Wrestling big help in football

Former Wrestling ProsMany current and former NFL players wrestled at least in high school. NFL players who won NCAA wrestling championships include Curly Culp, Kansas City Chiefs; Rob Essink, Seattle Seahawks; Carlton Haselrig, Pittsburgh Steelers; Jim Nance, New England Patriots; Lorenzo Neal, Tennessee Titans; and Stephen Neal, New England Patriots.Other NFL notables who wrestled: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens; Tiki Barber, New York Giants; Ronnie Lott, San Francisco 49ers; Bob Golic, Cleveland Browns; Archie Griffin, Cleveland Browns; John Hannah, New England Patriots; Bo Jackson, Oakland Raiders; Matt Millen, Oakland Raiders; Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jim Plunkett, Oakland Raiders; and Fred Weary, Houston Texans.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- John Hannah, still regarded by many as the best offensive lineman in NFL history, was once quoted in a Sports Illustrated story that wrestling made him the football player he became.

The former Baylor School standout specifically credited the sport and longtime Red Raiders wrestling coach Luke Worsham with much of his success.

Many former wrestlers played in the NFL, including former Titans running back Lorenzo Neal, and celebrated coach and television analyst John Madden once said, "I would have all my offensive linemen wrestle if I could."

Numerous high school football players were competing Friday in the first day of the Bradley Central Invitational, including Bradley heavyweight Patrick Benson, a defending Tennessee state champion who said he's a better football player because of wrestling.

"Wrestling makes you more aggressive. My footwork is much better," said the 285-pounder who hopes to continue his football career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga or at Eastern Kentucky. "I have improved my mindset in football because of wrestling, but my balance and my agility are so much better. I wish I had started wrestling when I was in elementary school."

Though he didn't start wrestling until his sophomore year, Benson placed fifth in the state before winning the gold last year.

Notre Dame senior Jack Boone, always a competitor in the lighter weights, played football this year for the first time since middle school. A state finalist now wrestling at 132 pounds, stuffed himself during football to get to 150. And he enjoyed it -- eating all he could and the sport itself.

"I would do it again," Boone said. "I wish I had started as a freshman. The [football] coaches told me I could have been good if I had, but it definitely got me more aggressive going against bigger guys."

Justin Mathieson is a three-sport guy at Hixson, playing quarterback and linebacker in football in addition to wrestling and playing soccer.

"In wrestling you use every part of your body and muscles you don't even know you have. It is more demanding physically and mentally [than football]," he said. "I don't know if I could pick if I had to choose. I hate cutting weight, I love being a quarterback, but I also love to win."

It's the mental toughness that East Ridge 182-pounder Cody Evans has noticed.

"Wrestling has made me a lot better athlete, but I think it has made me a better person all-around," he said. "I've learned not to quit but to push myself harder and to push forward. I'll be a better football player because I'm wrestling."

Garrick Hall has played and coached both sports for Hixson and is the Wildcats' wrestling coach. He thinks the two sports are joined at the hip.

"In the beginning I always said wrestling kept me in shape for football -- all the pushing, shoving and running. But it did help my football," Hall said. "Wrestling teaches you to be self-reliant and it helped me become a leader.

"Wrestling just brings out and sharpens mental toughness, and you learn how to act when the chips are down. It carries over to other sports and in life situations that may arise down the road."