Two weeks into the Maryland wrestling team’s preseason, David-Brian Whisler received a text message from coach Kerry McCoy. He wanted to see the redshirt freshman in his office.
Not knowing what to expect, Whisler headed there. “Any time you get a text from coach McCoy saying come to the office, you’re like ‘uh-oh,'” he said. In the office, McCoy, his former club wrestling coach and a family friend confronted him about his father, David Whisler Sr.
The day before, his father endured severe migraines. David Whisler Sr.’s wife, Alysa, drove him to the Cleveland Clinic, about an hour away from the family’s home in Warren, Ohio. After undergoing CT scans, he received the diagnosis:
Stage-four melanoma tumors in his brain, lung and calf.
“I was just shocked,” Whisler said.
Five years ago, his father was diagnosed with low-grade melanoma but declared cancer free shortly after, as doctors removed a mole behind his ear. Now, as Whisler was beginning his second year in College Park, his father was sick again.
“The first thing that pops in my head is, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be five hours away from my family, my mom, my sister, and my dad,” Whisler said.
But his father insisted he stay at school, and he’s made sure to find ways to watch Whisler wrestle in person throughout the season. This weekend, he’ll support his son as he competes in the Big Ten tournament as Maryland’s 197-pounder starter.
“The very first words that my husband said to me were, ‘We always knew this could happen, and David-Brian is not to come home,” Alysa Whisler said. “He said we’ve worked to hard to get him where he’s at, and he needs to do what he needs to do. He needs his education and he needs to wrestle.”
Whisler and his father began bonding over wrestling when he was 5 years old. In sixth grade, the pair came up with long-term wrestling goals.
The first aspiration was to win a state title, which Whisler did in 2015. Then came a Division I wrestling scholarship, preferably in the Big Ten. He joined the Terps program in 2015.
Now, Whisler is the 197-pound starter with three more years to improve. He’s glad he followed his father’s orders.
“In my head, that was kind of hard for me,” Whisler said. “I was like, ‘This is so dumb.’ Dark thoughts go in your head, like, ‘This is so dumb, why am I away from my family?’
“But this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Not being able to consistently watch Whisler wrestle frustrated his father. He never missed his son’s matches before.
He could see most conference matches with a Big Ten Network Plus subscription, but that wasn’t enough.
“He’s a lunatic,” Alysa Whisler joked.
After undergoing immunotherapy the night before Maryland’s Red vs. Black Wrestle-Offs on Oct. 30, he insisted on driving to College Park despite past experiences with sickness following those treatments. So, they got in the car and drove five hours to watch Whisler defeat 197-pounder Garrett Wesneski.
Before the Midlands Championships Dec. 29-30 in Evanston, Illinois, Whisler’s father underwent his first session of chemotherapy. He insisted on going to see Whisler, but his wife refused to take him.
After he returned home from his treatment at 7 p.m., he contacted his friend, who picked him up around 3 a.m. and drove through the night. He spent the entire weekend in Illinois.
“He thinks he pulls one over when he says ‘I text so-and-so,'” Alysa Whisler said, “but little does he know they text me on the back end asking me if it’s OK!”
Whisler’s father has also seen his son wrestle at home against Rutgers, at Penn State and at George Mason. Whisler estimates his father has been to around half his matches this season.
“Before he was even diagnosed, last season when I was redshirting, we didn’t even know how many matches he would make being healthy and fine,” Whisler said. “We live five hours away, that’s not like a ‘hop in the car, let’s go down to Maryland and watch a match.’ He’s just so persistent.”
Whisler said his father has his “good days and bad days.” Sometimes his treatment leaves him worn down, but other times, he still acts like a “goofball and a clown.”
When Whisler returned home shortly after hearing the diagnosis, he visited the hospital. While his father was half-asleep in his intensive care unit, a janitor came in to mop the floor. He spoke up.
“He said ‘Excuse me,'” Whisler recalled, laughing. “You missed a spot.”
Still, his mother knows how difficult it is for Whisler. She has a hard time giving him updates on his father’s condition, knowing he’d “drop everything” and come home to help out. She wants Whisler to focus on school and wrestling instead of worrying about his father.
And when he struggles in his studies or in training, he has plenty of motivation.
“Whenever it gets hard, I know he wants the best for me and he’s proud of me no matter what,” Whisler said. “He’s going through a tougher battle right now than I am, so if he can do it, I can do it. This is what he wants.”
When Whisler first came home after his father’s diagnosis, he took one of his gold necklaces back to school with him. Whenever he’s tempted to give up at something, Whisler puts his hand on that necklace.
It reminds Whisler what his father is going through, motivating him to keep pushing forward.
“People have great bonds with their parents,” Alysa Whisler said, “but theirs is something else.”