L-P's Tre'von Hunter and teammate Payton Piraino celebrate after Hunter made an interception.
L-P's Tre'von Hunter and teammate Payton Piraino celebrate after Hunter made an interception. — Scott Anderson

When La Salle-Peru senior Payton Piraino started wrestling in seventh grade, he noticed a difference the next time he stepped on a football field.

“When I started wrestling, I saw an immediate jump in my tackling skills,” said Piraino, a state qualifier at 285 pounds last winter and one of the area’s top defensive linemen. “Wrestling helps you get so much lower and keep your balance. It has improved my football game so much. I’m grateful I started doing wrestling and have done it throughout high school.”

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that wrestling helps improve football skills.

The University of Iowa’s entire starting offensive line this season were state medalist wrestlers in high school.

Some of the top NFL players of all time wrestled, including Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Dierdorff.

One of the most successful players to come out of the Illinois Valley — 12-year NFL offensive lineman Mike Goff — placed sixth in the Class AA heavyweight class as a senior at La Salle-Peru in 1994.

“Wrestling really does help football skills,” said Princeton wrestling coach and former football assistant Steve Amy, who was a three-time state wrestling champion and leading rusher on Rockridge’s 1998 Class 2A state runner-up team. “Balance, coordination, knowing how to use your hands, leverage, just being physical and aggressive — that’s a lot of what wrestling is.

“(Wrestling) helps all positions in football. For the most part, it’s the offensive and defensive lines. It’s real similar (to wrestling). You’re in there hand fighting, battling for position, trying to move a guy a certain way — that helps. For running backs and other positions, it would be balance or just toughness to get that extra yard and always wanting to fight and compete.”

Amy pointed out that many teams competing for state football titles also have top-notch wrestling programs, especially in Classes 1A-3A.

Dakota, for example, won state championships in football and wrestling in the 2005-06 school year and placed third in wrestling in 2007 and won a football state title the next fall.

Lena-Winslow won a football state title in the fall of 2010 and placed second in wrestling that winter, won a wrestling title in February 2017 and a football title in the fall of 2017 and won another wrestling title in the winter of 2019 after reaching the semifinals in football the previous fall.

Five area football coaches whose schools also have wrestling all agree their players can benefit from hitting the mats in the winter.

Second-year Mendota coach Keegan Hill said “it’s a work in progress” to get his players to wrestle for Mendota as well.

“There is a lot of carryover from wrestling to football and vice versa,” Hill said. “In my opinion, wrestling is the most difficult individual sport out there. Using your hands, leverage and body control are all vital to be a good wrestler, especially a heavyweight. Tackling and mental preparation are the two biggest carryovers to all positions on the football field that can be improved by wrestling.”

PHYSICAL SKILLS

For Piraino, wrestling improved his tackling form as well as his ability to fight past offensive linemen.

“In wrestling, you take shots and you have to stay low,” Piraino said. “If you’re straight up in your stance, you’re going to get taken down. You have to have a good stance. That translates to football because if I stay low, I make better tackles.

“Wrestling is all about footwork. If your footwork is not good, you’re opponent is going to get you off balance and take you down. Wrestlers have quick feet and are nimble. That helps with football.”

While Piraino thinks wrestling especially helps linemen — and he’s noticed improvement in defensive linemate Nick Krolak, who joined wrestling as a sophomore — he believes wrestling can benefit other positions as well.

“It can help any position on the field, but I think it helps linemen the most, for sure,” Piraino said. “Being on the defensive line, it helps me to stay low, get under offensive linemen and get past them. Wrestling and having that experience staying low gives me a huge advantage over a lot of offensive linemen I face.”

L-P senior Parker Swiskoski, who plays linebacker, said wrestling has improved his footwork and agility, and he added the strength and conditioning from wrestling has made him stronger while still maintaining flexibility.

For L-P junior defensive end Weston Wenzel, wrestling has helped him develop moves to break free from blocks.

“You work with your hands so much in wrestling,” Wensel said. “It helps me with my ripping or when I do swim moves - anything to get past the big offensive linemen to knock their hold off me and anything I can do to get around them.”

The Cavaliers have several wrestlers on the roster this season, including multiple wrestlers on the defense that ranks third in the area in points allowed (18 per game) and first in rushing yards allowed (63 per game).

“Wrestling helps with footwork and balance, which are key to linemen on offense or defense,” L-P coach Jose Medina said. “It also helps with understanding leverage, which is important. We have many wrestlers on the team, but mostly on defense. They are quick and aggressive. We have several defensive linemen and linebackers who are wrestlers.”

Hall coach Randy Tieman — who said he unfortunately does not have any wrestlers on this year’s team — likes that wrestling can help with footwork and “overall quickness and explosiveness.

St. Bede coach Jim Eustice appreciates wrestling’s ability to improve individual battles.

“I think wrestling can help with all positions,” said Eustice, who has a handful of wrestlers on this year’s roster. “It makes kids win in one-on-one situations. It makes them more agile, too.”

AGGRESSIVE MENTALITY

While wrestling helps develop skills that are pivotal on a football field, multiple area players said wrestling also improved their mentality.

“I was a lot more aggressive (on the football field after starting to wrestle),” said Swiskoski, who began playing football in seventh grade and added wrestling in eighth grade. “There was no more being soft.

“Wrestling is one of the if not the hardest sports. In wrestling, you have to go all out and literally attack another man for six minutes. In football, you’re only going for 10 seconds then you’re off for 30 seconds.”

Wenzel, a wrestling legacy at L-P whose father and brother were state qualifiers for the Cavs, said wrestling has instilled a never quit attitude that helps in football.

“I’m a defensive end at only 170 pounds,” Wenzel said. “I’m going against the biggest, best and toughest guys out there. Wrestling is a one on one sport. I have to face him and beat him. You decide in wrestling when you’re getting tired if you’re going to give up or keep going. You have to keep going and keep fighting. When I’m on that line, I realize that no matter how big they are or how much stronger they are than me, I have to get up and keep going.”

That competiveness is a big reason why Princeton coach Ryan Pearson encourages his players to not only wrestle but participate in other sports as well.

“I push as many of our players to wrestle as possible,” Pearson said. “I push basketball as well because I think it’s important for our kids to play multiple sports and stay competitive year round.”

Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at kchlum@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.