Byline: Graham Watson St. Louis Post-Dispatch
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- It's hard for Mizzou wrestler Ben Askren to claim underdog status after posting a 42-0 record last season, including 29 wins by fall, and winning his third consecutive Big 12 title and second consecutive NCAA national title.
But after the ESPY award nominations were announced this past Monday and Askren learned he was in the running for Best Male College Athlete, he couldn't help but feel like he had a distinct disadvantage.
The other nominees are Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the No. 1 and 2 players taken in this year's NBA draft, and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. The winner is chosen by fan vote through ESPN's website.
Each of the other nominees has seen more television time over the past few months than Askren has seen in his entire four-year career with the Tigers. Each has gone on to start a professional career while Askren is spending his summer doing kids camps and getting ready to assume the graduate assistant role at Missouri in the fall.
"The general sports fan doesn't know me, and they know all those other guys," Askren said. "And getting the word of mouth out is really the only way for me to win because I don't have nearly the publication access that those other people have."
When ESPN told Askren about his nomination weeks before the announcement, he started to think of ways to campaign.
After the announcement, he started a Facebook page and sent it to all of Missouri's athletes, encouraging them to vote. He sent messages to everyone in his phone book, called relatives and friends and sent a mass e-mail.
He has been selling T-shirts with his face and signature curly blond hair on them, since he won the NCAA championship, and now he tells everyone the shirt comes with a pledge to vote.
"This is a great culmination of my career," Askren said. "It's the best male college athlete, and I'm in the final four out of every male athlete between the ages of 18 and 22 in the United States. That's just amazing."
Missouri coach Brian Smith has helped Askren's cause by sending an e-mail with a link to the ESPN website to more than 8,000 people. He said the plan is for everyone on that mailing list to pass it on to someone else and ultimately start a chain.
Several wrestling websites and message boards also have included links to ESPN.
If the award were given on merit alone, Askren would be the hands down winner. He is the only one of the four candidates with one NCAA title, let alone two. He is the only four-time academic All-American. And he has won the Dan Hodge Trophy, wrestling's equivalent of the Heisman, twice. Only Iowa State's Cael Sanderson has topped that feat, winning it three times from 2000 to 2002.
Askren knows voting is a popularity contest and that the nature of his sport will make it nearly impossible to win. Still, that hasn't stopped him from drumming up as much support as he can, stopping just short of knocking on doors and passing out fliers on the street.
Said Askren: "I figure if I'm going to go, I might as well try to win."
WHAT ESPY awards
WHEN 8 p.m., July 15
To vote for Ben Askren and other nominees, visit www.espys.tv
PHOTO - University of Missouri wrestler Ben Askren celebrates a victory last December. Askren had 42 reasons to celebrate last season. Photo by Justin Kelley