. They’ve helped me a better person. I think the best way to be a better wrestler is to be a great person, and I think the harder you work, the more honest you are, the more integrity you have, that’s going to translate to the mat. I’ve had great role models and support from my family. My parents, grandparents, older brother, younger sister, all exude that. My dad [David] wrestled for the University of Minnesota and he was a multiple All-American [in 1987 and 1989] and an NCAA finalist. And my older brother [Gabe] won NCAAs twice [in 2015 and 2016 at Cornell] and was a good competitor and athlete. Just being around them and having their expertise growing up has helped me. I think maybe even more important than learning any wrestling from them has been their perspective. The truth is, at this level, most people know how to wrestle. I think what separates great competitors from average is the ones who have great perspective. 

Q: What are one or two things you’ve embraced about Penn State beyond wrestling?
: There’s a lot. I love it here. I was kind of late in my collegiate career transferring and had already done quite a bit of school at Cornell. I wasn’t sure … it’s a little bit like breaking up with a girlfriend. Will I ever love again? (laughs) But coming here I’ve really enjoyed my experience. The campus is beautiful. The “We Are” culture has been a lot of fun. Being part of a big sports school is something I hadn’t experienced before. Obviously, I spent most of my time here in the wrestling room and around my teammates, but I’ve met a lot of other great people. I’m definitely proud to be a Nittany Lion on and off the mat.

Q: I’ve heard you’re pretty good around the grill. What’s your favorite thing to grill?
: You can’t beat a good ribeye. I like trying different things. I love smoking and grilling meat, which I guess works well into my diet—getting all that protein. But a good ribeye. I’ve been reverse searing it. I like to smoke it for an hour, hour and a half, and get the griller or cast iron really hot and just sear it on both sides.

Q: What are some goals you have after wrestling?
: My family has always been pretty entrepreneurial. They own some small businesses and run them. My older brother has gotten into that. He just left the wrestling scene a year and a half ago. He’s into some real estate and other things. I feel that I’m business minded and I think in that landscape, I could still be competitive, and build things and work and take a lot of what I’ve learned from wrestling into that. Another thing is having a family. I got married over the summer. And it’s not in the next year or two—I’ll be finishing school and competing—but I definitely want to have a family. 

Q: Do you have any pet peeves?
There’s obvious ones, like bad drivers or pedestrians. I really appreciate my fellow classmates, but some of them, just, use a crosswalk! You have people who will walk out into the middle of traffic, and they’ve got their headphones on and looking at their phone. I’m like, “You’re going to get hit by a car!” So, I’d say bad drivers, but there’s probably people out there that would say I’m a bad driver (laughs).