Mark Schlereth played 12 NFL seasons and won three Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins. But he says his toughest athletic challenge—that prepared him for his successful pro football career—was as a high school wrestler, where he was a state champion at Anchorage, Alaska's Robert Service High School. "Physically, it's the most challenging sport I've ever been involved with and from a pure mental toughness standpoint, nothing beats wrestling,” says Schlereth, now a popular NFL analyst with ESPN. "If you look around the league, it's uncanny how many player have wrestling backgrounds.”
Crockett Gillmore, who just concluded a stellar, four-year college football career at Colorado State University, hopes his name will join that esteemed list later this month. Hailing from Bushland Texas, Gillmore, a 6-foot 6-inch, 256-pound tight end, is projected as a mid-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
"I wouldn't be where I was today without wrestling," Gillmore says. "There is so much you learn from the sport. It provides you with the work ethic and teaches you the discipline that is needed to succeed. I learned what it's like to truly work hard. I just love the sport, it's done a lot for me."
After this year’s NFL Draft in New York City May 8-10, Gillmore is hoping to join a long list of former wrestlers to be drafted and play in the NFL. Last September, USA Wrestling announced the inaugural All-Time NFL Honor Roll of former wrestlers. Among them: Stephen Neal, a three-time Super Bowl champion offensive guard for the New England Patriots who also was a World freestyle champion and a two-time NCAA champion at Cal-State Bakersfield; Carlton Haselrig, an All Pro offensive guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was a three-time NCAA Division I and three-time NCAA Division II champion for Pittsburgh-Johnstown; and Heisman Trophy winners Archie Griffin—a running back for Ohio State and the Cincinnati Bengals—and Charles White—a running back for USC and the Cleveland Browns.
But it’s not just brawn that wrestling builds. "Strength is a part of it,” says Schlereth, “but you have defensive backs, linebackers, guys who know how to create leverage, use their hands, are strong on their feet, those skills taught in wrestling are just a vital part of football. Wrestling is a great teacher of so many skills."
For Exhibit A of this, look no further than Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White. A two-time South Carolina state high school champion at 152 and 189 pounds, White was recruited by a few college wrestling programs before signing to play football at the University of Alabama Birmingham. “I told them I wanted to be a football player, but every year in college I would go back and wrestle with the guys on the team and get them ready for the tournaments,” he recalls. “It’s something that I never gave up. I’m still going to wrestling tournaments now.”
White says that wrestling taught him skills that he still applies every day as one of the NFL’s top offensive weapons. “I’ve been getting into a wrestling stance since I was 7 years old," he explains. "It’s the same stance I use at the line of scrimmage. It was really good for me to have that in wrestling, because it made everything easier in football. Even throwing people to the ground, I attribute that to wrestling. It puts you in such an advantage. Being a great wrestler helps you so much in football—leverage, balance, quickness, hand-to-hand combat.”
Football coaches also recognize how well wrestling skills can translate from the mat to the gridiron. "Wrestling is a huge help to football," says Rex King, head football coach at Simley High Schoool in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. "Our secondary and running backs should be wrestlers," he says. "They have the best ability to change levels and directions. I will take a kid who is a 140-pound wrestler…because I know how hard he trains, his ability as an athlete and the fact that most wrestlers hate to lose."
Over the years, King says he’s had the opportunity to coach numerous football players who have wrestled and has noticed some other advantages. "Our best tacklers are wrestlers,” he notes. “It seems to come naturally to them. Their ability to stay balanced and drop their level to make a tackle is unbelievable. The most important thing to me is their toughness. Every wrestler seems to have mental and physical toughness to them."
Schlereth agrees. "I was a tall gangly kid," he notes. "So getting low wasn't always easy for me. But when I started wrestling, I learned the importance of leverage. I learned body mechanics, how to get low and use that leverage to my advantage. Even when I was in the NFL, I was about 285 pounds and when I would go against a guy who was 335 pounds, I could get that leverage and just stone him at the line of scrimmage."
For his part, Gillmore grew up with three older brothers who all wrestled. They traveled all over Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other states to compete. Because of his height, Gillmore was talked into playing basketball in high school. He lettered and excelled in that sport, but closed out his high school career as a wrestler, going 35-2 his senior year and earning All-State honors.
"Wrestling was my favorite sport growing up," Gillmore says. Years later, he says he still applies the skills he learned while wrestling in every football practice and game. “I know how to get a good base and how to explode out of a break, or fend off a pass rusher. I've learned the proper technique when going one-on-one with another guy. I've learned how to use my hands to my advantage, whether blocking or pass catching. I've been in all those situations because of wrestling” he explains. “So when I put shoulder pads on and have to go to work, I've always felt confident in my ability to get the job done." And thanks to wrestling, he might get years more work applying those same lessons while playing in the NFL.