As Devin Skatzka racked up wrestling titles, James Bishop started to get worried.
It’s not uncommon for an exceptional high school athlete to see college in their future and focus on the one sport that will get them there. For Skatzka, wrestling at a high level was becoming inevitable, and Bishop – who co-coaches the Richmond football team with John Kocher – thought there was a chance he could lose a two-way starter. There wasn’t.
“Not at all,” Skatzka said when asked if he ever thought of quitting football. “As a whole, throughout my high school career, I think football was my favorite sport. I had a lot of fun in football. But I succeeded in wrestling probably the most.”
Yes, Devin. You did.
Skatzka was a six-time state champion in wrestling – winning four individual titles and two team titles – and a three-time FloNationals All-American. He has signed with Indiana University, and will compete for the Hoosiers in the country’s best wrestling conference, the Big Ten.
His wrestling accolades are unmatched in Blue Water Area history, and his place as the area’s best of all-time is essentially unquestioned. But he was also a First-Team All-State selection in football, leading Richmond to a district title while rushing for 1,625 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was the Blue Water Area Conference Offensive MVP and Macomb County Co-Player of the Year.
For his efforts, Skatzka is the winner of the Ed Senyczko Award as Times Herald Male Athlete of the Year. Marysville’s Brady Beedon, Yale’s Garrett Bondy, Port Huron’s Ravin Randall and Marlette’s Connor Thomas were also finalists for the award.
“He’s a throwback, man,” Richmond wrestling coach Brandon Day said. “Hopefully as time goes on, regardless of what happens in college, we realize that we had a pretty special, special athlete here with him. We may never see it again.
“To be a four-timer and be as dominant as he was in football, everything has to line up: the mentality, his work ethic, genetics, everything. He’s just a humble, humble kid for all the success he had.”
It didn’t take long for Skatzka to make his mark at Richmond. In fact, he did so before even stepping foot inside a classroom in the district. After attending middle school in Algonac, Skatzka was well known to his Richmond classmates because of his involvement with the wrestling program, and his abilities on the playing field. He had to make an introduction to some others, though.
“I’m the ninth grade football coach, and (Richmond) had a good eighth grade football team, and they knew he was because he played at Algonac,” Day said. “We played St. Clair Game 1 his freshman year, and they had a good eighth grade team the year before. Devin scored five touchdowns in that game.”
Devin Skatzka made his Times Herald debut in 2001 as a 4-year-old during an Easter egg hunt. He probably won that, too.
Skatzka moved to the varsity team as a sophomore, as Bishop and Kocher saw much more than the 150-pound kid in front of them.
“He was undersized and he was a little bit thin besides being undersized,” Bishop said. “There were a million reasons not to bring him up, but what he did on the football field spoke more to the type of player he was than his size did.”
As one could imagine, a star wrestler such as Skatzka had no trouble coming up and making a hit, whether it was from the safety position he started at as a sophomore, or the linebacker/safety hybrid he was playing as a junior and senior.
“Just the idea that he was never going to shy from contact,” Bishop said. “He was so shot out of a gun, that sometimes, if we blitzed him he would miss, because he was so determined that he was going to get there.”
As a junior, Skatzka was among the area’s best on the football field, earning First-Team All-Blue Water Area honors for his work on defense as well as in the backfield. It was his senior year, however, when the Blue Devils offense started to focus more on him.
“We kind of looked at it like, if it wasn’t Devin doing it, somebody else would, but Devin just stood up and took the baton and ran with it,” Bishop said. “He has the will to succeed. Contact, first contact, even second contact sometimes, doesn’t bring him down. He’s shiftier than people think. He doesn’t look like a back that has hips like he does, he’s deceptive.
“He sometimes looks like a straight-line runner, so it’s easy to be deceived by it. He has subtle moves that really could shake defenders.”
While Skatzka was proving to be one of the area’s best football players, by his senior year he had already proven to be one of the country’s best wrestlers. By some rankings, he had cracked the top 10 nationally at his weight class, and was among the nation’s top 100 recruits in the Class of 2015.
Wrestling was going to be what helped pay for Skatzka’s college tuition, so while Bishop said Skatzka’s aggressive, contact-initiating style of play was more likely to keep him from getting hurt, that didn’t stop Day – and others – from holding their breath.
“I usually did play-by-play for TV, and during the national anthem I would close my eyes through the whole national anthem just praying,” Day said. “‘Don’t let anybody get hurt. Don’t let Devin get hurt.'”
He didn’t, although making the transition from football to wrestling season was always a bit difficult.
“Every year I would start off a little bit slower, and that’s where most of my losses would come from,” Skatzka said. “Just getting down to weight and getting back in shape. (Wrestling) is a lot different (than football). Wrestling, you’re using your whole body, and for 6 minutes, it’s all you’ve got. Even when I ran track and ran the 400 (meters) and 800, those are kind of known as the two hardest races, and that really doesn’t compare to a wrestling match.”
Of course, by the end of many seasons, Skatzka wasn’t wrestling 6 minutes all that often.
He won his state titles at 135, 145, 152 and 160 pounds. Each year, he grew more dominant, and in his final two seasons, none of his eight matches at the state tournament lasted an entire 6 minutes, as all were decided by either technical fall or pin.
“I’d put my money on Devin in a wrestling match in March against anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Day said. “He’s extremely tough to beat at the end of the season.”
While the individual glory was amazing, Skatzka’s fondest memories will likely come from helping Richmond to its two team state titles, especially this past season, when the Blue Devils won in dramatic fashion, getting pins from Roy Costello and Connor Behem to complete a comeback victory against Dundee.
“It was pretty awesome,” Skatzka said. “After losing two straight state titles as a team, it makes you want it that much more. We were kind of the underdogs in it, too. We only won six out of the (14) weights. I’ve watched (the final pin) at least, I don’t know, a thousand times. I go through it and watch everyone’s reactions.”
Collegiately, the sky is the limit for Skatzka, as he will now focus on wrestling year-round for the first time in his life. He’s also started lifting weights more regularly, as he said up until recently, he had never lifted more than one or two times a week.
“His parents were together at the Olympic training center, so his genetics and athleticism were the No. 1 thing that set him apart,” Day said. “Skill-wise, believe it or not, Devin is going to get a lot better at the college level.
“And really in high school, other than a couple times, he wasn’t really challenged.”
Contact Paul Costanzo at (810) 989-6251 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCostanzo.