The Life Of My Football Life

My life has been guided by a sport that I fell in love with from the moment I first played on the playground. Football has been my medium for learning life’s most critical skills. The football field is a place to develop interpersonal skills, overcome challenges, to express yourself, to earn confidence, develop pride, display your dedication, and to simply have fun with your friends. Even as a coach, I seek football as an outlet to continually develop these virtues in my personal life. Football is my entertainment, my education, my job, my interactions & network, my livelihood, & my way of life. I couldn’t be more thankful that the sport chose me as much as I chose it, and that I have the opportunity make a game my profession.

My passion for the sport developed well before I knew it could pay for my future education or qualify as an occupation. Growing up, I can remember playing at recess, PE class, after school, in our neighborhood backyards, at the park, even in the house—anywhere I could. In my hometown, a core group of kids two years older than me played pick-up games daily throughout the summer. Of course, these games often turned from touch to tackle. I learned to be tough and was forced to raise my level of play to hang with older kids. If there were not friends around, I’d play by myself on our yard, manning every position on the field. While pretending to be my favorite NFL players, I would spin past and jump over imaginary defenders; I would throw passes into the air like a quarterback and then run and jump to catch them as the wide receiver. I participated in local Punt, Pass, & Kick and similar events from the time I was in kindergarten—only after having practiced the skills for hours and hours in the yard. In 4th grade, I became a team manger for our high school team and was able to consume even more football on the sidelines at practices and games.

Off the field, I read books and magazines about my favorite teams and players; I watched every game I could on TV, listening to the announcers, learning the rules and history of the game. Like most kids, I also loved video games. I would be embarrassed to know the amount of hours I spent playing Madden and the NCAA football games—creating players, teams, and growing dynasties season after season. In addition to learning the X’s and O’s through the actual gameplay, users were able to go through other aspects such as creating playbooks, recruiting prospects, constructing rosters, dealing with salary caps, mini-camp drills, and so much more. Although I’d hate to admit how much time I wasted doing so, the experience only fed my growing desire and knowledge for the game.

Finally, in 7th grade, I could play! Junior high football was my first opportunity to put the pads on and play real games with coaches, a scoreboard, and referees. I participated in 5 different sports throughout middle school but still found time to attend football camps hosted by local schools and colleges. As I transitioned into high school, I was fortunate to see a lot of varsity & JV playing time as an underclassman due to being from a small town with not many kids out for football. I again faced the challenge of competing against older and more mature players—I experienced my fair share of picking myself up off the turf and trying again the next play. I was also introduced to weight training throughout the offseason and continued to attend camps.

The tables turned when I became an upperclassman; my hard work was beginning to pay-off on the field and opportunities beyond high school started to present themselves. I began visiting colleges, learning about the recruiting process, and trying to decide where I wanted to continue my football career and education. Ultimately, I chose the University of Iowa because they were the first school to recruit me—plain and simple. The decision made certain that football would be at the forefront of my everyday life for the next 4 years. I couldn’t think of anything better.

During my time at Iowa, I got a first hand look at big time football: offensive & defensive schemes, special teams, practice plans, off-season training, game-week & scout team preparations, football operations, and more. I spent time at six different positions on offense & defense, picking up tips from several different coaches on the field and in film rooms. Although I never made significant contributions on Saturdays during my career, I exited Iowa’s program with an incredible wealth of football knowledge and acumen. I knew I needed to do something with it in order to stay involved in something that was so engrained in my life.

Most ex-players turn to coaching to fill this void. I was no different and was fortunate enough to find an opportunity in Iowa City to get involved with youth football. What started as a small effort to teach the game to kids turned into a driving desire to impact the future of the sport. I’ve grown to enjoy coaching more than I did playing—something I didn’t think was possible until I saw the impact a coach can have.

Football remains a constant focal point in my life, as indicated by my Twitter feed, the TV I watch, radio I listen to, and news I consume. I jokingly label Saturdays & Sundays during the season to be my ‘continuing education’ days so I can watch every game, but mostly keep track of fantasy stats. My work, play, professional network & friends are all tied to football. I often wonder what life would be like without football playing such a prominent role. I think about the other interests I’d have time to pursue, but it’s a wrestling match that football always wins. From the time I was a kid, my dreams were always framed by the sport, and I feel so fortunate to continue chasing those dreams. I feel that I’ve always been at my personal best on a football field, either as a player or a coach. Football is my life.

A Nod To Wrestling

A Nod To Wrestling

To put it simply— Wrestling is exactly what youth football players should be doing during the football offseason. I was a dedicated wrestler for 15 years and recall how much that sport impacted my path from Walnut, Iowa to the University of Iowa.

I was in an Iowa State dorm one night attending summer wrestling camp with some junior high buddies. Football was always my first love, but I had wrestled (and played basketball) since kindergarten and was approaching the 9th grade decision between the mat or the court. With football on my mind, I knew I needed to wrestle. If your kid loves football as much as I did, he should wrestle too. Here’s why:

Requirements Of Wrestling.

Strength. Endurance. Leverage. Balance. Hand-fighting. Takedowns.

Dedication. Hard Work. Toughness. Discipline. Guts.

Read those again…

The physical and psychological demands of the sport apply directly to the football field. The wrestling mat provides more opportunities for up close & personal combat with a guy that you’re trying to physically dominate, just as you would attempt to do on the gridiron. As a result, participation in wrestling is especially helpful for young linemen—the fundamentals to succeed on the mat and in the trenches go hand-in-hand. Mentally, it’s a sport that teaches boys the things they’ll need to know to become men some day.

Football Coaches Recruit Wrestlers

The story I’m told is that Iowa wrestling coach Jim Zalesky noticed a 215-pound sophomore wrestling for Atlantic at the 2003 Iowa high school state wrestling tournament. He thought my body type and ability suited a football player and reportedly notified Coach Ferentz’s office. I’ve never confirmed the story, but soon after Iowa’s great OL coach Reese Morgan started visiting my school on his recruiting trips.

I would run into a lot of my future Hawkeye teammates on the wrestling mat. My bracket that sophomore year contained Mike Humpal (2x State Champion) & Matt Kroul—Matt & I both won state championships at different weights the following season, warming up together in the basement of The Barn (Vets Auditorium). There were more ex-grapplers in the locker room in Iowa City—state champions from Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

Football coaches know the value and makeup of a wrestler. They know the physical and mental requirements to compete and how closely those apply in football. It’s no coincidence that football players who wrestle wind up on college recruiting radars.

If you need more convincing, check out the article and coach quotes below.

Wrestling Can Help Make Football Safer

This is my belief. Wrestling bridges a gap between flag football and tackle. A wrestler learns to feel the strength and weight of an opponent. He learns to take an opponent from his feet to the ground in a controlled manner, how to get inside hand control in a tie up, and to keep his head up—a foundation of USA Football’s Heads Up Movement. Wrestling requires incredible endurance, strength, and other physical traits that could lead to safer football play in youth. It acts as a natural transition into contact sports.

 

If you want to improve your football skills, wrestle. Doing so will raise your level of physicality and your give you a big mental edge. Being a multi-sport athlete is critical toward developing into an elite athlete in any sport. Wrestling and football compliment each other as well as any two sports. And if you live in Iowa, I don’t need to explain to you the importance and level of wrestling in our state. There’s no better opportunity to improve your football game in the offseason than to wrestle.

 

Extras:

Ohio State Football: Work on mat can be edge on line

Why Wrestle

Football recruits boast successful wrestling background

Woodbury Central’s Paulsen, an Iowa football recruit, thrives on wrestling mat

“I draft wrestlers because they are tough. I have never had a problem with a wrestler.” –Joe Gibbs, Hall of Fame football coach

“I would have all of my offensive linemen wrestle if I could.”-John Madden, Hall of Fame football coach

“Wrestlers make coaching football easy. They have balance, coordination, and as a coaching staff, we know they’re tough.” –Tom Osborne, College Hall of Fame football coach-University of Nebraska

“I have never seen a good wrestler turn out to be a bad football player.” – Kirk Ferentz, National & 2x Conference Coach of the Year, University of Iowa

Notable NFL players who wrestled: JJ Watt, Ray Lewis, Bo Jackson, Teddy Bruschi, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith , & many, many more.

Taking Back Football

I don’t need to tell you that the sport of football has been under a microscope lately– from youth programs through the NFL, the debates include injuries, player misconduct, locker room bullying, intercollegiate scandals, and more. The current state of the sport has steered many parents to rethink their child’s participation, several former NFLers have publicly stated that their children won’t play football. Kids that once dreamed of being their town’s future varsity captain, an all-American at their in-state college, or Sunday star in the NFL are now getting sent to soccer practice and alternative activities. To me, it seems that the growth of the sport has also served as the reason it’s image has taken a hit. From dad’s that expect their 5th grader to be a scholarship athlete, high schoolers holding their own press conferences, and pros/collegiates setting countless examples of character and conduct issues; to coaches who are more worried about their record than teaching young men, the organizations (and money) that often force them to be this way, and the whole debate of player safety– our sport may be in trouble. I think a lot of the solutions to these issues can start at the youth level. Based on personal experience, conversations, and observations with coaches, parents, organizers, medical professionals, and former NFL/NCAA players, this entry is a collection of opinions and advice on ways to take football back to being the greatest sport a young player can participate in.

For a little more about my experience as a player, read My Story. Since my playing days, I’ve spent over 3 years starting and running football academies, camps, leagues, special events, and developmental programs for youth football players across Iowa. I’ve grown passionate about working with impressionable young athletes and set out to show them a path to excel as football players and young men. I cherish my playing days, especially as a youngster. I played football anywhere I could– on the playground, in the backyard, at the park, in the gym, and I destroyed my parent’s basement bouncing off the walls tacklers. It was in these hardly organized pickup games that I believe most of my athletic development occurred. I often played with older cousins and neighborhood kids, and always loved a tough challenge. Not only did I develop essential movement skills; I also gained an awareness of the rules, techniques, and strategies of the game. My first experience with organized football was 7th grade tackle football.

There’s no doubt that football is a sport that embraces toughness. It is physically demanding, players often play ‘banged-up”, you have to constantly train your body, and more. A player will never reach his full potential until he has learned to be tough physically and mentally.  But being a good football player takes more than toughness. It’s not about how hard you hit; at some level, everyone will hit the same. Young players need to develop dynamic qualities such as leadership, teamwork, accountability, humility, self-confidence, and perseverance. They need to experience the sport with enthusiasm, fun, & energy. Winning shouldn’t be valued over doing your best and improving yourself physically, mentally, & socially. These are the qualities that make a person tough. These intangibles go a long way on the field, but just as importantly, they help a young person overcome the challenges of life. Just like football, life is tough too. Shouldn’t the goal of any youth sport be to prepare young boys and girls for the tough road ahead, both on the field and in life?

Tackle Football

My personal opinion is that tackle football should not be played until 6th grade at the earliest. Even at that age, I would only recommend it for elite 6th graders with a lot of experience. These days, people are quick talk about concussions and player safety in tackle football– I look at it purely from a coaching & development perspective. Youth players can rarely perform basic fundamental skills & drills with perfect body control and consistency NOT in pads. When you put them in pads, their skeletal functionality becomes restricted and players often can’t raise their arms above their head, turn their head to the side, or bend their knees to get into a stance or run. Now they really struggle with the drills and begin to develop bad habits. Yes, they actually get better at doing things incorrectly and inefficiently.

All young players are going to mistime their jump on a catch, get fooled by a reverse, take a bad pursuit angle, trip and fall, or make other fundamental mistakes as they play. They NEED to make these mistakes in order to learn NOT to make them. It’s much more difficult to learn these lessons and develop awareness & confidence when you’re getting hit around, knocked to the ground, and can’t move properly. Try learning to ride a bike without training wheels; you’re going to crash a bunch and eventually get fed up and say, “to hell with this.” That’s exactly what one local Iowa City head coach has seen with his youth program. His program began a tackle option for 3rd-4th grade a number a years ago, and the first group to participate was now in high school. Coach said that there were 47 kids that played in the initial 3rd-4th grade group; only 25 were still playing in high school. His reason: “they didn’t like getting hit.” I’ve heard this sentiment from several coaches who have seen numbers in their own programs dwindle. They all attribute it to starting tackle football a too young of an age.

Play Less, Practice More

Kids spend too much time competing and too little time on developing their skills. As Allen Iverson infamously said, “We’re talkin’ bout practice, man.” Regarding youth sports, I often hear of 70 game baseball seasons, 80 plus basketball games throughout the year, and nearly 20 football games during a fall. These are staggering numbers and far greater than the number of games they will experience in high school & beyond. Instead, look for more opportunities to improve and develop skills. Spend more time at practice, do some off the field training (speed & agility, weights, film), attend summer camps, & other football programs. Watch football on TV, listen to the announcers—many of them are former players & coaches who provide great insight.

My favorite setting to coach in is during weekly offseason programs and summer camps. There are no games to win; there are no starters or backups. The sole intent of every session is to make each individual player a better football player, no matter what level they’re currently at. I’ve stood and played catch with young players that dropped 10 or 15 passes in a row. But we kept trying and all of a sudden they catch the 16th, the 17th, 18th, on through 20. Then they have a renewed confidence and begin to excel in other drills. There is little time for this attention and development during games and coaches often can’t give individualized training to everyone on the team at practice. This happens in summer camps and football programs around the state. Many summer camps are loaded with staffs that include college coaches, former NFL & NCAA players, and top high school coaches in Iowa.

Don’t Specialize

In order to be a great football player, you need to be a well rounded athlete. Youth should participate in multiple sports activities as they grow up, and not specialize on one specific sport year round. Personally, I played football from August-October, wrestled November-March, and played baseball from April-July. I excelled in all three, and my experiences in each one made me better at the others. Baseball improved my hand eye coordination for catching passes as a tight end; wrestling improved my footwork, hand placement, and balance as a lineman.

A young player also shouldn’t specialize at a particular position in their development. There is no telling what position a youth player will develop into after he matures. Many factors such as coaching, ability, competition, potential, risk, and team needs play a role in an athlete’s position on the field. Having experience at a variety of positions will give a young player more opportunities down the road and raise their awareness about what’s happening on the field. They will become a smarter and more versatile players. This not only improves that player individually, but also improves the team he plays for in a big way.

Parenting

There’s an old saying that coaches are hardest on their own sons. My dad was a coach, youth wrestling & baseball. He wasn’t hard on me. He was tough, but not hard. He was tough in that he expected me to be a good teammate, a respectful winner and loser, and a coachable hard worker. He wasn’t afraid to let me get beat, fail, or be knocked down. He raised me to get back up and win the next one.

He never dwelled on my loses or tried to live through my success. He never questioned my coaches or blamed the refs. I can’t ever remember him being upset or disappointed with me after a loss. He attended every game and was simply there to watch and support. My mom was there with him, she fed me every meal and washed every uniform. My parents knew that the experience of sports for me wasn’t about winning and losing, but about the experiences and life lessons that would shape me into a good man.

Parents, your kids aren’t going to be scholarship candidates until at least high school, no matter how good they are. Don’t expect them to win every game or make every play, especially when they’re young. They need to develop in an environment that is fun and focuses on personal improvement over winning. They need to miss a tackle, strike out, get pinned, and lose from time-to-time. How else are they going to learn not to?

As your son matures and approaches junior high & high school, it’s important that you let him choose his own path. You should want for him only what he wants for himself, not what you want for him. It’s important that you set a positive example and hold him accountable as a student/citizen. Opportunities can be lost (or gained) due to grades and character.

Look at it this way. Your kid getting a scholarship is an 18-year race for him to become a top student-athlete among his peers. This encompasses much more than just what goes on between the white lines. There are many ways to run a race of such length. Often the sprinter fails to finish while the pacer flourishes in the end. Let your son flourish.