Monday, September 8, 2008

An endangered species?

“I would have all of my offensive linemen wrestle if I could.”

John Madden
NFL Hall of Fame Coach

Back at Davenport Central High School in the late ‘60s almost all of the wrestlers played football – probably because Jim Fox (in the Iowa High School Athletic Hall of Fame as a football coach, wrestling coach and wrestling official) coached both sports.
That wasn’t all that unusual.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s it was still fairly common for college athletes to compete in both sports. Every Hawkeye fan over the age of 30 remembers Mark Sindlinger, who in December of 1987 started at center for the victorious Holiday Bowl football team and four months later was an NCAA wrestling All-American at heavyweight.

There are dozens of current and past NFL stars who come from a wrestling background. Hall of Fame coach, Joe Gibbs, was once quoted, “I draft wrestlers because they are tough. I have never had a problem with a wrestler.”

Stephen Neal has a phenomenal resume: two-time NCAA heavyweight champion, World Heavyweight Freestyle Champion and 4 Super Bowl rings as a member of the New England Patriots. Neal, however, was not a two-sport athlete in college – choosing to concentrate on wrestling. Carlton Hasselrig, the only 6X NCAA wrestling champion (3 in Division II and 3 in Division I), followed a similar path. He competed only as a wrestler at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown but went on to a career with the Steelers and Jets.

Other pro football stars excelled at both sports while in college. Curley Culp is probably the most notable. A 6X Pro Bowl nose tackle, he pinned three of four opponents to win the 1967 NCAA heavyweight title while competing for Arizona State University. He would later be named the Greatest Athlete in the History of Arizona during the state’s centennial celebration.

Pro football players, Rob Essink, Jim Nance and Lorenzo Neal were also NCAA wrestling champions.

Match forfeits have become a major problem in high school wrestling. Somewhat understandably, the 103 and 112 pound weight classes lead in the total number of forfeits. Surprisingly (at least to me), a high percentage of 215 pound matches are also forfeited. Wouldn’t this be a perfect weight class for a lot of high school football players? Why are teams finding it difficult to fill their rosters at this weight? Stephen Neal has said, “Wrestling develops skills that translate to football: leverage, balance, explosion and hand fighting?” Are young athletes specializing too early? Are they missing out on the values of wrestling because of a misguided belief that specialization is the key to success?

Has the day of the multi-sport coach gone by the wayside? If so, is this also reducing the numbers of multi-sport athletes?

Lots of questions. I wish I had some answers.


Gantry said...

Though I don't really have any answers as to why, my uneducated guess would be a couple things:

1) Fear of injuries by the football coach - this is likely the #1 reason, especially at the collegiate level.

2) Ignorance of wrestling by football coaches - as the specialization you mention increases, the current generation of football coach spent his whole life in football. You see less and less "multisport" coaches these days. A football coach without any wrestling background is largely ignorant to its benefits, similar to the rest of the populace.

PS - I don't think Lorenzo Neal was ever a NCAA champ.

maggie said...

I think 215 is a tough fit for may football players because they would need to cut to get at that weight, and many think that they need the weight to be good linemen. Because a big fat belly is more helpful than explosiveness and agility.

Jim Brown said...


You're right.One source shows Lorenzo as an NCAA champ. However, the definitive site ( shows him as an NCAA AA and a World Junior Freestyle champ.

Thanks for the catch.


Jim Brown said...


I guess that you're making part of my point. Today's wrestlers don't seem to be as aware of the benefits
of wrestling as past athletes.