By Brian Jerzak
One thing I have learned while covering both wrestling and football – coaches in both sports feel the two disciplines complement each other in ways that improve the athlete in both sports. Wrestling coaches routinely look to the football field each fall to find diamonds in the rough to add depth or fill a hole, especially in the upper weights. Football coaches, on the other hand, often encourage their athletes to wrestle because of the many crossover skills associated with each sport. One of the many football coaches who have used wrestling to help his football career is the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer.
Although wrestling was not his first choice, the Illinois native quickly found a home on the mat.
“When I was in sixth grade I went out for the basketball team and did not make it,” said Zimmer. “My dad said ‘why don’t you come over to the high school and wrestle after school.’ That is pretty much when I started wrestling. I would walk down to the high school after school and wrestle with the freshmen.”
Zimmer had success right away.
“When I was in sixth grade, I was beating freshmen, so I thought I was pretty good at it.”
He was pretty good at it throughout his high school career.
“I won a lot of tournaments. I was seeded first in the sectionals (as a senior) but got beat,” recalled Zimmer. “I got caught in a move and got pinned. I was able to wrestle back to get third, but I didn’t get a chance to go to State.”
“I loved the single leg,” continued Zimmer. “I think takedowns and riding guys were my two strengths.”
Bill Zimmer, Mike’s father, coached his son in both football and wrestling at Lockport Township High School outside of Chicago. Bill’s time as a high school coach landed him in both the Illinois’ High School Football Hall of Fame and High School Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“My dad was a pretty tough guy,” Zimmer recalled. “If you get beat in a match, you’ve got to get up, suck it up, practice harder and get better. How he tried to teach that resiliency to his wrestlers carried over into who I am.”
“He was never afraid to go to clinics and different places to learn in both sports,” continued the Vikings’ head coach. “I think he loved trying to get kids better. I think I am a lot like him in that way. It excites me to watch a player get better with us – anywhere I’ve coached really. He was innovative in the way that he could figure out ways to help players, ways to get his team to perform better.”
It is easy to see where the younger Zimmer, who still enjoys watching the NCAA tournament and Olympic wrestling, got the competitiveness to work his way through three different college coaching jobs before breaking into the NFL.
“I’ve got several memories (from wrestling), but one memory that stands out is I was playing football in college, and I came back home my freshman year during Christmas break. My dad said ‘come on down (to the wrestling room) and let’s do some takedowns.’ My dad was a big guy and in high school he could get after me most of the time. (This time) I was out of shape, but I went in there and whipped him pretty good. The thing I remember was that he was so competitive that I was trying to get out of the wrestling room, but he was pulling me by my arm because he didn’t want to give up. That memory of my dad and myself stuck with me for a long time.”
Although the Zimmer household was one where multiple sports were played and coached, wrestling obviously made a mark on the entire family.
“There is a bond in families when one of your brothers is a wrestler,” the former All-Conference wrestler said. “You tend to wrestle because you love the sport. It is not the most glorious sport. Basketball, football, and other sports tend to get more glory, but the people and the families that go through wrestling – the dedication that it takes – you are not doing it for the glory and being on ESPN. You are doing it because you want to be really good. The people and families that are into wrestling are into it for all the right reasons. They are into it because they are trying to get better. They are disciplined; they are trying to do things right. It is not about being shown on Sports Center.”
Because of his father – who passed away earlier this year – Zimmer got into the sport, but he stayed in the sport for himself.
“Being able to compete one-on-one, that is the beauty of this sport. I don’t get any help from anyone else. I get to impose my will, or he imposes his will. Then there is the technical aspect of wrestling. There is a lot of technique involved. Getting your hands in the right place, when you are trying to escape you have to make sure you have the proper wrist control. The technique part of it and the competitive part of it I liked.”
Despite his success, Zimmer, who wrestled in the 155-pound weight class in his junior and senior seasons, didn’t consider wrestling his number one sport.
“Wrestling was the toughest sport I was in,” Zimmer said, “but I was a better football and baseball player than I was a wrestler.”
Wrestling still had long-term benefits for the future National Football League head coach.
“It was a tough sport. I think it helped me in a number of ways like becoming more determined. It is such a challenging sport. It builds a lot of character.”
“Anytime you put your heart and soul into something and try to improve every day I think it helps you in life,” Zimmer, who before coming to the Vikings was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons, and the Cincinnati Bengals, continued. “The discipline part of it – when all of your buddies are going down to McDonalds, and you can’t do it – you have to make weight this week. The ability to overcome any kind of negatives in your life – I think wrestling brings a lot of that into your normal life.”
Like most football coaches, Zimmer feels wrestling and football are good companion sports.
“The balance part (of wrestling), the hand to hand things that you do in wrestling are so close to the way football is,” said Zimmer who played college football for Illinois State and had some calls from baseball scouts as a catcher. “The balance with the offensive and defensive linemen, trying to get the right body positions, football-wise. The will to beat your guy one-on-one is a lot of football too. Even though it is a team sport you still have to block your guy, get him blocked, stay on him, things like that.”
His time as a wrestler influences the way he has coached football.
“The toughness part of things – not giving up – you get into the third period or the fourth quarter in football – it is time to go win the match or win the game,” said Zimmer who played quarterback and then because of a wrist injury, linebacker for Illinois State. “I think (wrestling) added a lot of toughness to me. You get some of that from football, but the grueling part, the competitiveness, those kinds of things I try to get through to our team.”
Whether the message comes from Mike or Bill, whether the message is rooted in football, baseball or wrestling, one thing seems true, it is obvious he has been getting his message through to his teams.
Email Brian Jerzak at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the October 9, 2015 issue of The Guillotine Newsmagazine. Find out how to subscribe to The Guillotine Newsmagazine.