Jake Laden and Dustin Johnson both play high school football.
The juniors each started for the University Titans last fall, Laden at defensive end; Johnson an All-Greater Spokane League honorable mention at outside linebacker.
Each plays the game with passion and intensity. They love the game.
But make no mistake. These two live to wrestle.
“If I never played football again, I’m sure I’d be sad about it,” Laden confessed. “But if I couldn’t wrestle again? I’d feel like something big was missing from my life.”
Each started out with football, but something magical happened when they first walked onto a wrestling mat.
“My middle school football coach was also the wrestling coach and he was always trying to talk me into coming out to wrestle,” Johnson recalled. “He said ‘Come out for the first week – if you don’t like it, you can quit.’ I came out and I was hooked. I loved the workout, I loved the hard work it takes to be good.”
“Those two may be the most intense upper-weight guys in the state,” wrestling coach Don Owen said. “They work hard and they’re both having a lot of success.”
Playing high school football and wrestling is a difficult double. Football likes to have players attend camps and do off-season weight lifting. Wrestling has a summer freestyle season that includes large, national tournaments.
“Kids who play baseball and football – their summer schedule doesn’t overlap all that much,” said Don Ressa, longtime football and baseball coach at U-Hi. “Wrestling is a different story. I think wrestling is the most intense sport we offer, and the amount of work it takes to be successful at it is incredible.
“We have a pretty good-sized group of wrestlers out to play football, but they don’t have a lot of time for summer workouts and things like that. On the other hand, the kinds of things they bring to football you can’t find anywhere else.”
There is a history of the two sports dovetailing successfully – and that’s not counting football players who turned to professional wrestling. All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis was a two-time Florida high school state champion at 189 pounds, for example. Hall-of-Famers defensive lineman Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills and Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers both wrestled, as did former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, the only player to win the Heisman Trophy twice.
The list of NFL Hall of Famers and All-Pros who wrestled is long and distinguished. The list of college players who do, or did, both is significantly longer.
John Madden has said that he would have all of his offensive linemen wrestle if he could, and a coaching maxim reads: Football never made a better wrestler, but wrestling made every football player better The migration of wrestlers to the football field, and vice versa, is a part of both teams’ success. University came within an inch of knocking off Ferris on a late touchdown and advancing to the state Class 4A playoffs. The Titans are a fierce tournament wrestling squad this season, coming home with the team title from last weekend’s Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic in Missoula.
“I think it’s helped with our upper-weight guys,” Owen said. “Having (assistant coach) Dave (Orndorff) helping to coach football, I think, helps make things work between the two sports.”
It also helps that both head coaches encourage players to play multiple sports.
“The things these kids learn from wrestling are invaluable,” said Ressa, a defensive line coach who was coaxed out of football retirement by first-year head coach Bill Diedrick last year. “The body control, the balance, the footwork, the explosiveness – those are all things that make them better.”
“A lot of what I do as a defensive end I learned from wrestling,” he said. “But most of all, it’s the intensity that I learned that makes the biggest difference. When you wrestle, it’s just you out there all by yourself. That teaches you to focus and take care of your assignment and get your job done.”
The celebrated toughness of those summer workouts, the two-a-days that leave so many players gasping?
“Those workouts were nothing compared to what we do every day in the wrestling room,” Laden laughed. “They were a snap. But I can say this: Coach Diedrick made football fun. I had so much fun playing football this year and I am excited about next year. We came so close to moving on (to the playoffs) last year – we came that close to sending Ferris home. I still think we scored and won that game, but the officials didn’t see it that way.”
But that feeling is nothing compared to the joy he gets from wrestling, he said.
“If you’ve never been to the Battle of the Bone, then you can’t imagine the incredible feeling there is to walk out on the mat for a big duel like that and wrestle in front of a gym full of people, all of them watching you wrestle. There is nothing like it.”
Laden, a chiseled 215-pounder, is in the middle of a solid junior season. He placed third in Missoula. He lost a 2-1 decision in the semifinals and bounced back to win the consolation final.
“That was a tough bracket,” he said. “There were four state champions in the field and a guy who was a three-time state runner-up.”
Johnson was pinned by the eventual champion at 189 in Missoula, but came back to take third.
The kind of support wrestlers offer each other is the one thing Johnson wishes his football-only teammates could learn.
“It’s the brotherhood,” he said. “They have no idea of the kind of closeness we develop in wrestling. We’re always together. We practice together, we hang out with one another, we support one another.
“If football could develop that kind of a team bond, it would make a world of difference.”