Mike Zimmer was cut from the basketball team in sixth grade. But instead of going straight home after school, his dad, who was the football and wrestling coach at Lockport Township High School in Illinois, had a better idea. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come down to the high school and wrestle with the freshmen?” recalls Zimmer, now head coach of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. “And I did. I didn’t really have much choice.”
So every winter day in junior high, the coach’s son walked a mile down the road to the high school and wrestled with the ninth graders. “It gave me a good head start, I guess,” Zimmer says, laughing. “It was fun. I wasn’t real big, so I wasn’t wrestling any big guys at that point. I know how competitive it was. The practices and cutting weight—all of those things discipline you and get you to become a better person.”
In his senior year of high school, Zimmer wrestled at 155 pounds and finished 15-5-1. “I was seeded first in the districts and I got caught in something,” Zimmer says. “I got beat and I didn’t get a chance to wrestle back,” he says, the sting of that loss and what might have been still clearly eating at him 41 years later. “I got beat.”
After high school, Mike went on to play quarterback and linebacker at Illinois State. When he came home during spring break of his freshman year, his dad asked him to come back to the wrestling room for some takedowns.
“And I whooped his butt pretty good,” Mike recalls. “I remember I was trying to leave the gym and he kept dragging my arm back in for more. He didn’t want to lose to me.”
Tony Dungy was a safety on the 1978 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The late great Chuck Noll, a former wrestling state champion, was the team’s head coach.
“Many wrestlers possessed the traits that coach Noll wanted in players: tenacity, strength, and mental toughness,” explains Dungy, now a football analyst for NBC and best-selling author and speaker.
Dungy would go on to be an NFL head coach for 13 seasons. He carried Noll’s coaching influence with him, which included an affinity for former wrestlers.
“As a football coach, when you have a wrestler, you know you’re getting someone above the norm in terms of leverage, strength, and mental toughness,” says Dungy, who guided the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title in 2007. “Not only the physical part, but also the mental part—wrestlers have great, great dedication.”
Dungy brings up the great Curley Culp, an NCAA national champion for Arizona State and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as one of the first former wrestlers to dominate in the NFL. But the list of former wrestlers who achieved success in pro football is long.
ESPN football analyst Mark Schlereth won three Super Bowls with Denver and Washington during his 12-year NFL career. Nevertheless, he still believes wrestling was the biggest challenge of his athletic career. Former high school wrestling standout Crockett Gilmore was most recently selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. And Atlanta Falcons star wide receiver Roddy White has been a vocal supporter of wrestling.
“Wrestling makes you a better football player,” White told USA Today in 2011. “It is a great sport for discipline and it breeds toughness. You learn a lot about individual matchups, quickness, balance and getting away from guys. It helped me tremendously.”
Zimmer served as an NFL assistant coach for 20 years prior to taking over the Vikings’ top job. While his defensive track record earned him respect around the league, his public profile enjoyed a boost once viewers of the popular HBO series “Hard Knocks” got a behind-the-scenes glimpse of no-nonsense demeanor.
Zimmer is known for getting the most out of his players and bringing an edge to the sideline, but as a head coach, he took it a step further. During his first season, he invited Olympic gold medalist wrestler John Peterson to speak to the Vikings. And on the eve of their Nov. 2 game against Washington last year, the iconic Dan Gable, Zimmer’s idol, addressed the team.
“Number one, it was great to have such an ambassador for the sport of wrestling. But it was also great to have a guy that’s been all over the world and been a champion,” Zimmer says of the impact Gable’s talk had on his team. “We can find out a lot about the things that he believes go into the making of a champion. A lot of [the talk] was about hard work and wanting to be the best and the things that you have to sacrifice in order to really become the best.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, after being down 10 points early in that game, the Vikings clawed their way back and eventually won 29–26 after a late, fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
Not-so Special Teams
Back in high school, Zimmer was a three-sport standout, earning all-conference honors in football, wrestling, and baseball. He didn’t feel the need to specialize in one sport in order to excel at it.
Heck, he didn’t want to.
“To me, it would be kind of boring if that’s all you did, play football,” Zimmer says. “You have a chance to play baseball and learn hand-eye coordination or you can go wrestle and understand moves and holds or even tennis you can learn plenty from. I would encourage every kid to keep trying different things. You might find something that you really love that you didn’t think you would.”
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Zimmer doesn’t care for the recent trend of young athletes focusing on just one sport year-round “Some of these junior high kids are trying to specialize in football or basketball or whatever,” he says. “I really feel like the more [sports] you try, you can find out a lot more about yourself. It helps you in a lot of different ways.”
Lessons for Life
Both Dungy and Zimmer laud the positive long-term impacts of wrestling.
“I think one of the things that wrestling helped teach me and I try to teach our players is that no matter how tired and how fatigued you are, how much you still have to compete,” Zimmer says.
As a University of Minnesota alumnus and former star quarterback, Dungy remembers the training intensity of Gopher wrestling greats like Pat Neu and Larry Zilverberg.
“I always remember as a freshman in the dorms, the wrestlers worked just as hard as we did, but they sacrificed beyond practice with their weight, not only to be better, but also to make the team better,” Dungy explains. “Those were great lessons for me as an 18-year-old.”
These lessons aren’t limited to the football field or any other single sport. They carry value in all facets of life—in the classroom, at work, or raising a family.
That’s why Zimmer urges kids to wrestle.
“I think you learn more from wrestling than any other sport,” Zimmer says. “You find out so much more about yourself and about competition. When it gets down to it, it’s you and the guy across from you. When I was wrestling, for the six minutes that you’re out there, it is one of the toughest, most demanding sports that I’ve ever been around. I think guys that can go through that and compete with all the different things going on, it really defines who you are.”
All a kid needs is to start somewhere. For Zimmer, it all started with a long walk.