From Wrestling Mat to Gridiron
When the Los Angeles Rams faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams’ starting offensive line included three-time Iowa State wrestling champion and three-time Fargo All-American Austin Blythe at right guard. Three-time Connecticut state wrestling champ John Sullivan was at center. Backing up Sullivan was Illinois state wrestling champ Brian Allen.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ roster included former high school wrestler James Ferentz, who as a senior at Iowa City High School placed second in state Class 3A. Now he’s a Super Bowl champion.
It’s no secret that wrestlers can become outstanding football players, and as the 2019 NFL season kicks off, several former wrestlers will be making an impact across the league. The correlation between the two sports is no surprise to those involved in coaching and promoting youth sports.
“Wrestling and football are complementary sports,” says Wayne B. Moss, Executive Director of the National Council on Youth Sports, a leader in the amateur youth sport industry in promoting and enhancing the value of participation through advocacy and education. “Wrestling builds mental toughness, overall body strength and cardiovascular endurance. Given that you can’t play football year-round, nor should you play any sport year-round, wrestling is a perfect competitive off-season complement.”
Danny Struck, head wrestling coach, assistant football coach and strength and conditioning coordinator at Jeffersonville High School in Jeffersonville, Indiana, agrees. A total of 21 Jeffersonville wrestlers also play football.
“Wrestlers have grit,” Struck says. “Football needs grit. Both sports build grit, it’s just that wrestling makes every individual have it. It’s the ultimate one-on-one sport. Football is the ultimate team sport. If you can take eleven athletes with grit, and get them to work together—wow. What a team we would have.”
While it’s no secret the big, strong, physical linemen in the NFL have wrestling backgrounds, several wrestlers are making an impact at skill positions, outside the trenches. Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis Colts), the greatest kicker in NFL history, lettered as a wrestler at Central High School in Rapid City, South Dakota. His current teammate, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, a second round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, was a two-time Georgia state high school champion and had several Division I schools recruiting him for wrestling. In fact, according to this ESPN article, wrestling was Ya-Sin's first love. In that same article, Colts Northeast scout Mike Derice credits Ya-Sin's wrestling background for developing his competitive attitude and willingness to take on anyone, no matter how big or fast.
“Wrestling, it’s man-on-man, one-on-one,” Derice said in the ESPN article. “He has that confidence when he’s in man [coverage]. It doesn’t faze him, he doesn’t panic. When the ball is deep, he plays his role, plays his technique. He just doesn’t ever seem fazed. That was what I thought wrestling brought over the football. And the physicalness of tackling.”
Another skill position player, former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, was also a state champion wrestler, in South Carolina.
“Wrestling teaches balance, reaction, flexibility, and strength—all while having to think on the fly,” adds Struck. “You take those four traits, add grit to it, now you have a truly special player. That is what guys like Roddy White have done. Wrestling and football have so many cross over skills, it’s like a secret way of sport specializing while calling yourselves a multisport athlete."
Moss says wrestling helps football players with hand-to-hand fighting, leverage, and footwork.
“Football is a game of one-on-one individual assignments that require balance, strength and short bursts of explosiveness,” Moss says. “Mental toughness is needed in both sports. Win the individual matchups and the team will probably win. Wrestling is also a series of one-on-one contests. If you don’t win the individual contests, the team loses the match. There are several similarities across both sports.”
Nick Hardwick played eleven years in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers. In high school, he was a three-year letter winner and a member of the state champion wrestling team at Lawrence North High School (Indianapolis, IN). Hardwick only played football as a freshman in high school, but walked onto the Purdue football team in 2001, making the team, in part because of his wrestling background. Hardwick told PurdueSports.com that he believes wrestlers are the hardest-working athletes and that being a former wrestler influenced his approach to athletics.
“Physically, wrestling has helped me with balance and leverage,” Hardwick says. “Mentally, I think it has really helped me with my work ethic.”
Olympic Gold Medalist, World Champion, and NCAA Champion Kyle Snyder played football until his junior year of high school.
Dustin Myers, strength and conditioning coach with the Ohio Regional Training Center—where Snyder trains—believes Snyder could have made it to the NFL if he wasn't focused on wrestling.
“Kyle Snyder actually mentioned one time that when he was a kid his dream was to be an NFL running back,” Myers says. “I’m going to go with he probably could have made an incredible fullback or inside linebacker but I’m glad he stuck to wrestling.”
Myers elaborated on how wrestling and football complement each other.
“From a skill standpoint, a wrestler’s understanding of leverage and how to manipulate an opponent’s positioning comes in handy, especially for linemen,” Myers says. “In the trenches, each play is almost like a mini 6-second moving Greco match between the offensive and defensive linemen. Then I think some of the other intangibles that come from spending years wrestling—the ability to work hard, a competitive nature, mental toughness, and being unafraid of physical contact—carryover to any position on the football field.”
Mike Clayton, Manager of USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program, previously served as the head assistant coach at Army (West Point), and as head coach at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
“I recruited football players all the time while coaching in college, and those that came out all said they became better athletes, and understood football better because of their understanding of how to gain leverage and level change through wrestling,” Clayton says.
There are currently several wrestlers making an impact in the NFL. Who are your favorite current or former NFL players who wrestled and why? Comment below!
Wrestling Helps a Football Player Develop:
1. Agility—The ability to change the position of his body efficiently.
2. Quickness—The ability to make a series of movements in a very short period of time.
3. Balance—The maintenance of body equilibrium through muscular control.
4. Flexibility—The ability to make a wide range of muscular movements.
5. Coordination—The ability to put together a combination of movements in a flowing rhythm.
6. Endurance—The development of muscular and cardiovascular-respiratory stamina.
7. Muscular Power (explosiveness)—The ability to use strength and speed simultaneously.
8. Aggressiveness—The willingness to keep on trying or pushing your adversary at all times.
9. Discipline—The desire to make the sacrifices necessary to become a better athlete and person.
10. Winning Attitude—The inner knowledge that you will do your best—win or lose.
Check out NFL Players who wrestled in college or high school for more examples of football players with wrestling experience.