'We're kindred spirits': A collection of football and wrestling stories from Kirk Ferentz, Tom Brands, Dan Gable and more

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Mike Humpal found success at every level of his football career.

As a senior at New Hampton, he was all-state. As a senior at Iowa, in 2007, he was a second-team All-Big Ten linebacker. Then he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to beat the Arizona Cardinals the next year in Super Bowl 43.

And yet, he may have not experienced any of that if not for his wrestling career.

Humpal won two Class 2A state titles for New Hampton in 2002-03. He went a combined 64-1 during his final two seasons while competing at 215 pounds. As a junior, he pinned Kuemper’s Matt Ricke in the state finals in Des Moines — which caught the eye of a football coach in Iowa City.

Kirk Ferentz had just returned home and watched Humpal’s victory on television. He was intrigued by Humpal’s aggression and the speed at which he moved his hands and feet. The next day, Ferentz found then-assistant coach Reese Morgan.

Tell me about this kid from New Hampton.

“I didn’t know if he was good enough to wrestle at Iowa, but he was certainly good enough to play football here,” Ferentz says now. “He ended up becoming a great player for us.”

Humpal’s Iowa career was highlighted by his 127-tackle season in 2007. He recorded 18 tackles in a 10-6 win over then-18th-ranked Illinois, earning him National Defensive Player of the Week honors. 

Looking back, Humpal says he never gave much thought to wrestling in college, despite admitting that he was “probably a better wrestler than football player coming out of high school.” But he knows that, without the sport, his football career may have never materialized.

“My goal was to always play football in college,” Humpal says. “I even told some wrestling coaches after I won state as a junior that I already made up my mind. I kind of shut my own doors before I even had a football offer, which was probably dumb.

“But wrestling opened the door that ultimately led to my Iowa offer.”

Iowa's Mike Humpal brings down Illinois quarterback Isiah Williams for a loss in the third quarter of a game played Oct. 13, 2008 at Kinnick Stadium. Humpal finished the day with 18 tackles.

Kindred spirits: Football and wrestling

Full disclosure: This story was fueled by a simple curiosity.

Earlier this year, while Alaric Jackson recovered from a knee injury, the most uniquely Iowa story emerged when the Hawkeye football team’s starting offensive line featured former high school wrestlers. From right to left, it went:

  • senior Levi Paulsen (Woodbury Central);
  • sophomore Kyler Schott (North Linn);
  • redshirt freshman Tyler Linderbaum (Solon);
  • senior Landan Paulsen (Woodbury Central);
  • and junior Tristan Wirfs (Mount Vernon).

What’s more, each of them were successful high school wrestlers.

Levi Paulsen and Wirfs both won state titles. Schott and Landan Paulsen both reached the state finals. Linderbaum’s best finish was third. Some of them even wrestled each other, and Sports Illustrated went to Iowa City and talked to them about it.

College coaches often recruit multi-sport athletes, and many, like Ferentz, are drawn to the link between football and wrestling. The former is perhaps the ultimate team game. The latter is the ultimate individual sport. Many skills used in both translate back and forth — leverage, hand and feet movement and positioning, tackling/takedown technique and more.

This season, the Hawkeyes’ current football roster contains at least 16 former high school wrestlers. Iowa’s current wrestling roster lists at least eight former high school football players. 

Mount Vernon's Tristan Wirfs celebrates his win in the class 2A, 220-pound title match Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 in the state wrestling finals at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

This raised a simple question: Have Iowa’s wrestling and football coaches ever crossed paths on the recruiting trails? Did Dan Gable and Hayden Fry or Tom Brands and Ferentz ever go head-to-head for the same athlete?

Well …

“We’ve never gone head-to-head on anybody,” Ferentz says, “but we’ve talked about guys, for sure. If those guys see someone on the wrestling mat, they’ll give us their two cents. They might even tip us off about a guy.”

Added Brands: “If we do, we defer. But if it’s somebody we really want, we’d have a conversation.”

There’s a mutual respect between the two programs. Brands has talked to the football team. Ferentz made himself available on an hours-long notice when current Iowa star Spencer Lee was in Iowa City on his official visit. Brands welcomes football recruits in to watch wrestling practice. Ferentz participated in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s Polar Plunge in 2012.

“Only guys I would jump into a cold pond for,” Ferentz says and laughs. “It’s almost like we’re kindred spirits. Football and wrestling have always had a great relationship. In the '80s, it seemed like all of our football guys knew all the wrestling guys.”

And conversations with both revealed an underlying connection between the two sports — and plenty of great stories tying them together.

'The Banach brothers would kill them'

Ferentz grew up in Pittsburgh, a hotbed for wrestling. He first came to Iowa as an assistant under Fry in the fall of 1981. The following January, he attended the Iowa-Iowa State wrestling dual at the Field House. The Hawkeyes won, 24-11, and he was enthralled by the action.

“Wrestling in Pittsburgh is big,” Ferentz says, “but not quite like it is in Iowa.”

Ferentz, now 64, learned quickly that wrestling means a lot here. Ames hosted the first-ever NCAA Championships in 1928. His first year in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes won their fifth of what became nine-straight national team titles under Gable. The high school state championship finals session has sold out for 32 straight years.

As such, he began mining the mats for great football players. He found plenty over the years — the Hilgenberg brothers, Humpal, Hap Peterson, Ron Geater, Matt Kroul, Austin Blythe, Riley Reiff and many more. Matt Roth, an All-American defensive end for Iowa in 2004, wore No. 31 because he went 31-0 and won a state wrestling title as a senior at Willowbrook High School in Illinois.

Even more, all three of Ferentz’s sons wrestled, and middle son James, now with the New England Patriots, made the 3A state finals as a senior in 2008. The Hawkeyes’ most recent signing class features Tyler Elsbury, a heavyweight state finalist last season in Illinois.

“The theory I developed,” Ferentz says, “was that if a guy was a great wrestler, it didn’t mean he was going to be a great football player, but rarely was he a bad football player.

“It’s not a dealbreaker necessarily if a guy isn’t a wrestler, but boy, I tell you, it’s certainly a bonus.”

Many of the linemen Ferentz recruited clung to their wrestling roots. In the 1980s, Gable sometimes invited them to the wrestling room for workouts. Back then, Ed and Lou Banach had recently finished their college careers — Ed won three nationals titles, Lou won two — and were training for the 1984 Olympics (both would win gold).

They did not take it easy on their football-first counterparts.

“The Banach brothers would kill them,” Ferentz says and laughs. “I think they just wanted guys to throw around.”

Added Gable: “They threw them around pretty good. But everybody that came over wrestled in high school. They wouldn’t just send football players over.”

'They did winter workouts, I did worse'

During Ferentz’s first stint in Iowa City, he also came across some athletes that played football and wrestled in college.

Mark Sindlinger is perhaps the most well-known. He won three state titles for Charles City from 1981-83. He played football under Fry, backing up Joel Hilgenberg as a true freshmen, then stepping in and starting at center from 1984-86, during which Iowa went 27-9-1. He also wrestled under Gable — won two Big Ten titles and was a two-time All-American at heavyweight.

“Frankly, he was a better wrestler than a football player in high school,” Ferentz recalls. “We recruited him more on his wrestling prowess and accomplishments. He was dynamic. I think Dan would’ve loved to have had him the whole time.”

“Coach Fry was always good with it,” Sindlinger adds. “I don’t know how much he liked it, but he never complained. They were doing winter workouts. I was just doing worse winter workouts.

“I just kept thinking, why not? I could never find a reason not to do both, and no one ever objected to it. I was pretty fortunate.”

There was also Doug Benschoter, now on the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Board of Governors. He was a four-year lineman for Iowa football and a 1976 All-American in wrestling. John Oostendorp, the head wrestling coach at Coe College, was a two-time All-American in 1992-93 and a football letter-winner in 1992. He made the 1995 U.S. Greco-Roman world team. 

“I was recruited by Iowa for football, but they didn’t offer me,” Oostendorp says now. “I was going to go to Northern Iowa for football, and the night before I was going to sign with them, Gable came down and offered me a wrestling scholarship, so I signed with them.

“Mike Stoops — he was a graduate assistant — came to watch wrestling practice during my freshman wrestling season. But I give credit to coach Gable to allow me to do both. I loved playing football, but that actually made me appreciate wrestling that much more.”

Competing in both wrestling and football isn’t as common now.

Fresno State’s Josh Hokit did both last year. As a junior, he rushed for 260 yards and one touchdown in the fall, then became an All-American at 197 pounds in March. This season, Hokit rushed for 287 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns. He’s currently ranked No. 13 nationally at heavyweight by Trackwrestling.

“It’s one of those things where it’s a rare bird to be able to do both, especially today,” Brands says. “There’s so much specialized training in different phases.

“For Iowa, Chris Doyle has them when they’re not in season. Wrestling is great, but these guys have to be the best football players they can be. To do that, they need what Chris Doyle is giving them.”

'Hey, why didn't you recruit us?'

Before Austin Blythe joined the Iowa football program and went on to the NFL, he produced one of the greatest high school wrestling careers in Iowa history.

From 2008-11, he went 188-11 with 146 pins for Williamsburg, still the fifth-most all-time in state history. He was a four-time Class 2A state finalist and a three-time champ. He earned All-American honors at both the Cadet and Junior levels, and was considered the No. 4 heavyweight prospect in the country as a senior.

“He had the goods,” Brands says. “But we had some pretty good intelligence coming out of the family camp that he was probably going to play football.”

Blythe ultimately started 49 of 50 games for the Hawkeyes and was crucial in their 12-0 season in 2015. The Indianapolis Colts selected him in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He was waived and picked up by the Los Angeles Rams and has started every game the last two years, including last year's Super Bowl.

“You know, we like to shoot pheasants,” Brands continues, “so we frequent his establishments every now and again.”

2010: Austin Blythe of Williamsburg beat Adam Praska of Crestwood (Cresco), in the Class 2A heavyweight championship match at Wells Fargo Arena.

The Iowa wrestling staff is extra thorough in the recruiting process when it comes to guys who play both sports. They normally defer once the football program begins recruiting them because that usually means they want to play football at the next level.

Every now and then, Brands will catch some friendly ribbing from a few Iowa football players for not recruiting them for wrestling.

“I got to know the Paulsens a little bit this summer,” Brands says. “They’re very vocal. They would joke, ‘Hey, why didn’t you recruit us?’

“Here’s the thing, they were on our radar. If they hadn’t committed to football, they would’ve been great wrestlers.”

Bettendorf’s Griffin Liddle is another football-first athlete who projects as a great college wrestler. He’s a returning 3A state finalist and earned All-American honors at the 16U freestyle and greco national championships last summer. He’s considered a top-100 recruit by MatScout. His dad, Josh, was a letterwinner for Iowa wrestling from 2000-02.

He’s also a three-star defensive line prospect who’s considered among the top-25 nationally at his position, according to 247Sports. Liddle was an All-Iowa Football Elite selection this past season. He committed to Iowa football in November.

Bettendorf defensive lineman Griffin Liddle (70) looks to the sideline during a Class 4A varsity football game, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, at Trojan Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

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Not every towering offensive lineman or disruptive defensive lineman makes a good college wrestler. The thought of Wirfs donning an all-black Iowa singlet became intriguing after he won state in 2017. Brands is quick to point out that Aaron Costello, a current Hawkeye heavyweight, beat Wirfs twice that year — once by a 3-2 decision, then again by fall a couple weeks later.

“Wrestling is just so competitive,” Ferentz added. “The guys that do it, they do it year-round. Tom and (Iowa wrestling’s associate head coach Terry Brands) could explain this better than I could, but a guy can’t go out and win just because they’re strong and tough.

“It takes a little bit more than that.”

A handful of Iowa football players have switched to wrestling during their college careers.

Currently, Sam Cook, a two-time state champ from Fort Dodge, joined the wrestling program after redshirting in football in 2016-17. Back in 2007, Jordan McLaughlin joined the wrestling program after three years as a fullback and linebacker. He filled in for Dan Erekson when Iowa hosted Michigan State and pinned Nick Palmieri at 197 pounds.

“He hip-tossed this guy on the edge of the mat and pinned him, and we all went crazy in the front row,” Humpal recalls. “I remember Brands came over and said, ‘That’s the kind of excitement we’re looking for in Carver.’ It was a fun night.”

'Hands and feet are everything'

Ferentz doesn’t follow wrestling religiously, but he’s become a fan over the years. Many have impressed him — so much that he can’t help but wonder how they might fare on the gridiron. 

Specifically, he mentions the 6-foot-5 Adam Coon, a three-time heavyweight All-American at Michigan and a 2018 greco world silver medalist. Another: Kyle Snyder, a three-time NCAA champion for Ohio State and three-time freestyle world and Olympic champion. 

On Coon, Ferentz says: “He’s smart as hell. It wouldn’t shock me if he showed up in a pro camp at some point. He could be really good.”

On Snyder: “I don’t know what position he’d be. He’s probably not big enough to be a lineman, but he could definitely play.”

“We probably see more guys in their sport than they see in ours,” he added.

Many elite-level wrestlers have gone on to successful NFL careers.

Stephen Neal is perhaps the best example of Ferentz’s theory: a four-time All-American and two-time national champ for Cal-State Bakersfield in 1998-99 and a freestyle world champ in 1999. Despite not playing college football, the New England Patriots signed Neal in 2001. He started 14 games in 2004 and helped them win their third Super Bowl in four years.

Then there’s Carlton Haselrig, a six-time national champ for Pitt-Johnstown in 1987-89 — three in Division II, and three more in Division I (back then, Division II and III national champs earned bids to the Division I national championships). He is the only wrestler ever to win six NCAA titles. He became an All-Pro guard with the Steelers. There’s also Lorenzo Neal, a 1992 All-American for Fresno State who became an All-Pro fullback with the San Diego Chargers.

New England Patriots offensive lineman Stephen Neal  makes a block during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York on December 11, 2005. New England won the game 35-7. (Photo by Mark Konezny/NFLPhotoLibrary)

Humpal’s NFL career was not that fruitful. The Steelers released him shortly after the Super Bowl. Injuries. He’s now a chiropractor in North Liberty. Some of his clients are local high school athletes. He talks with them often about playing multiple sports.

And, of course, he always tells the football players about wrestling.

“Hands and feet are everything,” Humpal says. “In football, you’ve got helmets and shoulder pads on, and people think you just bang around trying to get to the ball. Well, not really. The higher the level, the more you want to use your hands and feet, regardless of the position.

“The other part was just body awareness, just knowing where you are and feeling where people are. You do that often in wrestling, with mat awareness. Wrestling taught me to sift through the garbage to get to the ball carrier. It’s like a sixth sense, just knowing where guys are.”

For all the technical skills Humpal gained from both sports over the years, he says the biggest benefit he gained was between the ears. That trait helped him reach the sport’s pinnacle, and has driven him to succeed even now that his athletic career is finished.

“Wrestling helped me develop so much mental strength, and just emphasizing the importance of believing in your own ability,” Humpal said. “You know, I’m going out there and I’m going to beat this guy, whether it’s scoring a takedown or tackling a ball carrier.

“In wrestling, it’s only you out there. There’s no place to hide, and it’s your responsibility to get the job done. That applies to so much in real life, too. That was the biggest benefit I got from wrestling.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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