It's bulky. And to be frank, a bit unsightly.¶ But the black mask that Ben Cousins wears to protect the nine stitches above his right eye (from an injury last month) probably gives the Bloomington Kennedy senior a bit of an extra boost on the wrestling mat.

That the mask resembles something an under-the-radar professional wrestler might wear is fitting. When Cousins got into wrestling seven years ago, he was highly disappointed to find out the expectations included takedowns over clotheslines.

"I had a tough first year," said Cousins, ranked No. 6 in Class 3A at 152 pounds by the Guillotine. "I didn't know what conditioning was. It [stunk] and I got pounded a lot of the time. But this is a sport where you get the most out of hard work, and I stuck with it because I am one of the toughest kids I know."

An attitude like that has served Cousins well in what has been a lifetime of challenges.

Kim Cousins had to hide kitchen knives from her son, and remind his teachers -- and everyone else -- not to get down on their hands and knees for fear Ben might charge at them. While attending summer parks and recreation programs, Ben had to be watched by someone at all times because he would dart into the street without warning.

"He was extremely aggressive," Kim Cousins said.

He also wasn't too fond of being touched by anyone outside of close family, a trait in those such as Ben who live with autism.

"I never thought about sports," Ben Cousins recalled. "All I did was ... play video games, eat fast food and hang out."

By fifth grade, Ben ballooned to nearly 200 pounds. About the same time, the kid who didn't talk until he was almost 4 started to come out of his shell.

He dumped the burgers and fries and traded sipping soda for sit-ups -- 180 of them to be exact.

Every night.

After that, "I knew I could do pretty much anything," he said.

There's no argument from Bloomington Kennedy wrestling coach Chuck Vavrosky, who has worked with Cousins since eighth grade.

"He knows one speed and that's wide-open," Vavrosky said. "He's made [wrestling] his passion. It can take him a while to get something, but if he wants it, he'll get it."

Tim Coughlin, Ben's father, wrestled for Richfield ("He still hates me," joked Vavrosky, a former state champion for Bloomington) but was leery about his son following in his footsteps.

Determination shows

"I didn't want to see my son get his rear-end kicked all the time," Coughlin said. "I thought maybe he could be the mascot or something and I could still go to all the matches. But you can tell early on if a kid is going to stick with a sport. And Ben wanted more right away."

Despite two surgeries to repair meniscus damage in his knees, Cousins has represented Team Minnesota at nationals as a Junior and Cadet. He's determined to wrestle in college, and has drawn interest from a handful of small regional schools.

"If I stay on an even keel, I can do really well," Cousins said.

Kim Cousins can only shake her head, a sign of prideful disbelief. She no longer has to hide knives; in fact, Ben is quite the budding chef. And instead of being watched, he's now the one helping out as a child supervisor.

"You still see that shy, nervous kid on the side of the mat," Kim Cousins said. "But once he's out there, he's a firecracker who beats everybody."