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By Roger Moore
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
A good athlete, you grew up playing football, wrestling and throwing the shot put or discus a little. By the time you are a freshman or sophomore in high school, football coaches are telling you that you have a chance to play at the next level so it would be wise to retire the wrestling shoes and focus full-time on the gridiron.
And then you see that Stephen Neal made almost $35,000 in his first year of professional football in 2003. Six years later, in 2009, that salary was $2.5 million.
Neal is a special case. He was a four-time All-American for California-Bakersfield from 1996-99, winning back-to-back NCAA titles at heavyweight to finish his career. He added a World Championship in freestyle in 1999 and retired following the 2000 Olympic Trials.
Just over three years later he was earning a paycheck in professional football. Now, the New England Patriots’ offensive guard has three Super Bowl rings.
Neal did not play college football and is a rare case. Although there are still solid young heavyweight prospects around the country, more and more are choosing to put on shoulder pads and a helmet as opposed to wearing a singlet and headgear.
For those who have the potential to possibly reach the riches of the NFL it’s hard to argue with their choice.
Twenty-five NFL players made more than $12.3 million in base salary in 2009.
It’s not all heavyweights. Plenty of 215- and 189-pounders have ended their wrestling careers for football, including two of the top prospects in the country.
Only one wrestler has won four New Jersey state championships. Andrew Campolattano, a 189-pounder who owns a 131-1 prep record, will go for his fourth next spring. Jimmy Lawson, a three-time champion at heavyweight, pinned 37 of 39 opponents as a junior.
Both, however, will play football in college.
“A lot of people only saw me as a wrestler and that’s all they’ll ever see me as until I prove myself on the football field,” Campolattano told The Star-Ledger last April. “But it’s not their decision. It’s my future. I have to do what makes me happy.”
They aren’t the first — and certainly won’t be the last.
“Stephen Neal, Lorenzo Neal, Carlton Haselrig … that just shows what elite athletes they are,” said Maryland head coach Kerry McCoy, a two-time NCAA champion at heavyweight for Penn State. “But they are special cases.”
In some cases, wrestlers have turned their backs on football as was the case with John Dergo, who was named the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times Football Player of the Year in 2005 after he rushed for over 3,100 yards and 52 touchdowns for Morris High School. He chose to wrestle for his in-state Illini and capped off a college wrestling career with a fifth-place national finish last March at 184 pounds.
When you are from a state that does not feature collegiate wrestling programs, sometimes the decision may be a little easier.
Kevin Kooyman, a 6-foot-6, 262-pound defensive end at Washington State University, won Washington state titles as a 215-pounder in 2004 and ‘05. Kooyman’s teammate, Louis Bland, a 221-pound linebacker, was a two-time California state champion.
“I had a chance to go to Boise State and play football and wrestle but I chose to stay in Washington,” Kooyman said. “If they wrestled at Washington State, who knows, maybe I would have tried to do both. But that’s probably pretty hard to do.
“Wrestling helped me a ton and I still keep up with it. I go back to the state championships every year. But for me it was probably always going to be football.
Kooyman explains what’s going through many young athletes’ minds. “You can’t really do a ton with wrestling after college. For some guys, bigger guys who might be pretty good athletes and have the potential to do something; it’s hard to question the decision. Football just keeps growing.”
“Football players are treated a little differently,” McCoy said. “A lot of times unless you are at some of the bigger wrestling schools you aren’t going to get a lot of attention. Very few (wrestlers) go to the Olympics or can get to that elite level. Getting to the NFL, statistically, doesn’t happen for a lot of football players either. It’s a tough sell. You can’t try and talk a kid out of something that he really wants to do.”
The problem is not exclusive to states with limited wrestling tradition. One of Iowa’s top prospects, Austin Blythe, a two-time state champion heavyweight and No. 3-ranked prep this season, will play football for the Hawkeyes.
In Oklahoma the lure of football is no different.
Stillwater High’s Russell Brorsen won a state championship at heavyweight in 2005, beating Dustin Finn in the finals. Finn went on to earn a pair of Division II runner-up finishes for Central Oklahoma. Brorsen was also a worthy prep rival of Jared Rosholt, who earned three All-America honors during his career at Oklahoma State.
“It was probably always going to be football,” said Brorsen, who finished his career at Kansas University last fall. “Wrestling was great but sometimes you have to make the decision that is best for you.”
Coaches know that finding 125- and 133-pounders is much easier than signing — and keeping — big guys.
“There just aren’t that many of them out there,” said Oklahoma State coach John Smith. “You have a lot of programs going after a few guys. There’s only so many to go around.”
Paul Duren, who calls Del City, Okla., home — hometown of the Smith family and the legendary James’ of Central Oklahoma — won a trio of state titles from 189 to 215 pounds from 1999-01. He signed with Oklahoma State and finished his career tied for ninth on the school’s all-time tackle chart.
Half jokingly, Duren always commented on the difference between wrestling practice and football practice. Many high school football coaches used to — some still do — like having some of their big men use wrestling as “off-season” football.
“Wrestling helps you with your hands, leverage, all the things a lineman and linebacker needs,” Brorsen said. “And obviously the practices are a lot harder.”
Again, for collegiate wrestling, at least for the big guys, money is the giant elephant in the room. Only a handful of American heavyweights are making some sort of a living with wrestling as their sole provider.
McCoy didn’t think about wrestling in college until his senior year of high school in New York. Two national championships, a fifth-place finish at the 2000 Olympics and now the coach of a top 20 program, McCoy wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve had a unique experience,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better life and I wouldn’t do anything differently. It comes down to doing what you want to do and I’ve been fortunate.
“When you hear of a kid making a commitment to play football there still might be some communication. But it’s like hearing that he has committed to another program, you aren’t going to try and talk him out of it, tell him that he isn’t going to be successful at another program (or the NFL). All we can do is talk about the benefits of our sport, of our university and what we have to offer.”
With sport on such a high pedestal in the United States there are always going to be a few parents and coaches pushing young men to do what they feel is best for them. There are elite high school football programs that would rather have their athletes in off-season football as opposed to on a wrestling mat. But that is an argument for another day.
However, a scholarship from a small Division I football program might be more available and valuable than what’s available from a wrestling program’s 9.9 scholarships.
Still, it comes down to what an 18-year-old feels is best for him.
Would Campolattano have wrestled on the big stage? At the Olympics? Will he suit up for the New York Giants six years from now?
There are no guarantees. And that choice just opens the door for another big man who may have decided against a small football program and kept his wrestling shoes.