The Nebraska wrestler who beat flesh-eating bacteria

Illustration by ESPN

THE FIRST SIGNS that Peyton Robb's body is under siege are so subtle that he hardly notices.

He wrestles in his NCAA championship semifinal against Penn State's Levi Haines and loses 5-3. But Robb's coaches sit in his corner and feel like something is just a little bit off about him on the night of March 17, 2023. He had one last gear to reach against Haines at the end of their 157-pound bout, but he couldn't hit it.

The Nebraska coaches think maybe it was nerves, or perhaps Robb was worn down after a long, grueling season. Maybe it was both. Having to cut a few pounds to make weight probably didn't help, either.

The next morning, panic begins to settle in. Robb makes weight as he tries to wrestle back through consolation matches to finish third. But he can't get warm. Coaches watch as he puts on a coat over his warmups. He jogs. Jumps around. Rolls with teammates. Jogs more. And yet he's shivering.

Robb feels nauseous and lightheaded, and his left shin is killing him -- he has a nasty bruise he must have gotten about the night before. The coaching staff confers about having him forfeit his first consolation match. That would drop Robb down to the fifth-place match, but they figure he could rest for an hour and try to be ready for that one.

As the 149-pound matches wrap up, the announcer calls for Robb and his opponent, North Dakota State's Jared Franek, to come to the mat for the consolation semifinals. But instead of forfeiting, Robb runs to the mat in his singlet and headgear and says, "I'm gonna go." The match goes to overtime, but Robb is in agony out there, grinding away with whatever gas is still in the tank. Franek, who is 27-3 and seeded fourth, lands a takedown in overtime to win 3-1.

Robb barely makes it off the mat before he feels like he has to throw up. He crouches down, grabs a trash can and starts vomiting. His coaches go from perplexed to concerned, especially when they see his leg. The bruise seems to have expanded and gotten much more purple.

During the time between matches, Robb finds his parents in the stands. They drove from their home in Minnesota to the tournament in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Can you take a look at this?" Robb asks as he pulls his pant leg up. His mom and dad gasp and immediately tell him he needs to go to the emergency room. When Nebraska's athletic trainer, Tyler Weeda, takes a closer look a few minutes later, he agrees.

Robb forfeits his fifth-place match and gets his sixth-place medal before Weeda drives him to a local hospital. He gets some IV fluids and an antibiotic and feels a little better. In retrospect, he probably should have stayed for a night or two. But the long wrestling season is over, and he wants to get back home and hang out with his girlfriend, Taylor Krone, and his Rottweiler, Greta. So he asks to be discharged.

The next morning, the Nebraska wrestlers and coaches board a jumper bus back to Lincoln. As they pull out for the nearly seven-hour drive home, Robb crawls inside one of the sleeper bunks and closes the door for the longest ride of his life. He had no idea then, but his body was already in the middle of a life-or-death match with a microscopic foe: flesh-eating bacteria.

IN THE GRAND SCHEME of history, germs have killed more people than war, famine or just about anything else. The bubonic plague bacteria claimed the lives of anywhere between 25-200 million people. Pneumonia caused by bacteria once had a death rate of 30-40%. More than 1 million people still die from tuberculosis every year, a disease that historians believe killed 1 in 7 people who ever lived before the year 1800.

People often use the words "virus" and "bacteria" interchangeably, but neither is a good germ to tangle with. Viruses enter the body and rely upon human cells to survive and multiply. Modern vaccines have a remarkably successful track record of thwarting even strong viruses that wear down our immune systems. The most lethal virus, smallpox, killed about 500 million people before 1980, when the WHO declared that the disease had been eradicated.

Bacteria, on the other hand, are much larger single-cell organisms that can survive inside or outside the human body. Their complexity makes it harder to design preventative vaccines. They furiously replicate, fighting to establish a community of brothers and sisters in our bloodstream. Regular old bacteria cause UTIs, pneumonia and food poisoning, and succeed by sheer quantity, overwhelming our immune systems by multiplying so ruthlessly and efficiently in the body. The best way to visualize this is to think about one of those silly "Could Conor McGregor beat up 10 15-year-olds?" propositions. Our immune systems, evolved over millions of years, are McGregor and almost always win. But sometimes the 15-year-olds are really, really good fighters, and sometimes the 10 can turn into 50 in minutes.

Robb had some of the scariest bacteria fighters known to exist: Group A Streptococcus. It commonly pops up as strep throat but in very rare circumstances can attack other areas of the body and morph into necrotizing fasciitis, which is commonly referred to as a flesh-eating bacteria. The CDC says 700 to 1,150 cases have been reported each year in the U.S. since 2010.

What necrotizing fasciitis does, though, isn't necessarily eat flesh -- it might be worse. These bacteria release toxins that destroy blood vessels and choke blood flow to the region, which strangles the life out of that area, and then it rapidly spreads. With diseases like necrotizing fasciitis and bacterial meningitis, that process can take less than 24 hours.

"They dissolve blood vessels, and that is a real problem for physicians to treat," says Dr. Bill Sullivan, a renowned infectious disease expert and professor at Indiana University.

It's easy to consider Robb's case as a wrestling-specific issue -- wrestling matches are bloody and sweaty and the mats are petri dishes for horrifying bugs -- but the truth is, sports culture is pretty gross across the board. Studies show that cell phones tend to carry 10 times more bacteria than a public toilet, so you can imagine what lab swabs pick up on gymnastics mats, in locker rooms, treadmills and team laundry rooms.

But here is the good news: Most serious bacterial infections (including necrotizing fasciitis) are quite rare, and our immune systems and antibiotics these days have evolved to the point where even scientists sleep fine at night.

"Most people have b----in' immune systems that fight off these bacteria effectively," Sullivan says. "There has never been a better time to be alive -- I would not want to have lived in the pre-antibiotic era."

The obvious question that Robb gets all the time is: How and why did he get sick? The answer isn't satisfying; he doesn't know for sure, and he never will. The vast majority of necrotizing fasciitis cases occur when the bacteria enters the body through a cut or abrasion, even one so small that it can't be seen with the naked eye. Robb doesn't remember any kind of open wound, just bruising, but his calf is the likely culprit. It's possible he picked up the bacteria from another wrestler or the mats, then a small brush burn was the only opening the necrotizing fasciitis needed to start swarming.

And that's exactly what happens. In retrospect, Robb is lucky to be alive.

On the team bus back to Lincoln, he occasionally sticks his head out of his bunk to vomit before retreating. He considers stopping off somewhere to get to a hospital. But all he can think about is getting home to Greta and Taylor.

He limps out of the bus when the Huskers get back to campus. His teammates are haunted by how feeble he looks. Robb is a physical tank, 5-foot-8 and 157 pounds of mostly muscle. He has a Minnesota niceness to him that leaves his body when he puts on a singlet. He walks with a stoic confidence that the toughest people always do. But that's not who hobbled off the bus that evening last March.

He hugs Greta and Taylor when he gets back to his apartment. Then he lays down in his bedroom. "I just need to sleep," he tells Taylor.

An hour or so later, she hears him go into the bathroom and throw up. In a move that may have saved his life, she swipes his phone and calls his mom. "Carrie, Peyton is really, really sick," she says. "I think he needs to go to the emergency room but it needs to come from you."

Carrie Robb makes a critical decision on her end of the call: She hands her phone to her husband, Tracey. "He probably would have listened to me," she says. "But there's something between him and his dad where I knew he'd do it if his dad told him."

Tracey works with Carrie at a sand and gravel company in Minnesota and is a wrestling lifer. Tracey and Peyton spent hundreds of hours in cars over the years, driving from one youth wrestling tournament to another, many times leaving home before the sun was up and returning after it went down. It's not so much that he values his dad's opinion more than his mom's, it's that during those trips, they problem-solved together hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and Tracey usually offered advice or suggestions only when he thought it was necessary. There was weight to when he would give Peyton feedback.

The 10-second conversation they have on March 19, 2023, is one of those times -- the most important time. "I think you should go to the hospital," Tracey says, and Peyton agrees.

Peyton can't even get to his car, let alone drive it. Only his roommate, Nebraska 141-pounder Brock Hardy, knows how to drive a stick. So he loads up Robb and starts driving. Hardy rode on the team bus with Robb and knew how badly he was struggling -- but it was never like this.

"Taylor, who's going to walk Greta?" Robb asks him.

Hardy stares at him, realizing that his friend is completely out of it, calling him by his girlfriend's name. Hardy doesn't say anything. He keeps driving until Robb breaks the silence again.

"Taylor, what's going to happen with Greta?" he asks. Hardy hits the gas and assures Robb that Greta is being taken care of.

The next four days are a blur. Robb's vital signs spike and fall on Monday and Tuesday. He has alarming test results about his heart, lungs and kidneys. But by Wednesday, his key organs seem to be improving, and there's talk he might be sent home the following day.

But nobody looks close enough at his leg until the next morning. And that's when a fire-breathing doctor arrives with a terrifying answer to what Robb is up against.

ON THURSDAY MORNING, Robb is in his hospital bed, surrounded by his parents, his girlfriend and a Nebraska associate head coach, Bryan Snyder. Snyder and his entire family had caught some sort of bug leading into NCAAs, so he drove himself to Tulsa and coached while sick. He spent the first part of that week agonizing that maybe he'd passed along the illness to Robb, and that's why he was in the hospital.

But as they stand around Robb in the room, the orthopedic surgeon on duty enters the room with a scan in his hand, and he is coming in hot.

"Holy f---!" he barks, startling everybody in the room. He looks at the scan again and can't help himself: "F---, I'm so sorry, Peyton."

Robb's parents are so shaken by his tone that they walk out of the room to compose themselves. While they're in the hallway, the doctor pulls out his cell phone and starts taking photos of Robb's leg and the scan. "I need to send these to some other doctors that I know," he says.

Robb thinks to himself: How bad does a leg injury have to be that the surgeon has to show it to all of his friends?

The doctor puts his phone down and asks Robb's parents to come back into the room. He begins to explain what he's seeing with Robb's leg. That's the first time they hear the phrase "necrotizing fasciitis," and he says they have no time to waste.

"Peyton, we have to take out all the dying tissue," he says. "Everything. Or you will die. And we will not know how bad it is until we get in there. You have to be OK with the idea that if we need to, we will take your leg off."

Robb nods. "Do what you have to do to save my life," he says.

The doctor leaves. Nobody speaks at first. They're all stunned, unsure of how to process the outburst that just happened. Less than a week earlier, Robb was in the semifinals of the 157-pound weight class, pushing for a national title. Now, he's hoping he can keep his leg, with the not-so-subtle implication that he could die.

Everybody spends 10 heavy seconds staring at each other. Snyder, the associate head coach who wrestled Robb at almost every practice for three years, says he's going to step out of the room so Robb can be with his parents and girlfriend before surgery. He leans close to Robb's face.

"Peyton, you are not going to be a statistic," he says. "You are strong, and you can do this. You have a fight in you, and it's time for that fight to come out. I love you."

Snyder's words hit Robb hard, but the whole room needs to hear them. "The timing was ..." Carrie recounts, her eyes swelling up. "The timing was spiritual to me. He came along at the perfect moment."

Snyder hugs Robb one more time and walks into the hallway, where he sees the doctor on the phone nearby. "No, I need an operating room now," he tells the person on the other end. "Nope. No! Not acceptable. We have your next room."

He hangs up the phone as a punctuation point, and it works. Robb is assigned an operating room. That's when Snyder realizes something that almost everybody else has come to believe months later: They needed the jolt that the doctor provided. "I don't think I had a full grasp of what was happening until that moment," Robb says.

Less than 10 minutes later, Robb is wheeled down the hallway by strangers as his loved ones all stand in the doorway. He doesn't talk on the way down. He thinks a little about wrestling, his family, his girlfriend, his friends. But his mind keeps drifting to how much he wants at least one more walk with Greta. If he loses his leg or even part of his leg, he isn't sure he'll be able to handle the 100-pound Rottweiler when she takes off after a squirrel. And if he doesn't wake up ... well, he can't think about somebody else taking care of his furry friend.

As hospital workers push him through the doors and into the room, the anesthesia begins to overpower him, and Robb takes one last look down at his left leg. In case he never sees it again.

ROBB REMEMBERS WAKING UP about two hours later and feeling relieved. But his girlfriend says after about an hour in the post-operation room, Robb opened his eyes for a second. "He doesn't remember this," she says. "But I swear, he looked at his leg and his toes and he smiled. It was a little smile. But I saw it."

Robb had five surgeries in five days, each cleaning out the wound area to remove as much dead tissue as possible. But by the end, he had two gruesome wounds on his lower leg, including one 8-inch football-shaped spot where you could see his shinbone.

After the clean-out surgeries were over in early April, Robb spent a few weeks healing up before a critical skin graft procedure. His calf was almost completely gone at that point; the tissue had been suffocated to death by the bacteria. When he had healed sufficiently, he went back in to have a large rectangular hunk of his left thigh removed and placed in the divots where his calf used to be.

The skin graft pain was excruciating for about 48 hours. His thigh felt like he'd spent 12 hours sliding into home plate over and over again until all the skin was gone. But in this case, it served a good cause. The removed section of his thigh ended up becoming his calf, and his left thigh eventually recovered enough that he had to outline the faint rectangular scar with his fingers to be able to see it.

Weeda, the Nebraska trainer, stayed close with Robb's medical team, and after a follow-up appointment from the skin graft, he came back and told the coaching staff that the surgery was a home run. "He'll have to wear a sleeve to protect the skin," Weeda told the coaches, "but he's about two weeks from being able to start training."

Snyder was shocked. "Wait, two weeks? How is that possible?" A month and a half earlier, he'd given Robb a pep talk about surviving the surgery and being OK if he lost his leg. Now he was ready to roll?

But it was true. From the end of May till late June, Robb worked out with Weeda to strengthen his leg and get back in shape. In early July, Robb met Snyder in the wrestling room and they went at it for about a half hour. They didn't go hard. They were just glad to be there, grappling lightly. "That's when I knew he was going to be back," Snyder says.

He also got back to being a 23-year-old. Robb isn't shy, but he also isn't loud. His voice mirrors his personality -- firm and steady. He's mostly serious, but he laughs a little when he describes why he started shaving his head. "It was getting a little thin up there," he says.

About six months after a flesh-eating bacteria almost devoured his lower leg, Robb is at Nebraska's first practice in October. His calf area has almost no feeling, and he had to learn to deal with the loss of some muscles that helped operate his foot. Other than the sleeve, it's hard to tell anything happened to Robb's leg last March.

By late December, Robb looked close to his old self, going 7-0 against a relatively soft November schedule. That had him up to a No. 3 ranking as he headed to the Cliff Keen Invitational on Dec. 1-2 in Las Vegas.

His parents drive down from Minnesota to most home matches and decided to travel to Vegas to be with Robb as he entered a bracket with four top-eight opponents, all of whom were previous All-Americans. Facing the tournament's toughest weight class, this would be a significant gauge of where he was in his recovery.

He ripped off four wins by a combined 60-12 score to get to the finals, where he found undefeated Arizona State senior Jacori Teemer. They'd battled at NCAAs two years earlier in a 6-4 Robb victory that left them both so wiped out that they laid on the mat and shook hands from their backs. That moment has become iconic in the college wrestling world, an embodiment of what makes the sport special, and Snyder has a photo of it framed above his desk. "The hard work, the sportsmanship, the gratitude ... everything that makes Peyton special is in that picture," Snyder says.

But Teemer is a handful in Vegas. Robb pounces on him from the first whistle, working the head and pushing the pace. He shoots on Teemer's legs immediately, but Teemer counters and gets the first takedown. Robb escapes, then powers through an exchange that plants Teemer on his back. Robb goes on to a 6-4 win that seems to draw a louder ovation than the other finals that day. When his hand is raised, Robb looks over to his corner and flexes, then runs over and slaps Snyder's hand hard. They hug, and both of them have a brief collision of contrasting memories, between that last moment in the hospital room before surgery and now.

Robb is with his parents on the floor of the arena a little while later as the tournament winds down. Family members and wrestlers are milling around while fans head for the exits. Robb's story had spread far and wide in wrestling circles. So it wasn't a tremendous surprise when the announcement came that the Most Outstanding Wrestler award went to Peyton Robb of Nebraska.

Yet, it still overwhelms the Nebraska contingent. Robb, his mom and dad, Snyder ... everybody finds their eyes misting up.

Peyton Robb is back. Or so he thinks.

ROBB WINS HIS first match 18-1 at a January meet with Wyoming and Northern Iowa.

Against UNI 90 minutes later, he runs into a scrapper named Ryder Downey, who's ranked No. 13 in the country. Robb gets the first takedown but is trailing 6-5 in the third period with a minute left. He needs to make a final push, and he tries. But that burst never comes, and he loses for the first time. That kicks off a span of four straight losses, which might be the only time Robb has ever lost four matches in a row.

After the UNI loss, Robb's parents wait for him at the bottom of the stands. They aren't sure how he'll react. He's not someone who throws chairs after a loss. But he also had never been trying to win a national title with a calf that used to be his thigh.

A few minutes later, Robb finally comes out. A flock of little kids stall him out 10 feet from his dad, asking for his autograph. He signs them and eventually makes his way over. His dad launches up off the bleachers for a hug and hits his son directly in the groin with his hand. Robb doubles over for a second and then stands up. "Ouch, Dad, watch it," Robb says.

They hug and laugh about it, and a few minutes later, his dad sits back down and pretends he is about to clip him again on the way down. They both laugh, and they head home. Robb seems bummed out about losing his first match, especially the way he couldn't rally late. "I just didn't get it done today," he says. "Sometimes I get them, and sometimes they get me."

The next day, Robb opens the door to his apartment and is in the middle of a wrestling match with Greta. She's a beast, but a friendly, slobbery one. She likes people and small dogs, but big dogs beware. "She tries to show them that she's boss," Robb says.

She had been one of the most painful parts of his health ordeal -- the longer he'd been in the hospital, the more sadness he felt about her. Taylor and friends would take care of her, and he knew she was in good hands. But ... they weren't his hands.

He asked Taylor constantly about how she was doing, who she was staying with, if she seemed to miss him. All he wanted in the world some days was for his calf to be healed so he could leave the hospital, horse around at home with Greta on the floor for a few minutes and then take her for a walk. When he first got released and could finally return home, he was heartbroken when his metal crutches freaked her out so much she ran and stood across the room. He tried calling her over but she wouldn't come. He eventually laid the crutches on the ground and hopped over to the couch. She sniffed them for a minute, then she rushed over to her dad.

For the next hour on this January day, Greta sits beside him as Robb goes through his entire life story, from wrestling road trips with his dad as a kindergartner to that fateful week after NCAAs last year. Toward the tail end, Taylor arrives after an over-six-hour drive. They've been dating since they were 16. She's finishing up a physical therapy degree at Minnesota, where she ran cross country and track. They'd always seen themselves together forever, and his health scare only codified that belief.

At one point, Taylor is talking about the dark days of the week when he had five surgeries. Robb just listens for most of the time, pulling on a rope toy that Greta is latched onto. When she stops talking, he says, "I'm just so grateful about everything."

Grateful? That's a surprising word to describe what he went through.

"Think about how many things needed to happen for me to survive," he says. "The doctor who was swearing? We needed to hear that level of concern. So I'm glad he acted that way. We needed it.

"And then Snyder showing up at the absolute perfect time, the time I needed to hear his voice," he continues. "And then the surgery going the way it did, with me losing pretty much the bare minimum of what I thought I'd lose. I have a lot of gratitude about that. When I went under that day, I wasn't sure what I was going to wake up to."

He and Taylor exchange a look, a look of two 23-year-olds with more wisdom than most people their age. Taylor steps out of the room to unpack her stuff, and when she's gone, he says, "I don't know what I would have done without her."

There's silence in the room for a few seconds. "You know," I say, "it's possible that you and Taylor just went through the worst thing that will ever happen to you. And it's possible that that will serve you well, and that when you hit bumps down the road, you will know the way through."

He gives me a quizzical look, and I reveal something to him that I often keep to myself. I tell him that when I was in college, I'd been dating someone for about a year when I came down with bacterial meningitis. I spent a week in a coma as my girlfriend, Lori, and my family just hoped I'd wake up again. When I did regain consciousness, I had a non-f-bombing doctor explain to me the same thing he was told -- that they had to start cutting the dead parts of my body off so that the good tissue could survive. I ultimately had the ends of both feet amputated, and I went from a Size 12 foot down to a Size 4.

"That's nuts," he says quietly. "I am sorry you had to go through that."

He asks me a few questions, and I can tell he's feeling the same sense of eeriness that I felt as he spoke. Bacterial meningitis and necrotizing fasciitis are both on the small list of the most lethal diseases possible, and we are each blessed to be walking around at all.

Both of us were probably saved by our age. Both of us hated the wound care more than the surgeries; we both know all too well that doctors use a medical term, "debridement," that translates as "rip gauze out of your own gaping injuries and try to get as much bad stuff out of there so the good can survive." And both of us probably wouldn't have been able to bounce back without the love and support of our partners -- my girlfriend became my wife, and we've been together ever since. When I had to go to rehab for opioid and alcohol addiction in 2008, Lori and I struggled ... but we also felt like we had the scars to prove we could make it. Taylor and Peyton have that in their back pocket now.

It's an unlikely common ground to find with another person, and our conversation immediately jumps five levels when we land there. I know what he and Taylor have pushed through. On paper, they're in college. But their past 12 months haven't been college -- that was adult stuff.

I ask whether I can look closer at his leg, and he plops it up on the couch beside me. He has no sheepishness about his calf, which is a place I have never been able to get to. I feel the same way as Robb does about getting sick, that I never would have chosen it but now would never give the wisdom back. But I just can't bring myself to fearlessly show my toeless, mangled feet to the world the same way he has.

"Can I touch the skin?" I ask, and he says yes.

It's firm and leathery and a little darker than the rest of his leg. The oblong scar is big enough that it seems like it'd be a problem when another 157-pound All-American wrestler is wrenching on it. "It doesn't hurt at all," he says. "I feel no real impact at all."

He puts his leg back down and I pause for a moment.

"Can I show you my feet?" I finally say.

He nods and sits forward. I pull the sock off my left foot and show him, and he looks at it closely. Then I show him my right foot, and we have a bonding experience over the use of staples to sew a human body back together. He had staples in his calf at one point, and my entire right foot looks like an old shark bite wound from all the spots where 20 or so staples fused the front and side of the foot back together. "Holy cow, when they pulled those out, I got lightheaded and had to lay down," he says. "I needed a cold washcloth on my head, and I had to hand it to Taylor then because she almost passed out, too."

I mention to him that for my senior year at Penn State, I couldn't live with anybody else. Yes, I was 23 years old and liked hanging out with other 23-year-olds. I even liked to party quite a bit (see: rehab, 2008). But I had no patience anymore for weird hair clumps in the shower, pizza boxes everywhere and video game all-nighters. It only takes one or two debridement sessions to feel like you aged out of your own demo.

Robb made the same choice. He loves his teammates and other Nebraska friends. He loves going over to their apartments for a few hours. But the 2 a.m. Taco Bell trips and mystery stains on the couch are in the rearview for him. He wanted to live with Greta and have Taylor come visit when she could as he chases an NCAA title one final time. Pestering roommates to do their dishes and pay for their half of the rent ... no thanks.

Robb, now 24, is wrapping up a degree in nutrition and health sciences and hopes to pursue international wrestling after college. He's not sure where he'll live or what he'll be doing, just that Taylor and Greta will be there. Right now, he has a singular purpose: winning a national title. This year has been up and down, with a 21-6 record. He bounced back after those four consecutive losses and has been in the top 10 all year of a very difficult 157-pound weight class. He has a legitimate chance to win at the NCAA championships on March 21-23.

We finish talking right as Taylor comes back into the living room. We'd planned to have an early dinner at a local Indian place, so I thought maybe they'd want to go now. But Robb and Taylor need to push it back an hour. They have something very important to do first.

"Greta needs a walk," Robb says.