Peyton Robb knew something was wrong just after his 157-pound semifinal match at the NCAA Championships in March. The tender bruise on his shin grew overnight. He clung to his jacket inside Tulsa’s BOK Center, unable to fight a foreboding chill. He shook in the hallway before beginning his warmups. As he prepared for his wrestleback match, the goal of an NCAA title just escaped him by 2 points the night before, he couldn’t even break a sweat. He felt awful but he couldn’t stop wrestling.
Nebraska’s two-time All-American lost, 3-1, in overtime minutes later. He retreated into the arena tunnels wearing multiple coats. The welt-looking bruise he showed teammate Mikey Labriola the day before his semifinal match grew towards his knee. Then, on the last day, he felt it in his whole body.
“It was kind of tough to manage in my head and that’s why it was tough to go out for my last match,” Robb described it to Jessica Coody. “I was just trying to be tough. Then, after that, I was like I can’t do another one. It wouldn’t be good for me if I do.”
Robb withdrew before the fifth-place match. He finished an All-American but immediately started vomiting and shaking. He went to the nearby Tulsa hospital for help for the first of several hospital trips in the last two months for the Husker wrestler, who recapped his whole ordeal with Coody for the Huskers Sports Network. Soft spoken and reflective, he’s focused on rehabbing while thankful he’s able to walk or live at all.
Doctors at the Tulsa emergency room thought Robb had strep cellulitius. They gave him oral and IV antibiotics before discharging him and he joined his teammates on the bus ride home the next day. Robb didn’t feel right through the 6-and-a-half-hour trek. He laid down and rarely moved except to throw up whatever food and drink he bared the strength to put down in the first place. Robb returned to his Lincoln apartment. His girlfriend watched him slump to the bathroom and said he needed to go back to the hospital.
Robb went to the emergency room the night of March 19 and was transferred to the hospital the next day. Doctors noticed his high heart rate and low blood pressure. At this point, he was in unbearable pain. The bacterial infection led to sepsis and further tests showed likely blood clots in his lungs. Blood thinners helped stabilize him and reduced swelling in his leg. At that point, doctors noticed the black spots of dying tissues on his leg.
“They were telling me my vitals were off and having problems with my heart and my kidneys and hypertensive and all these things that went into me not really doing stuff with my leg,” Robb recapped. “That’s when I knew it was pretty serious.”
Doctors ultimately diagnosed him with necrotizing fasciitis, a rare and quick-spreading bacterial disease. One in five who contract it die from it. He needed immediate surgery to remove the dying tissue or risk it spreading to vital areas. Doctors told him if the infection spread to his bones, they’d likely have to amputate. The first surgery went well. Doctors said his physical condition as a Division I wrestler made him better equipped to battle the infection. They went in again for three surgeries in as many days to remove more potential diseased area. They cut near the bone and some ankle muscle with the fear of amputation looming.
“I just had to make peace with that,” Robb said. “Obviously I wanted everything to go right so I could wrestle again. I just had to be mentally prepared, whatever has to happen has to happen.”
Following three successful surgeries, doctors transferred him to St. Elizabeth’s burn ward in Lincoln. They are better equipped to deal with skin graphs and tissue healing. Infection management went well but he was still in tremendous pain. They began treatment on his two gaping incisions bookending his shin bone. Robb then underwent 30 different hyperbaric chamber treatments. He laid down in an isolated chamber for 2-and-a-half hours to aide cellular regeneration. The Nebraska 157-pounder finally completed those treatments earlier this month.
Robb is now focused on rehab. His skin graphs went well, he’s merely dealing with mobility and strength. Doctors removed muscle near the ankle, which impacted his ankle mobility. He initially needed crutches but is far enough in rehab to walk without them. As difficult as the surgeries and treatments were, not being active truly bothered him. He’s an active guy and didn’t like being limited even out of necessity.
The wrestling community provided a lift throughout his recovery. Teammates, Husker fans and wrestlers from all over reached out to him. The Robb family, which started a crowdsource funding drive for medical expenses, were overwhelmed by support. The Minnesota native said he’s felt love as he continues to rehab. His eyes are fixed on next winter. Could he possibly return to wrestle at Nebraska for a final season?
“Yeah, that’s the goal,” Robb said. “Still have to see how things progress but that’s what I’m working towards.”