If you’ve been trying to reach Cody Lindsay by phone lately, you’ll have to forgive the Ozark High School star if you’ve been unsuccessful. He’s been busy.
Because an extended football season necessitated a late start to wrestling season, plus with a cavalcade of college recruiters pitching their programs, Lindsay’s life has been hectic. Well, it was. He finally decided on a school. And a sport.
“Hectic is a good word,” the senior said recently. “The last couple of weeks I’ve been bombarded with coaches coming in and also trying to get in shape for wrestling. It can be nerve-wracking and it can be fun; it all just depends on how you decide to take it.”
Clearly, Lindsay is the rare kind of dual-sport athlete in the basketball-rich Ozarks and, perhaps underplayed as a storyline, proving that winter’s other sport — wrestling — also can be a pathway to success.
But when trying to convince other non-basketball athletes to give their sport a try, local wrestling coaches usually have ended up beating their heads against a wall as much as beaten the pavement in building participation numbers. There simply haven’t been enough Cody Lindsays to point to — and no local college offers the sport, either — and so some of the 14 starting varsity spots have sat empty.
That is, until lately.
Enter football coaches, who are becoming even stronger allies. And, because of it, participation numbers at almost a dozen area high school wrestling programs, including all five in the city, are trending upward this season.
Perhaps it is no surprise why.
In the hoops haven of southwest Missouri, where football is not No. 1 like in Oklahoma, Arkansas or elsewhere, any added skills that translate from wrestling to football could mean the difference under the Friday night lights of the fall.
“If a kid wonders why he is standing on the sidelines and not playing and they bring it up, I will tell them, ‘You should have wrestled a little bit,’ ” said Ozark football coach Mark Bliss, whose team reached the Class 5 state semifinals in November.
“In my 20 years of coaching,” Bliss added, “some of the hardest-nosed kids I’ve had are wrestlers. … They’re tougher. They can take a shot.”
As football coaches explain it, football players should recognize the value of a wrestling season, even if they did not compete in the sport in grade school and assume they lack the necessary skills to compete.
To them, football players — especially linemen or running backs — further whet their appetite for competition, build on natural instincts and gain skills in “hand-to-hand” combat and footwork. That, and they aren’t idling in the weight room for months between seasons.
With football coaches making that sales pitch, it’s allowed wrestling coaches not to rely solely on recruiting the hallways, where the message to any teen, former/current athlete or not, has basically been this: Wrestling relieves angst and, more importantly, you might start.
Thus, a stronger alliance has formed between coaches, including several in the Springfield Public Schools, and wrestling. According to wresting coaches:
* Glendale has 35 wrestlers, an impressive increase of 15 from a year ago. The team also included 15 football players at the start of the season, including heavyweight Max Oeser, who is 13-3 in his first season.
* Ten Hillcrest football players are part of the wrestling team, giving the Hornets 26 wrestlers, 10 more than last year.
* Kickapoo carries 38 wrestlers, including 29 football players. Two are state-ranked in 195-pound (running back) Tony Scott and 220-pound (all-conference defensive end) Michah Foote.
* Parkview’s total number is the same as last season, 20. But because of attrition, 15 football players have made up the difference. Not bad for a wrestling team that has no big selling point on campus, given it practices on mats rolled out in the cafeteria.
As Glendale wrestling coach Bud Donnell put it, “Without football, we would struggle to fill most of our weight classes.”
“It’s one thing to hear it from a wrestling coach, but it’s another to hear it from the football coach,” said Parkview wrestling coach Garrett Hawkins, whose best recruiting pitch in recent years boiled down to this: taping an 81/2-by-11 sheet of paper just outside of his classroom — a list of NFL players who were high school wrestlers.
It probably helps at a school such as Central High School, where assistant football coach Lorenzo Williams — a former Missouri Tigers standout lineman — lettered in several sports at Midwest City, Okla., High School, including wrestling.
The collaboration has been a decade-long process. It’s partly because football coaches have filled their assistant roles with wrestling coaches and partly because of better communication, said Mark Fisher, athletic director of Springfield Public Schools.
“Our coaches weren’t telling (football players) not to go out for it,” Fisher said of the atmosphere when he was named AD in 2003. “But they weren’t encouraging it.”
For some, wrestling’s benefits can be enormous, with Lindsay being a prime example.
A tailback and linebacker in football and a state title contender in wrestling, Lindsay weighed several options in both sports. That is until he decided over the holidays to make a verbal commitment to play football at NCAA Division II Missouri Western.
“I am blessed to have these decisions to make,” said Lindsay, ranked No. 2 at 195 pounds. “A lot of kids don’t have these offers and have those situations. I thank God for what he’s done for me and I’m lucky to have my parents (Randy and Shannon) to keep me from getting overwhelmed.”
Football-wise, Memphis, Missouri State, Missouri Western, Missouri Southern, Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri State were in contact, Lindsay said. He was scheduled to travel to Memphis this week but canceled the trip. Lindsay was an All-Ozarks linebacker for Ozark’s Class 5 semifinalist.
Wrestling-wise, Missouri showed the most interest, said Lindsay, who won a state title as a sophomore and took third last season. In August, he visited Penn State as well as West Point and the Naval Academy.
Had he signed with Mizzou, it would have marked the second year in a row that the area has seen a wrestler earn an NCAA Division I wrestling scholarship. The other was 2012 Rogersville graduate Joe Zimmer, an all-state football player and two-time state champion. He is attending the University of Nebraska.
To Lindsay, his time in wrestling only enhanced his instincts and footwork in football, he acknowledged.
“I never thought I’d choose football,” said Lindsay, who has wrestled since the second grade. This past football season, a semifinal season, changed his mind. “I couldn’t let it go.”
Thus, around the Ozarks, you see football coaches urging their players to hit the mats. Like Parkview second-year football coach Anthony Hays, who says it’s a must to work in concert with Hawkins, the wrestling coach.
Hays’ team enjoyed the program’s best season in decades (8-3) and won its first playoff game in school history last season..
“I need kids to be starters on the baseball team, in basketball and other sports,” said Hays, who this fall strongly advocated wrestling to his football players.
Two starters from the freshman team who could be key varsity players took him up on it: defensive back Ryan Carroll and offensive lineman Joseph Woodiel, who compete in the 136- and 182-pound weight classes.
“If you look at the top wrestling programs in the state, their schools also usually had the top football programs,” Hays said. “I was watching the Staley-Lee’s Summit West game on ESPN (in August), and they were talking about how this kid’s a state champion in wrestling and that kid’s a state champion in wrestling.”
The renewed alliance is refreshing, said Bob Kinloch, who coached Central High School for 43 years before retiring a few years ago.
“When we first started wrestling many years ago, every wrestling coach was a football coach,” Kinloch said. “And I had the football coach run the scoreboard. That way I could get him to the matches and he could understand it. And he fell in love with it.”
Now coaches hope more football players will, too.