After Jarrett Degen heated up late in the 2017-18 season, securing a spot in Cleveland at the NCAA Championships, the 149-pounder received attention from fans, coaches and teammates.
Degen displayed one of the most important wrestling traits — toughness — during his redshirt freshman season.
“As far as [Degen is] concerned, that first match in Oklahoma this weekend, he bridged off his back and choked himself out,” said former Iowa State assistant coach Mike Zadick. “He was out, cold. There’s not a lot of wrestlers that you can throw out onto the mat that will literally let their head pop off their shoulders [to] not get pinned. For him to do that, and then get out and continue to fight in the match and then get up that next day — he popped a rib, and that’s no excuse, everyone has these injuries. He didn’t let it affect him. He stepped on the mat and battled.”
Entering this season, the Cyclones attempt to pair Degen’s toughness and skills with more consistency.
“One of our buzzwords that I’ve tattooed our program with is consistency, so we’ve got to get Degen on the right consistency,” said Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser.
Off the mat, Degen presents a much less intense demeanor. Outside of the wrestling room, he attends classes focused on his major: child, adult and family services. His interest in the topic stems from his childhood and mother, Jane Degen.
Jane Degen cites Jarrett Degen’s “soft-hearted” personality as one of the top reasons he began pursuing the major. She remembers referring to her son as “the mom” because Jarrett Degen always took a role in taking care of the people around him. Jane Degen and Jarrett Degen’s father — Terry Degen — noticed the giving nature their son presented from an early age.
When Jarrett Degen was around five years old, his family fostered a trio of children. Two of the kids had bicycles, but one of the girls didn’t. Degen told his parents he wanted to put his money toward a bicycle for the girl.
“His dad and I were just like ‘Yup, this kid’s got it. He knows where things are,’” Jane Degen said.
The inclusive nature is still present even as Jarrett Degen’s transitioned to college and moved out of the house. In a phone call with his mom, Degen discussed winter break plans to go skiing with his girlfriend. After revealing the plans, Degen suggested his mom let the kids in the house tag along.
“I don’t know,” Jane Degen said. “It just doesn’t seem like a lot of college kids come home and say ‘Hey, mom. Load up all your nine and 10-year-old children and bring them skiing with me and my girlfriend.’”
Jarrett Degen’s family is large to begin with, consisting of Mandi Pemberton, Richie Pemberton, BJ Pemberton, Lacey TeBay, Lyle Degen, Sawyer Degen, Taya Degen, John Montclair, Clayton Montclair and Cassidy Barker.
Along with the 11 children, the Degens fostered kids throughout Jarrett Degen's upbringing. The family currently fosters two children. The names of the foster children can't be released due to confidentiality policies.
“I don’t remember a time where there wasn’t a foster kid in the house,” Jarrett Degen said. “I want to say, over 100 [children].”
Jane Degen’s time with foster children began as lending a hand to parents with special needs children. With the adoption of Taya Degen, Jane Degen focused her time on Taya Degen, who requires tube feeding, a vibrating vest and a wheelchair.
With the added children flowing in and out of the house, Jarrett Degen shared his room with countless new kids. Growing up, Jarrett Degen — now, 21 years old — didn’t mind because he spent most of his time outside playing on his family’s 13 acres of land.
“It was just always a way of life,” Jane Degen said about the integration between Lyle and Sawyer Degen with the foster children. “It was always dinner’s at 5 [p.m.], foster kids are moving in, foster kids are moving out.”
Jarrett Degen leaned on his family growing up, and he continued to during the peak of his young college wrestling career.
In March, Iowa State’s lone NCAA Championships qualifier — Jarrett Degen — shook Arizona State redshirt senior Jason Tsirtsis’s hand. The referee blew his whistle, and the two crouched in their stances. After an underwhelming performance from the Cyclones at the Big 12 Tournament, Jarrett Degen seeked to finish the season with All-American status. All the first-time NCAA Championships qualifier needed to do was knock off Tsirtsis.
Tsirtsis — a former NCAA Champion as a freshman at Northwestern — dug Jarrett Degen a hole early with a two-point takedown in the first period. Tsirtsis built over a minute of riding time, granting him an extra point if he remained over the minute threshold and the match went the full three periods. Jarrett Degen escaped and bounced back on his feet to cut the lead to 2-1. At the start of the second and third periods, the two swapped turns starting on top. Each athlete escaped tacking on a point and pushing the score to 3-2 in favor of Tsirtsis.
Jarrett Degen wrestled two matches the previous day and two the morning before scrapping with Tsirtsis. Meanwhile, Tsirtsis battled in three matches prior to meeting Jarrett Degen, but the Iowa State 149-pounder continued to push the pace. The referee rewarded Jarrett Degen for his energy, awarding him a point on a stalling call on Tsirtsis.
The scoreboard read 3-3.
With a tied match, the potential one point off riding time loomed largely. When the third period expired, it would finish in favor of Tsirtsis because of the minute-plus of riding time. Late in the third period, Jarrett Degen took his shot. He secured Tsirtsis’s right leg and used his 6-foot-plus length to slide around behind Tsirtsis. For a split second, Jarrett Degen looked like he would snag two points and a win, but Tsirtsis slithered out from underneath the Cyclone before the takedown was called to eliminated Jarrett Degen.
After ’s elimination, he headed to the hotel he stayed at, and Jane Degen met with him. Jane Degen talked with her son and helped pick him up after the match, while Terry Degen took a breather before conversing with his son.
“I was concerned how he was going to adjust to being up so high and in so many people’s eye at the top like that, climbing so fast, and everything just — bam, and it’s done and over,” Jane Degen said. “I was just concerned about his mental health and his heart. I didn’t say much because I didn’t think he needed me to say anything. I just knew ’s kind of a momma baby, so I just knew my presence was what he needed.”
Jane Degen isn’t a stereotypical wrestling mom who unravels like a loose thread during her sons’ matches, but Terry Degen struggles to suppress himself.
“Everyone knows him as getting yellow cards and red cards and kicked out of tournaments,” Jarrett Degen said.
Regardless of the observation tendencies, Jane and Terry Degen hope to travel to another NCAA Championships, not only for Jarrett Degen, but also for Sawyer Degen. Sawyer Degen competes for the starting 141-pound spot at North Dakota State.
Sawyer Degen sports a frame similar to Jarrett Degen, standing 6-foot-2, and the younger brother shares a similar style with him.
“I think I’ve seen a video or two of [Sawyer Degen], and it looks just like [Jarrett Degen],” said senior Iowa State 165-pounder Skyler St. John. “It’s [Jarrett] Degen in a green singlet (North Dakota State’s team color).”
Sawyer Degen took notes from Jarrett Degen during their time at Belgrade High School. Jarrett Degen warmed up late in tournaments with Sawyer Degen following closely behind (sometimes to his older brother’s annoyance). Sawyer Degen continued imitating his brother and also watched Jarrett Degen’s matches to add new pieces to the always-evolving wrestling toolbox. Jarrett Degen turned out to be a good candidate to mimic. Sawyer and Jarrett Degen dominated Montana high school wrestling, combining for eight state titles.
Lyle Degen, on the other hand, concentrated more on soccer, but when his senior year rolled around (Jarrett Degen’s sophomore year and Sawyer Degen’s freshman year), Jane Degen encouraged the older son to wrestle alongside his brothers. While Sawyer and Jarrett Degen wrapped up their seasons with titles, Lyle Degen barely missed gold, finishing fourth.
The three brothers shined together, but they also built each other into better wrestlers and competitors as children.
“It was rough,” Jarrett Degen said. “Everything had to be a competition no matter what it was — chores, sports games, anything. We all hated losing, and I think that really helped into the wrestling world.
“We’d always go into the [wrestling] room, and one person would always come out crying, my dad says. Fifteen minutes later we’d go back to playing games.”
Sometimes the outcome of playing with his brothers resulted in bumps and bruises, but Jarrett Degen never got tired of it. Jarrett Degen negotiated with his brothers to get them to play or go outside with him. Jane Degen said she witnessed her middle son offer a wide array of benefits to his other brothers, ranging from money to taking some of the chore burden.
“His dad and I always thought that was pretty funny — the lengths he would go just to get somebody to go outside with him,” Jane Degen said. “Ride a unicycle, ride the motorcycle, pull him behind the four-wheeler with the sleds or skis on. He just didn’t care what he was doing; he just wanted to be outside doing it.”
Jane Degen said during long trips to wrestling tournaments and other athletic activities the vehicle pulled over to the side of the road. After Jarrett Degen’s parents had enough of the boys wrestling in the back seat, the three jumped out and ran up and down the ditches in an effort to burn some of their energy.
Outside of his brothers, who are both within 18 months of Jarrett Degen’s age, his half siblings also are close with him. With Iowa State’s schedule, Jarrett Degen competes all over the United States, and his siblings and half siblings venture to some of the bigger tournaments within driving distance.
Whether it’s sharing his bedroom, tossing his brothers around or supporting one another, Jarrett Degen’s family holds a special place in his life.
“All joking aside, it’s big, but it’s big to me,” Jarrett Degen said when first asked about his family. “Family’s very special to me.”