A Father-Son Bond Forged By Legos And Penn State Wrestling
Before he was known as wrestling Twitter’s Lego man, Ross Bendik was a pioneer for Penn State’s club wrestling program. While a student in 2002, Bendik led the effort to bring back the university’s club team and turn what was once just an open mat time into a viable student organization that remains active today.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but Bendik’s own urge to get back on the mat was his first foray into helping grow the sport, a task that is no small order and that stakeholders across the sport speculate about while discussing things like television deals, publicity event duals, and modified singlets that make young athletes feel less insecure about their bodies.
While he was resurrecting the club team, Bendik was also working on the Wrestling Affiliate Club, which still supports the varsity team and helps create the trademark Rec Hall dual-day experience. Bendik’s main responsibility was operating the venue’s old manual scoreboard that used to include wrestlers’ names. During one dual against Ohio State in 1999, he even managed to sneak his own name onto the board.
A devoted fan, Bendik never missed a dual in his four years, despite the team going 30-44, crowning only one national champion, and never finishing higher than sixth at the NCAA Championships during that time. Even after he graduated, Bendik returned to campus every summer to help with the team’s camps until he met his wife.
Years after he led club wrestling’s resurgence, Bendik found himself helping the Chicago Sports Commission put together its bid to bring the NCAA Championships to the city and market wrestling to its non-core fans. He helped design a plan that proposed putting headgear on the city’s Titans of Industry busts during the weekend tournament.
“Although we failed the bid, that experience got me thinking about ways to market wrestling,” he said. “You need to be creative when you’re marketing wrestling to people who have no idea what it is. There are so many reasons not to want to get involved with wrestling, so if you’re just on the periphery and don’t know the sport, you really need to see what it has to offer.”
Bendik has since continued to recruit new fans to the world’s oldest sport. Only now, he’s primarily selling the sport to his four-year-old sons, Roman and Luca.
Two years ago, Bendik realized he wanted his sons to take an interest in the sport he loved while growing up and the team he loyally supported during one of the worst stretches in program history. But he didn’t want to force them into it. So he translated wrestling into a form they could easily engage with: Legos.
Bendik began by painting a few of his sons’ Legos to wear Penn State singlets and used them to re-create some iconic scenes. He used the minifigs to teach them the basic rules, but drew their attention with the stories and personalities each piece conveyed. He taught them about Zain Retherford’s legendary takedown at Rec Hall in sudden victory to knock off reigning national champion Logan Stieber as a true freshman. And explained how the “good guys” wear a white stripe around their waists.
In two years, Bendik has made nearly 100 minifigs that represent everyone from the current Penn State lineup to USA Wrestling heroes to the stars of FloWrestling. Because Legos are so small, Bendik isn’t able to paint detailed faces on the minifigs. Instead, he relies on defining traits like hair color and tattoos as well as keen details such as kneepads and shoes to distinguish wrestlers.
The highlight of Bendik’s collection of creations is a scale model of the exterior of Rec Hall. He’s built similar constructions of the storied venue’s interior, as well as Michigan’s Bahna Wrestling Center and the National Wresting Hall of Fame. While impressive, each replica takes Bendik only a few hours to make, and he said he enjoys the mindless escape after a long day work as a consultant.
“I loved playing with Legos and watching Bob Ross growing up, so going through the artistic process is fun in and of itself,” Bendik said. “But I love finding new ways to turn the passion I have for this sport into something I can share with my boys.”
Although Bendik started using Legos to connect with his sons, he also shares his creations on his personal website mywrestlingart.com, Twitter, and Instagram, where he’s earned a healthy following of wrestling aficionados.
In addition to sharing stop-motion videos of the sport’s most iconic moments, Bendik regularly tweets niche content for the die-hards who eat, sleep, and breathe the sport and live in the online messageboards. He’s gotten attention from Flo and other outlets for projects such as a crowd-sourced tournament to decide which program has the best singlet and a video listing the alphabet of Penn State wrestling. Art forms other than Legos, like clay sculptures and Post-It note collages, have also appeared on his feed.
Although they are still a bit young to get on the mat, Roman and Luca already know the team’s entire starting lineup by name and sit down with their father to watch its duals on his iPad, which is ultimately what Bendik was hoping for when he started using the Legos.
What began as a hobby and way for a father to share the sport he loves with his children has inadvertently evolved into a guerrilla marketing campaign for wrestling, fueled by creativity and pure love of the game.
“The sport made a big impact on my life and how I’ve been able to approach things, so I feel like I should give a little bit back,” Bendik said. “I got something good out of it, so I want to help others understand all the good that wrestling has to offer.”
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