Are they football players who wrestle? Or wrestlers who play football?

Athletes wrestling and playing football.
Shakopee’s Jadon Hellerud and Waconia’s Max McEnelly clashed as 195-pound wrestlers during a section meet last winter. Bottom, from left: Simley’s Gavin Nelson is a standout running back and a state champion wrestler at 220 pounds. Hellerud is a successful running back for Shakopee and was a Class 3A runner-up last season in wrestling.

This fall illustrates clearly the complementary nature of those two sports. “Wresting and football are like peanut butter and jelly,” one two-sport standout said. 

Wrestling is Gavin Nelson’s lifeblood, his passion and his future.

But Nelson, who will wrestle for the Gophers next year, is also a running back for Simley, a 6-2, 220-pound battering ram, and he says there is one thing he gets to do on a football field that he can’t do on a wrestling mat: knock an opponent on his keister.

Oh, he’s tried. And he’s found parallels.

“It’s like when I truck people,” he says, referring to his football penchant for running over defenders. “I compare it to a double-leg [takedown]. It’s a very similar thing to running a guy over by putting your shoulder in his chest.”

A strong connection has long linked football and wrestling. Both sports depend on hand-fighting and winning one-on-one in close quarters, and they share highly physical working conditions. Simply, wrestlers tend to make good football players, and vice versa.

This season features a wealth of standout wrestlers who are also stalwart football players.

Nelson, the defending Class 2A wrestling state champion at 220 pounds, has used his hard-nosed, contact-hunting football style to rush for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns for undefeated Simley.

“I definitely run more like a fullback than a speed guy,” he said. “I’m usually a lot bigger than the defensive guys trying to tackle me. I get excited when I get the chance to hit them.”

Waconia’s Max McEnelly is a three-time Class 2A wrestling state champion — the past two state meets at 195 pounds — and is 138-1 over the past three seasons, the only loss coming when he was a freshman. He will join Nelson with the Gophers wrestling team next year.

He is also a top-flight running back, having run for 1,137 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Before he received the wrestling scholarship offer from the Gophers, he entertained legitimate hopes of playing football in college.

McEnelly, also a linebacker, agrees with Nelson that each sport helps with the other.

“Wresting and football are like peanut butter and jelly,” he said. “Most of the wrestlers are the best players on the football team. Wrestlers just have a different mind-set than everybody else.”

Nelson and McEnelly are two-sport superstars, but there are many others of note who wrestle and play football. Shakopee senior running back Jadon Hellerud was the Class 3A runner-up at 195 pounds last March and recently led the Sabers to a victory over Eden Prairie, rushing for 187 yards and pair of touchdowns

“There are so many different things about wrestling that make a difference in football,” Hellerud said. “For me, it’s that natural leverage of having a low center of gravity that makes the biggest difference.”

Anoka senior slotback Eli Paulson, the son of former Olympic wrestler Brandon Paulson, was the Class 3A runner-up at 132 pounds last season and is the runaway leader in the state in pass receptions with 67. His success illustrates the wrestler’s mind-set: Size is less important than resolve.

Paulson credits wrestling for his grit and gumption. “I’m not the biggest guy out there, but I don’t back down from anyone,” he said.

Other spots where they’re mixing high-level wrestling and winning football:

  • Dassel-Cokato senior running back Tate Link finished fourth in Class 2A at 182 pounds last season and has run for 1,239 yards and a state-leading 20 touchdowns.
  • Eden Prairie junior defensive tackle Will Sather is the defending Class 3A heavyweight title-holder, and teammate Jacory Bates is an All-Metro-caliber defensive back and a three-time qualifier for the state wrestling meet.
  • Forest Lake, at 5-1 one of the bigger surprises of the football season, lists three state tournament wrestlers on its defense: junior linebackers Mark Rendl and Jackson Marr and defensive back Jake Aho.

It’s a partial list, but it explains why Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant would point newcomers to the youth football program toward the wrestling coaches.

Shakopee’s Hellerud is neither taken down nor tackled easily. What could be more parallel than that?

“They might be two completely different sports, but pretty much everything about wrestling translates to football,” Hellerud said.

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