Gridiron Grapplers: For many football players, wrestling helps hone their craft
When Brett Zanotto began playing football at Franklin Regional, Panthers coach Greg Botta gave him a few words of advice — and they had nothing to do with playing linebacker, Zanotto's position.
At least not directly.
Botta pleaded with Zanotto to start wrestling again, something he gave up a few years prior.
“I love having wrestlers as football players,” Botta said.
“I have a lot of those kids. They're tough kids, and they do very well.”
Perhaps more so than any other combination, wrestlers seem to make the best football players, several coaches and players insisted.
“Wrestling is so tough mentally; there's nothing else like it,” said South Fayette's Grant Fetchet, the third-place finisher at 152 pounds in WPIAL Class AA last winter. “It's the greatest complementary sport there is to football.”
There are three primary reasons the sports go so well together: balance, tackling and hand placement.
If done effectively, the football player-wrestler hybrid is an easily recruitable product for college coaches in either sport.
Though one thing is clear: Wrestling helps with football more than football helps with wrestling.
“Wrestlers are obviously pretty tough, and football coaches like that,” said Kiski Area's Shane Kuhn, a tight end who has fielded football interest from Youngstown State, Pitt, West Virginia, Kent State, Temple and Bowling Green.
Kuhn won a WPIAL Class AAA wrestling title at heavyweight last season and lists Virginia, American, Bucknell and Pitt as schools recruiting him for wrestling.
“Wrestling builds a lot of character,” Kuhn added. “You never have to worry about wrestlers.”
Tackling is something at which Montour linebacker Cole Macek excels, but it's not necessarily because of his perfect technique. Yet his method, one heavily influenced by time spent on the mat, works.
“When I tackle people, I automatically shoot in for a double-leg takedown,” said Macek, who had 58 tackles going into Friday's games. “I have trouble hitting people high because I'm so used to it.
Macek added, “I don't miss many tackles.”
Neither has Zanotto, who had 57 tackles and scored seven touchdowns through five games. Becoming a wrestler once again has supplemented his football career perfectly.
“It's a lot of hip explosion,” Zanotto said. “You have to have good footwork. You have to be able to use your leverage when you're wrestling.”
Kuhn notices his wrestling acumen while using his hands while blocking as a tight end or fighting off blocks as a linebacker.
Fetchet, South Fayette's 5-foot-11, 170-pound running back, agrees.
“Even though they may not be the biggest people, wrestlers can cause some damage because they know how to move someone,” Fetchet said.
“You have a sense of control over someone.”
Perhaps nowhere is this marriage more pronounced than at South Fayette. Wrestling coach Rick Chaussard is the middle school football coach.
Football coach Joe Rossi loves having kids on his team miss winter workouts for wrestling, something brothers Grant and Mike Fetchet and J.J. and Zach Walker all have done.
“Instead of lifting with us three days a week, they're on the mat five days a week or more, then wrestling weekend tournaments,” Rossi said. “That's what you want.”
Though he said football camp trumps wrestling in terms of the most costly activity on his body, Penn-Trafford running back Devin Austin said those weekend tournaments were a good reminder when things get difficult with football.
“No matter how good of shape you're in, you're still going to be sore,” Austin said.
And that toughness, that willingness to press on, is a reason Kiski Area wrestling coach Chuck Tursky — someone who coached football for 23 years and planned to do both sports at Slippery Rock University before injuries scuttled that plan — always tried to convince his wrestlers to play football.
“I was always looking if there was a wrestler who didn't play football,” Tursky said. “I would be talking to him.”
The payoff, of course, can be a college scholarship.
As Rossi said, the improved technique through wrestling improves the player's film. Toughness speaks for itself. Tursky brought up a third idea: leverage — and not the kind Macek was talking about.
“I think it helps quite a bit when there's a lineman who's a good wrestler,” Tursky said. “Their stock goes up. Schools have to offer money because they're going to go one way or another. Either way it works to the kid's advantage.”