College wrestlers attend Jets’ minicamp
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Sports Writer
Sun May 13, 4:19 PM ET
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Cole Konrad looked down at the football gear spread out in front of his locker, shook his head and smiled.
“There’s tons of stuff here,” Konrad said with a laugh Sunday in the New York Jets’ locker room.
Konrad, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Minnesota, is used to wearing very little while competing in his natural sport. As one of 51 players participating in the Jets’ rookie minicamp, Konrad is in new surroundings, with a multipiece football uniform and helmet replacing his usual wrestling singlet and head gear.
“Football’s foreign to me, just like a lot of these guys would feel if they tried wrestling,” said Konrad, wearing a gray Minnesota Wrestling T-shirt. “I’m just learning every day as I’m coming in here. Everything’s new to me.”
He’s not alone. Tommy Rowlands, also a two-time NCAA wrestling champ from Ohio State, is in camp with the Jets on a tryout. The two wrestlers are roommates during the three-day camp — and opponents on the mat.
Konrad is No. 1 in the heavyweight division of the college rankings, but is second to Rowlands in the U.S. senior freestyle rankings. Rowlands beat Konrad in the finals of the U.S. National Championships last month in Las Vegas. The two will meet again next month at the U.S. World Team Trials on June 10 in Las Vegas, with each man’s sights set on winning an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“We don’t talk wrestling too much, but we get along real well,” Konrad said. “We’ve been talking about football mainly.”
Konrad, 23, is trying out for the offensive line, while Rowlands, who’ll turn 26 next month, is giving it a shot at linebacker. Neither has played competitive football in years: Konrad since his freshman year of high school, and Rowlands since eighth grade.
“What you look for in terms of progress is a little bit different (from other players),” Jets coach Eric Mangini said. “What I like about these guys is that they’re in a foreign environment, yet they’re not fazed by it. They’re going to go out and compete like crazy because that’s how they’re wired, and that’s a great characteristic.”
Mangini, who wrestled in high school, is intrigued by their athleticism, which prompted the invitations. Both Rowlands and Konrad were surprised when they received calls from Brendan Prophett, the Jets’ assistant director for pro scouting.
“I thought it was a prank call,” Rowlands said, laughing. “When I returned his call, it was a voice mail and it said he was from the New York Jets, so I figured if someone was pranking me, they’re going to great lengths to make the joke work. At that time, I knew it was real.”
And one of them making the team isn’t necessarily impossible. Mangini was with New England when Steve Neal, a two-time NCAA champion wrestler, tried out and became a serviceable offensive lineman for the Patriots.
“I don’t want to give anybody the edge because I know they’re both going to worlds,” Mangini said with a smile. “I think they’re pretty comparable.”
And they are on the wrestling mat, too.
Rowlands, from Hilliard, Ohio, is Ohio State’s career leader in wins, team points and takedowns. His career record with the Buckeyes was 161-14, including the 2002 and 2004 NCAA heavyweight titles.
“I’m planning on winning the Beijing Olympics and then retiring from the sport of wrestling,” said Rowlands, currently an assistant wrestling coach for the Buckeyes. “At that point, you never know, but if I achieve that goal, I know I’ll be able to walk away from the sport knowing I’ve reached the pinnacle. If I’m able to do that, I’ll be real happy.”
Konrad, from Freedom, Wis., won NCAA heavyweight titles in each of the last two years, and went 154-13 — including 76 straight victories to end his career at Minnesota. Known as “King Cole” during his college days, Konrad’s cauliflowered left ear is an easily recognizable memento of his wrestling battles.
While the footwork techniques used in wrestling have helped them on the field, Rowlands and Konrad both have had their hands full grappling with football.
“I didn’t think it was going to be as difficult as it is to pick up the plays. I thought I’d catch on pretty quick,” Konrad said, snapping his fingers. “There’s actually a lot of little steps to everything. I’m constantly learning. Even when I think I’m doing it right, there’s still the little things I need to fine-tune.”
Rowlands acknowledges that the experience has been everything he thought it would be.
“I expected to be overwhelmed with the information that’s been given to me and be on par from an athletic standpoint with the guys here,” Rowlands said. “I feel like the problem is the no football experience, and this is the highest level of the game. I’m just trying to work through that.”
By the time minicamp ends Monday, both Rowlands and Konrad hope they have shown enough to warrant invitations back to camp next month — regardless of their Olympic wrestling hopes.
“I’m trying to take advantage of this opportunity and do the best I can,” Rowlands said. “If they want me to be a part of the team, then I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”