Here's a Super Bowl 50 fun fact to spring on your co-workers: some of the players taking the field at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7 once wrestled for real.
Don't believe it? Last year at Super Bowl XLIX, at least three players -- Josh Kline of the New England Patriots, and R.J. Sweezy and Justin Britt of the Seattle Seahawks -- were state high school heavyweight wrestling champs before finding fame and fortune in the NFL. If that weren't impressive enough, at least two NCAA heavyweight champs -- Curley Culp, 1967 champ for Arizona State, and two-time titlewinner Stephen Neal for Cal State Bakersfield (1998, 1999) -- each had the honor of playing in past Super Bowls ... Culp for Kansas City, Neal for New England.
InterMat thought it would be fun to tell about some potential Super Bowl 50 stars who once competed in the oldest and greatest sport in high school. We were able to find three former wrestlers on the roster of the Denver Broncos. (Sorry, we weren't able to find any ex-matmen for the Carolina Panthers. Did we miss someone? If so, send an email to Mark@InterMatWrestle.com with the name of the wrestler-turned-NFL player, his NFL team, and basic info about his amateur wrestling career.)
Shaquil Barrett, Denver Broncos
Born in Baltimore in November 1992, Shaquil Akeem Barrett was considered so inseparable from his brother Kevin as a kid, some thought they were twins. (Shaquil is two years younger.) So when Kevin - who was having trouble in high school in Baltimore - transferred to Boys Town High School, a boarding school outside Omaha, Shaquil followed a year later. Despite attending two different high schools and two colleges, Shaquil Barrett's success helped him land in the NFL as an offensive linebacker for the Denver Broncos.
Football accomplishments: Shaquil Barrett started is football career in Baltimore, playing at City High School. However, when his elder brother Kevin headed west to Boys Town in Nebraska, Shaquil followed one year later, playing football and wrestling for the Cowboys. As a senior, Barrett played in the Nebraska Shrine Bowl and was named defensive MVP of the game. He was not highly recruited by colleges, so Barrett was a walk-on at nearby University of Nebraska-Omaha. Barrett quickly earned a scholarship, won the starting job at middle linebacker in 2010 and posted some impressive stats: 82 tackles, including 11½ for loss, 8½ sacks, three forced fumbles and four blocked kicks. But then UNO dropped football in 2011, so Barrett was left scrambling for a new college home.
Shaquil Barrett headed west again, and found that home at Colorado State University. Among Barrett's accomplishments while at the Fort Collins, Colo. school for three seasons: 246 tackles, 18 sacks, voted Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, earned 2013 New Mexico Bowl Defensive MVP honors and was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game following that season.
In May 2014, Barrett signed with the Denver Broncos as a rookie free agent.
Wrestling accomplishments: As a senior at Boys Town High School, Shaquil Barrett won the Nebraska Class B 215-pound state wrestling championship in 2010, improving on a fifth-place finish at state the year before. Barrett's senior-year title helped propel the Cowboys to a second-place finish in the team standings at the state tournament. Besides success on the mat and on the football field, Barrett was also impressive in the classroom, being named to the school's National Honor Society.
NFL tale of the tape: 6'2", 250 pounds, 23 years old
James Ferentz, Denver Broncos
Imagine completing your first season as a starter for a team that makes it to the Super Bowl. That's the story for James Ferentz. Then again, it's an even better story for the young athlete for who football is something of the family business. After all, James Ferentz's father Kirk Ferentz is long-time head football coach at the University of Iowa. Born in June 1989, James grew up in Iowa City, home of the Hawkeyes, playing football and wrestling at City High School ... then chose to stay close to home to continue his gridiron career -- and education -- at Iowa.
Football accomplishments: James Ferentz plays center for the Denver Broncos, signing with the team in September 2015. Prior to that, he signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent in April 2014.
James Ferenz, the son of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, was a state runner-up in wrestlingPrior to entering the NFL, James Ferentz started in 38 consecutive games over three seasons for the Iowa Hawkeyes. In addition, he earned a number of honors on the gridiron at Iowa. As a senior, Ferentz was selected to compete at the East-West Shrine Game, and was named to the second-team All-Big Ten team. He also earned some significant school awards, including the Roy J. Carver Most Valuable Player (offense), the Hayden Fry "Extra Heartbeat" Award (offense), Players Choice Award (offense), Iron Hawk Award, and Permanent Team Captain honors (offense).
Before playing at Kinnick Stadium on the University of Iowa campus, James Ferentz made a name for himself on the football field across town at City High School in Iowa City. Among his gridiron honors for the Little Hawks: first team all-state as a junior and senior, first team all-conference as a junior and senior, and team captain.
Wrestling accomplishments: K.J. Pilcher, wrestling writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette described Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz as being "a big proponent of wrestling." James Ferentz must have bought into the idea that wrestling contributes to success in football, having earned four letters in wrestling at City High. The younger Ferentz served as wrestling team captain for the Little Hawks as a senior, losing just two matches that year ... both to the eventual state champ. In fact, James Ferentz made it to the heavyweight finals of the 2009 Iowa state wrestling championships, placing second in one of the toughest tournaments in the nation.
NFL tale of the tape: 6'2", 285 pounds, 26 years old
Ryan Harris, Denver Broncos
For Ryan Harris, the third time's the charm regarding his current NFL home, as this is his third stint with the Broncos. Denver selected Harris in the third round (No. 70 overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft, where he played for four seasons with the Broncos. The tackle then went to Philadelphia, back to Denver, to Houston and to Kansas City before returning to the Mile High City in May 2015. He returned to Denver for a third time in May 2015, where he has played every game this season.
Ryan Emerson Wilcox Harris is very much a product of middle America. Born in Minneapolis in March 1985, Harris attended a private school in the Twin Cities (where he was a two-sport athlete), then University of Notre Dame.
Ryan Harris of the Denver Broncos wrestled at Cretin-Derham Hall in Minnesota prior to attending college at Notre DameFootball accomplishments: Harris was brought back to Denver last year when left tackle Ryan Clady tore an anterior cruciate ligament in May and was lost for the 2015 season. Familiarity with the Broncos' way of doing things -- and a reputation for professionalism -- were factors for the Broncos signing the veteran to a one-year deal.
"We had some issues when we got to (spring drills), when we lost Ryan Clady, so we had some things that went on. But it was possible to sign a veteran who has played with you before," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I think Ryan's come in and done a good job, and I think he continues to get better. (When) you get caught in some of those situations like that and you're able to sign veteran players that have a lot of snaps under their belt, we're very fortunate."
Harris is happy to be back in Denver, saying, "I'm having some of the most fun I've ever had playing football, and to be playing with the guys I'm playing with, I feel like I'm extremely lucky and I'm just loving playing for the Broncos now."
Before entering the pro ranks, Harris played football for Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., where he was a USA Today first-team All-American as a senior, and played in the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio. He then headed east to Indiana, to Notre Dame. A four-year starter for the Fighting Irish, Harris tallied 45 consecutive career games. Among his honors: selected Notre Dame's top offensive lineman (Westwood One/Guardian Life Insurance Guardian of the Year Award) as a senior and sophomore.
Wrestling accomplishments: Harris earned two varsity letters and was an all-conference selection in wrestling at Cretin-Derham Hall.
NFL tale of the tape: 6'5", 305 pounds, 30 years old
Evan Mathis, Denver Broncos
Despite an NFL career that has taken him all over the nation, Broncos defensive guard Evan Bradley Mathis is very much a product of Alabama. Born in Birmingham in November 1981, Mathis was a three-sport star in high school in suburban Birmingham, then headed down I-20 to the University of Alabama to continue his education ... and his gridiron career.
As a high school wrestler, Evan Mathis captured the 2000 Alabama 6A heavyweight state championshipFootball accomplishments: Thirty-four-year-old Mathis is in his first season with the Broncos. Prior to coming to Denver, Mathis was a Panther, a Dolphin, a Bengal and an Eagle during the course of his eleven-season NFL career. He was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the third round (79th overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft. Mathis then headed south, where he played for the Miami Dolphins in 2008, then the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-10), then the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011-14. He signed a one-year contract with the Broncos in August 2015.
While in Philadelphia, Mathis was selected for the NFL Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014, and was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro choice in 2013. Mathis started at left guard in each of his last 56 games played with Philadelphia. His 5.5 sacks allowed since 2011 are the fewest among starting NFL guards during that span (minimum 50 starts).
Before going pro, Mathis had a successful career with the Crimson Tide of Alabama. In his first three years at Tuscaloosa, Mathis played tackle; he shifted to left guard as a senior. He started 47 consecutive games.
Wrestling accomplishments: There are news stories where Mathis has indicated he would enjoy participating in the WWE someday. That said, Mathis wrestled for real at Homewood High School outside of Birmingham, where he captured the 2000 Alabama 6A heavyweight state championship. In high school, Mathis was a triple-threat athlete; in addition to wrestling and football, he competed in the shot put event.
NFL tale of the tape: 6'5". 201 pounds, 34 years old
Derek Wolfe, Denver Broncos
Born in February 1990 in Negley, Ohio, Derek Wolfe overcame an abusive childhood at the hands of his mother by being taken in by a nearby family, the Hoppels, who made names for themselves in football and wrestling in eastern Ohio. It was his success in football in high school that had college recruiters calling, but he followed an older adopted brother to the University of Cincinnati, where he attracted the attention of NFL scouts. The Broncos liked what they saw, and Wolfe was selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, becoming the 36th pick overall. Wolfe is now in his fourth season in Denver as a defensive end.
Football accomplishments: Derek Wolfe was a standout football player at Lisbon-Beaver Local High School in East Liverpool, Ohio. He became the school's first athlete ever to be drafted by the NFL.
For college, Wolfe stayed in the state of Ohio, attending the University of Cincinnati in the southwest corner of the state, where he joined Adam Hoppel on the Bearcat football team. In four seasons at UC (2008-12), Wolfe tallied 162 total tackles, 37 tackles for a loss, and 19.5 sacks. As a junior, Wolfe was a member of UC's Liberty Bowl championship team; the following year, he named Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
Wolfe was drafted in 2012. In his four seasons with the Broncos, he has played 55 games, scoring a total of 140 tackles, and 17 sacks.
Wrestling accomplishments: Derek Wolfe placed fifth in Division 2 at 285 pounds at the 2008 OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) State Wrestling tournament for Lisbon-Beaver Local High School.
NFL tale of the tape: 6'5", 285 pounds, 25 years old