STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford wrestling coach Jason Borrelli did his best to discourage Donovan Halpin from trying out for the team, but the walk-on from Petaluma, Calif., was determined to compete. Four years later, Halpin is one of four Cardinal captains and has made a lasting impression on his coach and teammates.
“He’s kind of like the Energizer Bunny – go, go, go,” Borrelli said. “He has incredible work ethic. I couldn’t think of too many guys that have been in our program for the last six years that I could say are any better.”
The 5-foot-9 Halpin, who wrestles at 149 pounds, was a four-year letterman and three-time captain at Casa Grande High School, but didn’t even place in the state meet. Borrelli heard about him from a friend who coached near Halpin’s school, but never gave him much thought until Halpin introduced himself at an event.
“I remember him telling me that he had gotten into Stanford,” said Borrelli. “We kind of looked up his results and we weren’t that high on him. I tried to talk him out of it at first. Make it sound so horrible that I’m going to scare him away. So that tells you something about his mind. He’s an incredible kid.”
Halpin was so grateful to be admitted to Stanford, he decided to shoot for the moon.
“I’d been rejected from Cal Poly and it looked like UCLA was where I was going to be headed,” he said. “And UCLA doesn’t even have a wrestling program.”
Halpin will never forget the day he received the good news from Stanford.
“I saw the email and didn’t want to open it at first,” said Halpin. “I was going to Taekwondo practice (he holds a third-degree black belt) and was like, ‘I’ll open it later.’ I was kind of assuming it was, ‘Thanks for the application, we can’t admit you.’ My mom was like, “No. no. Open it anyway.’ So I open it and it says, ‘Congratulations.’ I sat up and jumped. And my mom said, ‘You aren’t messing with me, right?’ I was ecstatic.”
How did Halpin make such a good impression on admissions?
“I think it was because of my work ethic,” he said. “In high school, I was very regimented and very broad. I did a lot of outside activities and that kind of mentality carried over to college and onto the wrestling mat. I approached every day like I have to put in as much work as I can.”
Two weeks before orientation, Halpin broke his ankle wrestling at a local junior college.
“So the odds were kind of stacked even more against me,” said Halpin. “But I really had a passion for it. I just said, ‘If it doesn’t turn out to be my thing, no problem.’ ”
It didn’t take long for Halpin to impress Borrelli.
“We just started watching him on the sideline and saw the things he was doing: the lifting regiment he was going through, the discipline, the way he was interacting with other injured athletes and putting them through workouts,” Borrelli said. “We were just like, ‘Maybe we’re on to something special here.’ ’’
Halpin figured as long as he was rehabbing, he might as well push his injured teammates as well.
“He was just running them through the ringer,” said Borrelli. “Having them do pull-ups, pushups, curls and bear crawls. If he wasn’t doing that, they would probably just be sitting on the sidelines watching practice.”
Teammate Dan Scherer, who lived in the same freshman dorm as Halpin and has roomed with him the last three years, figured he wouldn’t last long.
“A couple weeks, he’ll be gone,” Scherer remembers thinking. “That’s what a lot of other walk-ins in the past have done.”
Not Halpin. After two months of rehab, he worked his way into the lineup. Wrestling mostly at 141 pounds, he posted a 4-5 record and placed fourth in the California Collegiate Open. He scored his first dual win against Carlos Castro of Arizona State, earning a 14-3 major decision.
“That little taste of getting into the varsity lineup made me love it and brought me back the next year,” Halpin said. “From there, I knew it was going to be a minimum of a four-year commitment.”
Scherer said Halpin quickly gained respect from the rest of the team.
“He caught up quickly,” he said. “This guy is no joke. He’s going to be here for the long run.”
That came as no surprise to Isaac Raya, his high school coach.
“Not at all,” he said. “I knew he could walk on the team based on his work ethic. It’s a daily thing for Donovan.”
Halpin saw spot duty as a sophomore and junior. Twice, the product design major earned Pac-12 All-Academic Second Team honors.
Admittedly, Halpin isn’t the most athletically-gifted wrestler on the mat. He didn’t take up the sport until eighth grade and has competed without a scholarship. But he’s a quick study, has toughness and heart, and realized that hard work is a great equalizer, using that mentality to beat some of the nation’s Top 20 recruits.
“That’s really what it came down to for me,” he said. “I’ll work hard and grind guys.”
Raya recalled a match against rival Healdsburg when Halpin was a senior.
“He got injured in the first 30 seconds,” he said. “I wanted to pull him, but he wouldn’t come out. That’s what wrestling is all about … when you keep going. I’m so proud of him.”
Halpin is a wrestling junkie.
“He loves everything about the sport,” said Scherer. “I always see him watching wrestling on the internet. He wants to learn about everything. There’s rarely a time when he’s not talking about it.”
Prior to the season, Borrelli asked his team to send in three nominations for captain. Two-time All-American Ryan Mango emailed one name: Halpin.
“That was unreal to me,” said Halpin.
Not to Borrelli.
“He is so grateful to be a part of the team and cherishes everything that he gets,” he said. “He’s a coaches dream.”
Added Scherer, also a team captain, “He has a great attitude all the time. That’s kind of contagious.”
Maintaining weight can be a struggle for many wrestlers. Halpin’s vices are donuts and bacon.
“Once you get out of the groove of eating unhealthy, it’s not that difficult to stay on a healthy track,” he said. “You feel better when you eat better.”
Halpin will complete his degree this spring and has applied for a co-term next year in management science and engineering. He has embraced his Stanford experience and wants to stick around another year to watch and help the younger wrestlers on the team.
“Just the start-up culture at Stanford is so cool to be around,” he said. “And the energy of innovation and creating new technology makes this a fun place to hang out.”
His major advisor is professor David M. Kelley, founder, chairman and managing partner of IDEO, whose company’s many accomplishments was creating the first mouse for Apple.
“It’s fun just talking to him – he has open office hours,” said Halpin. “He has so many good ideas.”
While Halpin is tight with his teammates, he also remains close to his freshman dorm mates.
“That’s one thing Stanford has done really well is integrate student-athletes with people who don’t participate in athletics,” said Halpin. “You get a real sense of community your freshman year.”
Friday night’s dual against Simpson is Senior Night. Halpin knows it will be emotional.
“Most definitely,” said Halpin. “Honestly, this has always been my dream school. In the eighth grade, I wrote a letter in class and said I wanted to go to Stanford. It really is just like a dream. It will be full of emotion because everything that I wanted came true.”