Devin Onwugbufor walks with a limp, but that’s understandable.
Before becoming a Class 5A champion Saturday, he was an infant with a stunted growth plate, a high school freshman with six surgeries under his belt, a junior with a torn ACL, a senior with a torn meniscus and a boy with only eight toes – four on each foot.
“I was born like that, but I tell people I was bit by a shark,” he said. “It sounds cooler.”
But don’t call his state title a miracle.
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When the Maize 138-pounder was born, his left leg was five inches shorter than his right, a massive disparity for an infant.
Doctors had to operate. He couldn’t use his legs. That was how he became a wrestler years later.
As a kindergartener, Onwugbufor was put in a full-body cast and forced into a wheelchair. Too many surgeries had added up on his body.
He was in line for lunch one day, and another child tried to cut in line and started picking on Onwugbufor. Bryce Hughbanks’ son acted.
He got the kid away from Onwugbufor, kept his spot in line and made a new friend.
Later that day, Hughbanks, now the assistant wrestling coach at Maize, got a call from Onwugbufor’s parents. They were thanking his son for standing up for theirs, and they invited Hughbanks and his son to their house.
A few days later, the Hughbanks met Devin.
He was impressed with the kid’s likeability and maturity for his age. But maybe mostly, he was taken with his arms.
Onwugbufor had arms much larger than other kids his age.
“He crawled with his arms for years because he couldn’t walk,” Hughbanks said. “I said ‘That’s a wrestler; I’ll turn that kid into a wrestler.’ ”
When Onwugbufor got into the wrestling room, he excelled with his upper body. His legs needed work, as they always did, but he had potential and won his first state tournament as a 6-year-old.
He started sparring with Devin Gomez, a top athlete from a young age out of Valley Center. Gomez was a couple of years younger, but they meshed well.
When Onwugbufor got to high school at Northwest, he was reaching his wrestling potential. He entered 106-pound bracket at the regional tournament as a 30-9 freshman and made it to the third-place match, qualifying for the state tournament.
A year later, he was seeing doctors again; it was the ACL tear. He didn’t wrestle his entire sophomore year.
He fought back, and as a junior, he won his Class 6A regional tournament a6 126 pounds and placed third at state with Northwest. But something was missing.
Hughbanks helped coach Onwugbufor his entire wrestling career, but he was at Maize.
Onwugbufor still lived at the same house Hughbanks met him at in Maize, and with an open enrollment, he transferred to be with Hughbanks again.
“Second day of practice, boom, tear my meniscus,” Onwugbufor said. “I thought I was done for sure.”
He was out for the first two months of his senior season, but he came back again.
He finished the regular season 15-1 heading into the Class 5A Valley Center regional tournament. There was some worry in the Maize camp.
“Last year, he only got 15 matches in when you normally get 50,” Hughbanks said. “And this year, he only got 15 matches in when you normally get 50.”
It didn’t matter. Onwugbufor pinned his first opponent in under a minute, earned a 17-2 technical fall in the second round and an 11-3 major decision in the semifinals.
His old friend waited in the final. Gomez had become one of most exciting young prospects in Kansas with a third-place state finish as a freshman and a 37-5 sophomore season.
The regional final went into a tiebreak, and Gomez escaped for a 2-1 win.
A week later, they met again in the Class 5A 138-pound final. This bout was even better.
After a pair of escapes during the first three periods, the match went to overtime again. With 10 seconds left, Gomez stepped heavy with his left foot, and Onwugbufor snapped down and swept to the left. He planted his foot on the mat and bowled into Gomez. The move was part of the game plan.
With five seconds left, Onwugbufor became a state champion.
He looked to the Maize fans and pounded his chest as he yelled. It all came out.
“I’ve choked too many times before this, so I knew it was my time,” he said. “I got the takedown, and I was so into the match that I forgot it was in overtime.”
Onwugbufor’s dad, Ike, rushed to the bottom of the stands. He flipped over the railing in front of the bleachers and climbed over the hockey rink wall just below.
A security guard tired to stop him, but Ike wanted so badly to hug his son. He pushed by but was grabbed and taken out of Hartman Arena as boos rained down on the security team.
“If you know my dad, you know he’s our hype man,” Onwugbufor said.
Ike was eventually let back in, and he hugged his son. Onwugbufor said that hug felt like nothing but sacrifice.
Ike works as an avionics flight technician at Hawker for 10 hours a day. After work, he goes to Wichita State to work toward his exercise science degree. After class, he comes home to study.
He goes to sleep about 2 a.m. and wakes up three hours later to do it all again.
“He graduates in May, same month as me,” Onwugbufor said.
To say the odds were against Onwugbufor is an understatement. Forgotten in all of his adversity are his two missing toes.
Onwugbufor still walks with a hobble, and there are still five-inch scars on his leg. But his official commitment to wrestle at Fort Hays State only further represents the challenges he has overcome.
But, again, don’t call it a miracle, Hughbanks said.
“Maybe just because he was here to do it and be able to compete, but I never have a doubt in my mind if he’s on the mat,” Hughbanks said. “This is what we planned on.
“I’ve coached wrestling for 25 years, and he’s my No. 1.”