Packers go to the mat to mold linemen
Green Bay — Ask a former high school wrestler about their memories on the mat and you’re likely to hear old war stories about the room.
Affixed to gymnasiums across the country, the room houses wrestling teams whose competitive surface is much smaller than a basketball court or soccer field. Instead, wrestlers dwell behind closed doors and drawn blinds — assuming the room has windows at all — and their writhing bodies turn padded mats into a sponge.
Consider this description from Kenny Clark, rookie nose tackle for the Green Bay Packers: “You’re in a hot, stuffy room all day around a lot of sweaty guys. Sometimes you get in battles with your teammates and you’re mad all the time because it’s so hot in there. Being mentally tough is just a huge part of being a wrestler, period.”
Or this from Mike Trgovac, Clark’s position coach on the Packers’ defensive line: “You’re on the mat, you’re sweating all day. Everybody is cutting weight. We had our own little wrestling room. Coach turns the heat up because our 105-pounder has to get down to 98.”
In these humid environs, wrestlers master what Trgovac describes as close-quarter combat, a term he also applies to clashes between offensive and defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. The natural parallels between the sport of wrestling and football’s trench warfare — leverage, hand placement, flexibility, toughness — offer an organic dose of cross training for athletes who do both.
The overlap is strong in Trgovac’s defensive line room, where both the best player (Mike Daniels) and the team’s most recent first-round pick (Clark) wrestled in high school. Their common paths foster a symbiotic relationship between coach and player, with an obvious link from past...to present...to future.
Even in Green Bay, the principles of the room still apply.
“With both those guys and myself having a wrestling background,” Trgovac said, “I can talk a certain language to them and they understand it.”
Trgovac learned the language as the second of four boys growing up in Austintown, Ohio, a suburb on the west side of Youngstown. With a large frame and tenacious disposition, Trgovac gravitated toward football as his first sport. But his older brother wrestled, and wrestled well, which meant the curiosity bug was surely going to bite.
Trgovac began attending wrestling tournaments during the summer between eighth and ninth grade, just as his brother found considerable success as a 132-pounder at the high school level. Their two younger brothers followed suit, and Trgovac wound up the only football player of the bunch.
“My dad was hooked, my mom was hooked — we just became a wrestling family,” Trgovac said.
By the end of high school, Trgovac wrestled as a natural heavyweight in a division that, during the late 1970s, had no upper limit on the size of competitors. Trgovac weighed 220 pounds, down slightly from his football weight as a defensive lineman after sweating some away on the mat. His opponents were generally larger, and some of them neared 300 pounds.
To compensate, Trgovac’s antidote was a mixture of quickness, balance and tenacity that, after high school, parlayed into a successful football career at Michigan. (He was a two-time all-Big Ten honoree and a second-team All-American his senior year.) The more time he spent on the mat, the more Trgovac appreciated the overlapping techniques of his two sports. From August through February, as football season bled into wrestling, Trgovac found himself practicing the same concepts over and over and over, season after season.
As a junior, Trgovac won 27 of his 31 matches and won the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League (EOWL) championship at 185 pounds. The following year he went 28-1 as a heavyweight en route to a sectional title, a third-place finish in districts and the capstone of his career on the mat: the AAA state title in 1977.
He since has been inducted into the EOWL Hall of Fame.
“Wrestling, to me, was all about leverage, trying to keep the guy away from you, particularly on the defensive line,” Trgovac said. “That’s what wrestling is: Guys are trying to shoot at your legs and you’re trying to keep him away from you.
“It taught me how to use my hands and keep guys away from me, just like you train your guys pressing blockers and stuff like that. I think it helped me. Bend your knees and play a good fundamental football position, that’s tremendous.”
In 2012, the Packers used a fourth-round pick on Daniels, a short and stout defensive tackle from Iowa whose pedigree as a high school wrestler made him the ideal pupil for Trgovac, by then in his fourth season as the defensive line coach. Daniels was a three-sport athlete at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., where his fiery personality produced as many varsity letters in wrestling (three) as he earned on the football field.
Daniels matured into one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL due in part to his advanced understanding of base, hand placement and leverage — the same techniques Trgovac honed some 40 years prior. That Daniels still uses mixed martial arts as part of his off-season training is a testament to the efficacy of blending defensive line play with combat sports.
“When we’re on the football field, it’s me vs. him,” Daniels told the Journal Sentinel at one of his MMA workouts in April 2015. “Maybe it’s me versus two of them. Maybe it’s me versus three of them. It’s a fight. And you have to take that fighter’s mentality out there. I’m out there to beat the hell out of somebody — flat out.”
Daniels isn’t the lone disciple of MMA inside the Packers’ locker room. A few stalls to the left, former defensive lineman and current outside linebacker Datone Jones has trained with professional fighters for years, both in his native California and in Wisconsin. Jones engages in boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and muay thai, all of which are staples in the increasingly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship.
More importantly, all of those disciplines can be applied to his day job.
Jones, who was coached by Trgovac for the first three years of his career, tells a story about visiting a massage therapist in Los Angeles, a place he had gone for years. He remembers walking into the lobby and seeing a large, football-sized man with muscles to match. He introduced himself.
The man turned out to be Tamba Hali, an outside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, he of 86 sacks in 156 career games. Hali told Jones he came to California for the sole purpose of training in MMA. Hali was certain it helped him in football.
“It’s all about grappling, shedding blocks,” Jones said. “You’re used to having a guy having you one way, and you can torque his body and get off the block, make a play. Wrestling is the same as football, being tangled up with an offensive lineman. If you’re able to get off a guy and get a guy pressed off of you, it’s the same thing.
“I wish it was something I knew about when I was in high school. I’d be an ultimate athlete.”
Clark, a first-round pick from UCLA, has made his strength and quickness evident through the first two weeks of camp, especially during the one-on-one pass-rush drill against offensive linemen.
Clark took up wrestling as a sophomore at Carter High School in Rialto, Calif., coerced onto the mat by some of his football teammates. He recalls getting “beat up pretty bad” on his first day of practice but kept coming back because he liked the competition. By the end of his first year, Clark said he won a national freshman-sophomore invitation tournament in Idaho.
“It’s just something I stuck with and kept practicing and ended up being pretty good at it,” Clark said.
Clark wrestled for the final three years of high school as a 285-pound heavyweight. He won the equivalent of a district title as a senior and made two appearances in the state tournament — all while training against his brother.
In practice, the coaches paired Clark with his younger brother Kyon, who at 350 pounds won a few super heavyweight tournaments but exceeded the upper limit for traditional high school competition. Despite his immense size, Kyon was exceedingly flexible — “The most flexible guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” Clark said — which made him difficult to pin down and an unnerving opponent.
Their sparring sessions improved Clark’s balance, his ability to bend and, as you might have guessed, his overall strength. Angus McClure, the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at UCLA, watched a few of their sessions during his pursuit of Clark. He described their battles as “a little wild.”
“I’m picking up a 350-pound guy every day thinking I’m going to get strong and be able to pick up those 285-pound guys easy,” Clark said. “ … I was athletic enough to wrestle with the 225s and 195s, 185s. But for the most part, as far as lifting or snapping somebody down or just the ground drills and stuff, they always had me and my brother go. My brother was heavier, and it just helped me out with the overall game.”
The Packers opened training camp on July 26, and Trgovac said he noticed Clark’s keen application of leverage almost immediately — not a bad compliment for a player two months shy of his 21st birthday. And more importantly, it meant that Trgovac could speak to Clark the same way he communicates with Daniels, wrestler to wrestler, with both parties well-versed in the art of close-quarter combat.
“We’re constantly talking about keeping your knees bent,” Trgovac said of his defensive linemen. “When you’re like this” — he moves his body into an upright stance — “you’re not as strong as when you’re down and you’ve got that base underneath you. I think wrestlers really understand that because they’re in this position right there with guys shooting at (their legs). You’ve got to sink your butt and get down right there. It helps you big time.”
But what about the non-wrestlers in Trgovac’s room? Players like Letroy Guion, Mike Pennel and Christian Ringo, or Clark’s fellow rookie Dean Lowry. They don't necessarily speak the wrestling language fluent among Trgovac, Daniels and Clark.
Trgovac says he trains them all the same, regardless of their athletic backgrounds. He just keeps the origin of his lessons a secret.
“I probably incorporate it a little bit more than they realize,” Trgovac said. “But I don’t tell them it’s a wrestling technique.”