Completing a career in college wrestling is an incredible mental and physical feat that prepares these athletes for all types of challenges that they will face after graduation. While many grads will never step on the mat as a competitor again, some will continue on to challenge for World and Olympic Championships or continue their career in coaching. Others will enter the business world, relying on the work ethic and perseverance they learned through countless hours on the mat. There are a select few who have branched into a new sport after completing their wrestling career. We are going to take a look at the alternate athletic careers that a few ACC wrestling alumni have pursued since graduating.
Jacob Kasper after winning the 2018 Southern Scuffle; photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
Jacob Kasper: WWE NXT Julius Creed/Creed Brothers
Duke * ACC Champion * 2x All-American (6,4) * 3x NCAA Qualifier
Kasper left his name in the Duke record books and has left a lasting legacy with the program; a legacy Kasper is proud of after receiving very few opportunities out of high school. He was a two-time Ohio state placer but didn’t have many options collegiately. “I didn’t have any big results, and I grew late in my high school career, so I didn’t really stand out to many schools,” said Kasper, “but I knew I wanted to wrestle in college so I took the initiative to recruit myself.”
Kasper sent out emails to programs across the country, but it was two ACC coaches who expressed the most interest; Glen Lanham at Duke and Pat Popolizio at NC State. “I really clicked with both of them, and I had the opportunity to wrestle for both (Popolizo at the Wolfpack RTC). They are two men who I really respect.” Ultimately, Kasper felt that Duke was the better fit for him and he made the move to Durham, becoming the first in his family to leave Ohio for college.
He started his career in Durham at 184 lbs and made an impression as soon as he got on campus. “I was beating everyone else in the room, and I was the only person scoring points on (Conner) Hartmamn. Once coach saw that, he made it clear that I wasn’t redshirting”. His freshman season was a major adjustment; he started the year 5-0 before stumbling a bit in dual competition. He ended the year at 16-16 and went 1-2 at the ACC tournament. Kasper struggled with the adjustment to life at college and away from his family; he considered transferring to be closer to home. Kasper spent some time back in Ohio after the year and made the decision to commit to his journey at Duke and to do whatever it took for him to make his mark. “I knew I was destined for bigger things, but there was some suffering I had to do to get there.”
His sophomore season saw improvement; he ended the season at 25-12 and qualified for the NCAA tournament after an ACC runner-up finish. Kasper took a redshirt year and put on the size to move up to heavyweight where he excelled for his final two seasons. He went 30-6, capturing a Southern Scuffle title--a first for Duke--before his second ACC finals appearance, where he fell to Ty Walz. He had a great run at the NCAA tournament, capturing his first All-American honors with a sixth-place finish. He had an even more impressive senior year, earning an ACC title and setting a Duke record with 38 wins on the year. He entered the NCAA tournament with a lot of hype and settled for fourth after falling to Kyle Snyder in the semifinals.
The most impressive aspect of that weekend was fighting through an excruciating flare-up of his Crohn's Disease during the tournament, a testament to the mental toughness of Kasper.
“We always watched wrestling growing up and my brother (Drew) and I would spend hours copying what we saw and wrestling at the house.” Kasper’s connection with WWF/WWE wrestling is one that many of us (including me) had growing up. He watched regularly when he was in elementary school then his interest faded away during middle school and early in high school. “My interest got rekindled by one of my coaches who spent time in OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling)”. Stories of his time with pro wrestlers like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Shelton Benjamin drew Kasper back in; seeing Cena wearing a Lexington Wrestling t-shirt during a WWE show helped Kasper visualize himself in the spotlight at Wrestlemania and holding court in the squared circle.
It was a chance interaction with a legend that set Kasper on his path to the WWE. Kasper was watching Kyle Snyder wrestle in the Olympics when he saw a tweet from WWE Hall-of-Famer Gerald Brisco about looking for heavyweight talent for the WWE. “I jumped on and immediately replied that ‘I’m way better looking, charismatic, faster, and more athletic than them.” He reached out to me and told me he’d be keeping an eye on me.” Brisco made good on his word, watching Kasper win his first Southern Scuffle title from the stands in Chattanooga, and seeing him knock off Denzel Dejournette in a dual against Appalachian State. The attention from WWE scouts coincided well with Kasper’s rise in the rankings at heavyweight and capturing his first All-American honor. “Knowing that they were watching, I really made an effort to put on a show every match and I really played it up any time I was on camera.”
After graduation, Kasper went to Orlando for a WWE tryout and was offered a developmental contract with NXT. “I had committed to coaching at Duke for that season, so they allowed me to delay my start. When I got the itch to make a run at the 2020 Olympics they were supportive.” When the 2020 games were canceled due to COVID, Kasper took it as a sign that it was time for him to commit to making a run at WWE stardom.
Since making that commitment, Kasper has made a big impression on the WWE world. He is known by the name Julius Creed and competes as a tag team with his brother Drew (Brutus Creed) as part of the Diamond Mine. Both Jacob and Drew wrestled collegiately and have taken that skill set to NXT. They both do a phenomenal job blending their wrestling skill with some incredible athleticism that is fun to watch, even if you aren’t a fan of professional wrestling. They have been competing on the NXT circuit but there are some indications that they will be moving up to the main roster soon. “It’s been a thrill. We’ve had some success, but we are looking at what we haven't done yet.” In their time in NXT, they have held the NXT Tag Team Championship belt as well as winning the Dusty Cup. “I see the titles at the next level that I want. We are in the earning it phase now and when that opportunity comes for RAW and Wrestlemania, we will be ready for it.”
Cory Daniel during an ACC dual with Virginia; photo courtesy of Chapelboro.com
Cory Daniel: Rugby Team USA Old Glory DC
UNC * 2x ACC Finalist * 3x NCAA Qualifier
Cory Daniel chose UNC over Maryland, Old Dominion, and American after a strong prep career in Maryland. He was a two-time state champ and had a decorated Greco resume before heading to Chapel Hill. Daniel struggled his first two years in the adjustment to college wrestling, but in his sophomore season, he made big strides, culminating in his first trip to the NCAA tournament. Daniel had a breakthrough season in his junior year, finishing the season at 24-9. He was an ACC runner-up, losing to All-American Demetrius Thomas of Pitt, and made his second trip to the NCAA tournament. His final season in Chapel Hill was very similar; he finished the season at 22-11 and was again in the ACC finals, this time falling to All-American Jacob Kasper. He finished his time at UNC as a three-time NCAA qualifier with a 64-36 record over his final three seasons.
“When I finished my wrestling career, I knew I wasn’t done competing, but I didn’t know what it was going to be in,” said Daniel about starting his transition from wrestling. Daniel was a decorated football player in high school, and entertained playing in college before deciding on wrestling. “I figured football was the path to go, so we (Coach Tony Ramos) made a plan for training for that path.” Because he didn’t play in college, he would have to wait for open combines the following season. Coach Ramos had a different idea--what about rugby? “Tony brought up the idea of trying out rugby, so I figured I could give it a shot”.
Ramos had a connection through Dan Payne, an All-American at Clarion, who was the CEO of Rugby North America. Daniel attended the North American Rugby Combine for a week in the summer of 2019. “They liked what they saw in terms of raw skill and I got offered the chance to attend a four-month academy that fall." The academy was incredibly successful for Daniel; several pro teams were giving him looks; ultimately Old Glory DC offered him a contract. “I thought it was a great opportunity. Not only do I get an offer to play professionally, I get to go back home and play in front of my family and friends”. Daniel has been praised for his work ethic, which he attributes to years on the mat, and has been a quick learner in his transition to a new sport. He has held a starting spot for Old Glory DC since 2021, though he was out this season rehabbing from shoulder surgery. He has also played for Team USA XV’s in multiple tournaments, including the qualifying games for the Rugby World Cup.
“There is a lot of crossover between the two sports; all my time spent wrestling has definitely helped with my development in rugby”, said Daniel. He noted that one of the biggest differences is the team aspect of rugby compared to the individual nature of wrestling (NRL is 15 v 15). He identified several ways in which his wrestling experience has paid off in rugby. “The continuity of the game is a lot like a match, there is a great mix of attack and defense. For me, tackling has been a big strength, a good rugby tackle is a double-leg takedown.” Daniel spoke highly of his time with Old Glory and his experience thus far as a professional rugby player; in the past two seasons, he has had the opportunity to play with his brother Brady, who wrestled at Arizona
State. He also delivers a great recruiting pitch for other wrestlers making the transition to rugby.
“You already have a great base of skill for the sport, and the work ethic you develop from wrestling will easily carry you through rugby training. There are a lot of opportunities in the sport, both domestically and internationally. I’ve had the chance to play in multiple countries already.”
Though slightly ironic as he rehabs a shoulder injury, Daniel emphasized that rugby has been easier on his body than wrestling and that it can lead to a longer career opportunity with less contact and wear and tear on the body. “The transition is easier for wrestlers than people coming from other sports. The best advice I can give, is to take it for what it is, and to learn every time you are on the pitch.”
Max Rohskopf at the 2016 NWCA All-Star Classic; photo courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com
Max Rohskopf: MMA
NC State * ACC Champ * 2x NCAA Qualifier
If it weren’t for a strong nudge from his good friend Jacob Kasper, Max Rohskopf wouldn’t have been a college wrestler. “I didn’t think that it was an option for me, so I never really looked at that path,” said Rohskopf. After placing in the Ohio State Championships as a Junior, he spent the off-season in a back brace to address a stress fracture in his back. It was a preseason tournament, the Michigan Grappler Fall Classic, and a conversation with the Kasper family that set the wheels in motion. “I didn’t expect a lot from that tournament, I hadn’t been on the mat or trained since the previous season.” Though he had low expectations, he ran through a tough weight class to win the prestigious preseason tournament. “I beat state champs and top-20 guys nationally; on the way back home we talked about Jacob’s recruiting experience and what I could do to make wrestling in college a reality”.
Much like Kasper, Rohskopf emailed a bevy of head coaches; most of whom never responded. One who did respond was Pat Popolizio who was at the beginning of his successful tenure in Raleigh. Rohskopf mentioned that he saved this email and will look back at it from time to time as a reminder of what he accomplished after people doubted him. Kasper and Rohskopf both agreed that the structure and rules of the Wolfpack program would be exactly what he needed to be successful.
Once in Raleigh, Coach Popolizio kept Max on a short leash and had very clear expectations, both academically and on the mat. “I never intended to go to college, so it was a challenge to even get in. I had a strict schedule for classes and tutoring to make sure I was able to keep my grades where they had to be…I never failed a class, that was an accomplishment for me.” Rohskopf had a successful run in Raleigh, but was plagued by a lingering shoulder injury that ultimately ended his career early. “I hurt my shoulder really early on in my time at NC State and it made me wrestle a completely different style than I did in high school. I never felt confident that my shoulder would stay in when taking a shot, so I relied heavily on my skills on top.”
Rohskopf bounced between weights throughout his time in Raleigh. He wrestled at 149, 157 and 165 his freshman year before taking the starting spot at 165 for the postseason. He entered his sophomore season at 165 and put together a solid 25-15 season, qualifying for his first NCAA tournament where he went 1-2 with losses to Alex Dieringer and Michael Moreno.
Rohskopf made his breakthrough during his junior year; he picked up wins over several wrestlers who had beaten him previously and knocked off a top-ten Austin Wilson in their dual against Nebraska. Rohskopf only had one loss at 165 in the regular season, to All-American Daniel Lewis (He also dropped a decision to Kyle Crutchmer at 174). He continued his momentum through the ACC tournament, capturing the title with wins over AA David McFadden and John-Michael Staudenmayer. He entered the NCAA tournament as the fifth seed with high expectations…then the bottom fell out. “I was in a bad mental space and it showed on the mat”. With the high expectations coming in, he went 1-2 and was bounced from the NCAA tournament earlier than anyone expected.
“I made two big decisions going into my senior year--I was having shoulder surgery and I was dropping to 157”. He had off-season surgery to repair the shoulder, but rushed back to accept an invite to the NWCA All-Star Classic to wrestle Brian Murphy. “I was at least 2 months early to come back, but I’m a hard-nosed stupid hillbilly…it was in Cleveland and I knew I could beat this guy without training”. On that note, he was correct, he pinned Murphy in the All-Star match to kick off his senior season at 157. That season, however, would be short-lived. He started off 3-0 before reinjuring the shoulder. “The shoulder didn’t feel right coming back, and with cutting weight I was in a bad mental space. In retrospect, I should have used a redshirt, but I already knew I was going to MMA and I didn’t want to risk more injury”. With that decision, his career at NC State came to a close and he moved to a new chapter in the world of MMA.
During his time in Raleigh, he spent time training boxing and BJJ every summer. “It was actually Pat’s idea for me to look into MMA and he was supportive of it.” He moved from Raleigh to Wilmington to train. After competing in a BJJ tournament in Vegas, he immediately packed up and moved out to Sin City to train at Xtreme Couture under Robert Follis. He had one amateur fight, a first-round TKO win, before making his pro debut, which he won by submission in the second round. His journey through MMA has been a roller coaster full of wild ups and downs. It has seen him progress through the lower-level organizations with an unblemished record before a loss in his UFC debut; another story all in itself. After being released from the UFC he rebounded with two wins in the Cage Warrior organization before being signed by Bellator. He lost in his Bellator debut to move his pro record to 7-2 with his next fight scheduled for August.
Rohskopf notes that a lot of his success in MMA can be attributed to his wrestling career. “I’ve trained with the best in the world and that’s where my confidence comes from”, he states. “Top position is huge in the cage, that was always my strength on the mat and it has helped me a lot in fights.” Five of his wins are by submission, and four of those are by rear naked choke--so clearly all that riding time has paid off. He also stated that his time spent wrestling has helped ease the transition. “Training for fights is much easier than my D1 experience…and it’s much easier to get a takedown off punches than a handfight.” Wrestlers have seen immense success in the MMA world at all levels of organizations, and Rohskopf encourages more wrestlers to enter the cage.