After ‘heartbreaking’ injury, Billy Higgins battles back to finish UNK career the right way

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Billy Higgins was ranked No. 1 in the country heading into last year’s NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships.

With a 24-2 record and zero losses against DII opponents, the Co-MIAA Wrestler of the Year was the favorite to win the title at 184 pounds.

He picked up a pair of victories to reach the national semifinals, setting up a big Saturday for the University of Nebraska at Kearney All-American.

Then everything changed in an instant.

Higgins, who battled turf toe throughout the season, was warming up with teammate Austin Eldredge when he suffered a much more serious injury. He tore two ligaments in his left foot, with one severing completely and detaching from the bone.

“The doctor described it like an ACL tear in your big toe,” Higgins explained.

He wanted to finish the tournament, but the injury’s impact was obvious. Higgins lost his semifinal match 3-2 and was pinned in the consolation round. He forfeited the final match to finish sixth.

“It was extremely disappointing,” Higgins said. “We had put in a lot of work, and for it to go that way, that was really heartbreaking for myself and my family.”

At that point, Higgins could have called it a career. He had already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports management, and he knew the road to recovery would be long and trying.

But that’s not the kind of person he is.

“I felt like I owed it to myself and I owed it more to Dalton and Andrew to come back and try,” Higgins said, referencing UNK head coach Dalton Jensen and assistant coach Andrew Sorenson. “After everything they’ve done for me, I didn’t want to leave them high and dry.”

‘There’s always something else to reach’

An only child raised outside Council Bluffs, Iowa, Higgins has been wrestling since he was a young boy.

His father Bill, a former Omaha Police Department homicide detective, introduced him to the sport and enrolled him in the Golden Eagles Wrestling Club in nearby Underwood, Iowa.

“He told me that I just had to do it until middle school to learn self-defense,” Higgins recalled.

Wrestling quickly became a passion for both of them.

“By the time I turned 10 or 11, he was retired, so I was able to go around the country and do every little youth wrestling tournament you could imagine,” Higgins said. “My dad liked to brag to people that he got me 1,000 wrestling matches before I went to high school. That was kind of our claim to fame.”

Higgins competed in other sports, too, but there was something different about wrestling. It’s one-on-one, a sport where he directly controls the outcome.

“It’s something you can always get better at,” he said. “There’s no one who’s ever going to be the best in the world all the time. There’s always something else to reach. It’s never-ending.”

After attending Lewis Central as an elementary student and Tri-County as a middle schooler, Higgins enrolled at wrestling powerhouse Omaha Skutt Catholic for high school. He was a two-time Class B state champion for the Skyhawks, helping Skutt push its team title streak to seven in a row.

Higgins also trained at MWC Wrestling Academy in Papillion, one of the top wrestling clubs in the country. He was a two-time All-American at the Junior National Wrestling Championships and a National High School Coaches Association national champion.

That success led to a Division I opportunity at the University of Northern Colorado, where he spent three years.

Following a redshirt season, Higgins won 10 matches for the Bears in 2019-20 and was the team’s 174-pound starter for the Big 12 Championships. They asked him to drop down to 165 pounds as a sophomore, a season significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wasn’t happy there,” Higgins said. “I was cutting a lot of weight. I was really far away from home. And then COVID happened and I basically missed an entire season of wrestling.

“Honestly, I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth about the sport and I was just ready to come home.”

Higgins entered the transfer portal in spring 2021 and reached out to Jensen and Sorenson, who were involved with his national teams during high school. Nick James and Matt Malcom, another southwest Iowa native and former Golden Eagles Wrestling Club and MWC Wrestling Academy member, hosted him during his campus visit.

“I clicked with all of those guys and decided that I didn’t want to end my career on a bad note,” Higgins said. “I figured I’d give it a shot to come wrestle closer to home in Nebraska.”

At UNK, Higgins found the leadership and support he needed to regain his love and passion for the sport. He values the “family aspect” and personal relationships he’s developed with his teammates and coaches.

“They care just as much about you off the mat as they do when you’re on it,” he said.

On the mat, Higgins is a “very talented” wrestler with a strong skill set and high IQ, according to Jensen.

“He’s very tactical in the way that he competes,” the UNK coach said. “He understands positions very well. His timing and the way he reacts to opponents’ attacks to give himself an opportunity to score are things you really can’t teach.”

Higgins went 21-7 during his first season in Kearney, including a 17-1 record after moving up to 184 pounds, and earned first-team All-MIAA recognition. He finished third at the 2022 Division II Championships, and the Lopers won their fourth national title.

‘You want to see those guys do better than you ever did’

This season, his final at UNK, has been a “process of ups and downs.”

Higgins tried rehabbing his foot injury over the summer, but that didn’t work. He decided to have surgery in September, less than two months before the season started.

“Right now, I’m focused on regaining that trust and feeling comfortable and confident on the mat again,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating, as you can imagine, feeling a little limited in what you can do.”

The two-time All-American made his season debut Jan. 5 at the National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where UNK finished fifth as a team. Their only loss came against second-ranked Lander University.

Higgins is currently 7-2 on the season and ranked 12th nationally by the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Seventh-ranked UNK is 18-3 as a team, including reserves, with 12 straight dual victories heading into Friday night’s showdown against top-ranked Central Oklahoma at the Health and Sports Center.

The Lopers have six wrestlers ranked in the top 12 nationally, but they only start three seniors – Higgins, fellow sixth-year senior John Burger and James, a fifth-year senior from Kearney. A freshman and six sophomores round out the lineup.

At 25 years old, Higgins has enjoyed watching those younger guys flourish.

“We have a lot of guys who really bought into the program, and that’s cool to see,” he said. “They’ve seen things that I’ve done or seen things that Nick James has done, and they’re going to surpass them. That’s kind of what this program is about. You want to see those guys do better than you ever did.”

Personally, Higgins doesn’t think he has anything left to prove. And that’s a freeing feeling.

“Last year, I was ranked No. 1 all year and I put so much pressure on myself thinking, ‘I gotta keep it. I gotta keep it. I gotta keep it.’ Then I thought I might not be able to wrestle again, so I’m just enjoying it,” he said.

Of course, the perfect ending would be a national championship next month in Wichita, Kansas.

“All of the talent and skill is there,” Jensen said of his chances. “Once he gets back into the full groove of things, he’s undoubtedly a guy who can go contend for that title this year.”

In Higgins’ mind, he already won by transferring to UNK, where he’ll receive a master’s degree in kinesiology and sport sciences this summer.

“I feel like I’ve grown as a man here,” he said. “It allowed me to kind of gain control of my life at a time when it seemed so out of control. That’s what this program has done for me, more than putting my name up on a wall or any accolades that I do or don’t get this year. I get to leave here knowing that I really made a difference, and it made more of an impact on me.”