By Brian Jerzak
Lakeville North senior Bryce Benhart didn’t have to wrestle his senior year. A lot of high school athletes that I have talked to in a similar situation decide not to continue to be a multi-sport athlete. They choose to focus on the sport they will be playing in college. What makes Benhart’s story even more interesting is very few high school athletes – while in similar situations – had as much at stake as the Panthers’ senior. Well before the 2018-19 high school wrestling season has started, Benhart knew he had a football scholarship to the University of Nebraska waiting for him.
Despite the obvious chances he was taking, the benefits of continuing with wrestling, the opportunity to become a state champion and a brief conversation with one of Minnesota’s most successful high school wrestlers convinced Benhart to decide to get back on the mat for one more season.
“I started both wrestling and football in third grade,” Benhart said.
Benhart was motivated to be the best football player he could be from an early age.
“I was always a bigger kid and was always on the offensive or defensive line,” Benhart said. “My dad always told me you have the talent – don’t waste it. Do something with your talent. Use that to go somewhere big to play football. Get a college degree out of it.”
Part of getting the most out of his talent included becoming the best athlete he could be, but the future wrestling state champion did not dominate on the mat early. With football always on his mind, Benhart’s father helped keep his son on the mat by showing his son how wrestling could help him on the football field.
“I got beat on the first couple of years,” Benhart admitted, “but my dad pulled up a list of all the NFL players who wrestled – guys like Ray Lewis, Roddy White and all those guys that wrestled in high school. I knew wrestling would help me with football.”
The more he wrestled, the more comfortable he got on the mat. He didn’t just wrestle in the winter; he got involved in freestyle and Greco.
“I wanted to keep my wrestling going,” the 6’9″ Benhart said. “I preferred Greco because of all the throwing. When I was younger, I got put on a national team and went to Indiana. I ended my freestyle and Greco career after my sophomore year and being on the Minnesota national team again. After that, I stuck with off-season weight lifting.”
Soon his success in Greco translated to folkstyle.
“My first two years in high school I wasn’t the greatest,” Benhart admitted. “Around my sophomore year, I started to get to know what moves worked for me and the technique I need to work on. When I started to learn to use my leverage against other people, I started winning my matches.”
He started winning his matches – in part – because he learned to use his frame.
“I am good at extending people and making people carry my weight,” the future Cornhusker said. “If I can take them down, they pretty much are not getting out. I was a pinner. I think I had twenty pins my senior year.”
“On my feet, I am going to use an under hook to a front headlock,” Benhart continued, “or an under hook to a snatch single.”
Benhart knew big things were coming for him on the football field.
“The summer before my junior year I got my first Division I offer. After the first offer, I started to get more colleges contacting me. (Recruiting) took off from there. I started visiting more places and started to get more offers. At some points, it was a stressful process. I know most people don’t get this shot, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to pick the right school and coaches for me.”
As a junior, Benhart had a dominating season on the mat against almost everyone – with one notable exception – former Apple Valley four-time state champion and current Minnesota Gophers’ All-American Gable Steveson.
“I lost to Gable four times last year, and after they gave out the awards, (at the state tournament) he came up behind me and said, ‘this (state title) is for you next year,'” Benhart said. “That meant a lot to me. It made me want to come back. I also knew we would have a good team.”
After placing fourth at the state tournament as a junior, football season ramped up. So then, did the pressure to pick a college.
“I committed to Nebraska in October,” Benhart said. “I knew I wasn’t going to find a better place for me than Nebraska. I didn’t want to wait to listen to more teams talk; I knew where I wanted to go and just wanted to get it over with.”
Benhart was a crucial part of Lakeville North’s 2018 undefeated state championship football team. After North’s 28-21 victory in the Prep Bowl, his focus turned back to wrestling.
“Knowing that Gable would be gone my senior year – I believed I would be the favorite to win it all,” Benhart – who also had Division II schools interested in him as a wrestler – said. “I knew I could have a dominating type of senior year. I had the goal of winning a state championship in football and then winning a state title in wrestling.”
His final season on the mat started slowly but quickly picked up steam.
“Because the football team got to the state championship game, I missed a whole week of (wrestling) practice,” Benhart – who played football at about 310 pounds – said. “The Monday after the state football championship was my first practice. I was about twenty pounds over, and I had four days before I was going to wrestle my first match. My first match on that Friday, I was out of shape and weak because I had cut weight so fast. I barely won my match. After that, I started to get in shape, and I was able to roll up the wins and pins.”
The wins didn’t stop until he won the second state title of his senior year – a 7-0 victory in the 285AAA finals.
An injury could have happened at any time – putting his football scholarship in jeopardy.
“I could kind of control that,” Benhart said. “I was more worried about injury in football than wrestling. There are a lot of pile-ups in football where you could get rolled up on. Wrestling I wasn’t worried about it because I could control the positions I got into. The referees are smart about when to stop the match if there is something potentially dangerous.”
The Cornhuskers’ football coaches weren’t worried about an injury on the mat for their recruit either.
“(Nebraska) was fine with whatever I did,” Benhart explained. “They were all for me wrestling and winning a state title. It didn’t bother them as much as you might think. They liked the idea.”
Benhart likes the idea of football players competing in wrestling or other sports during the school year. Wrestling specific, he cited how the sport helped with his leverage, ability to stay low, and getting his mindset right.
“If you’re a football player who doesn’t do a winter sport, you don’t play basketball, and you are a big guy – you should wrestle,” concluded Benhart. “If you are on the offensive line or the defensive line and you are just going to lift weights in the winter – give wrestling a shot. Wrestling teaches you about leverage, hand fighting, grit, the mental game of sports and you get in great shape. There is nothing like it. You increase your flexibility. It helped me out a lot.”
Benhart didn’t have to wrestle his senior year. Many athletes in his position would not have risked it, but Benhart knew what the sport had done for his career. He knew he had a chance to end his wrestling career on the highest of notes. He decided to go for it and in the process added a state championship to his resume and continued his progression as an athlete that he will carry forward on a Big Ten football field near you.