Haselrig Played In NFL Despite Never Playing College Football

By Mark Bedics

Editor’s Note: Carlton Haselrig was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 2016. Carlton will be participating in the Hall of Fame’s “Wrestling and Football” presentation during Fan Fest at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. Learn more at http://bit.ly/2CpPvNP. This article was originally published online at http://on.ncaa.com/2C3M1EX

Carlton Haselrig’s road to becoming a professional football player had a twist that allowed him to become the most decorated wrestler in NCAA history.

The Pennsylvania native began his collegiate career as a football player at Lock Haven, but a knee injury before the start of his freshman year prevented him from ever suiting up for a game. During winter break, he decided to transfer to his hometown school and take classes at Pittsburgh-Johnstown, which did not have a football team.

“My original plan was to come home and just go to UPJ and not play sports,” Haselrig says. “I figured I would do therapy on my knee, take classes and then maybe transfer somewhere to play football. However, UPJ felt like such a good fit.”

haselrig, carlton-action2With that move, Haselrig set in motion the most prolific career in NCAA wrestling history — one that ended in, of all places, the NFL.

He would finish in third place at the NCAA Division II meet his freshman year in 1986, then go on to win both the Division I and Division II titles in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, to become the only wrestler in history to win more than four NCAA titles.

“At the time, I definitely didn’t understand the magnitude of it,” says Haselrig, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016. “It was no easy task to win even just one, but it makes me happy and proud to look back at what I accomplished.”

Before 1990, the Divisions II and III individual champions earned bids to the Division I championships, allowing Haselrig the chance to win both titles. After Haselrig’s run of NCAA titles, the Division I Wrestling Committee voted to rescind the bids to the Division II and III champions. As a result, Haselrig’s feat cannot be matched unless the rule is changed again.

“People call it the ‘Haselrig Rule,’” Pittsburgh-Johnstown wrestling coach Pat Pecora says. “The Division I coaches felt it was giving Division II and III schools a recruiting advantage because they got to go to both meets. They also didn’t like the Division II wrestlers having the opportunity to compete for Division I titles.”

Haselrig had never wrestled for a team before arriving at Pittsburgh-Johnstown. His uncle, Bruce Haselrig, introduced him to the sport as a child, and he participated in occasional tournaments.

He stopped wrestling in high school because his school didn’t have a team. But in his junior year, a neighboring high school needed a training partner for a standout wrestler, so Haselrig helped out. After seeing his success against one of the state’s top wrestlers, Haselrig’s high school petitioned the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to let him compete in wrestling, beginning with the postseason district tournament his senior year. Haselrig went on to win every match, including a state title.

[caption id="attachment_15491" align="alignleft" width="250"]Bruce Haselrig and Pat Pecora Bruce Haselrig and Pat Pecora[/caption]

At Pittsburgh-Johnstown, Haselrig finished his career with a record of 143-2-1, including an NCAA-record 122 consecutive matches without a loss. He never lost a match at the NCAA Division I meet, going 15-0 at the heavyweight class in the 1987, 1988 and 1989 tournaments.

“He is the best I ever coached — no doubt about it,” says Pecora, who has been at the helm of the Mountain Cat program since 1976. “If he wouldn’t have been drafted by the Steelers, I am convinced he would have been an Olympic champion. He is the best I have even seen, especially given the circumstances that he really didn’t have that much wrestling background. It’s hard for me to imagine how good he could have been.”

As amazing as his feat of winning six NCAA wrestling titles was, perhaps even more so was his becoming a professional football player. Even though he had not played football since his senior year of high school, Pecora worked with a friend of his to arrange a pro day for Haselrig to show off his football skills.

“We had four NFL scouts show up,” Pecora says. “Every drill they would put him through, they would be amazed, so they would have him do it again. Every time, he would do it even better than the first time. After it was over, three of the teams told me they wouldn’t draft him but wanted to sign him to a free agent deal to come to camp. However, the Steelers told me they were willing to draft him with their last pick on draft night.”

Sure enough, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Haselrig with their 12th selection of the 1989 draft. He earned a spot on the practice squad in his first year, then a spot on the team in his second. He was a starter his third year and was selected for the Pro Bowl the next year.

“First, mentally, he had the ability to not be intimidated or feel pressure by the opponent or the situation,” Pecora says. “Second, physically, he was as strong a human being as I have ever met. Third, he was the most coachable person I have ever been around.”

Carlton Haselrig Speech for websiteHaselrig struggled with drug and alcohol problems near the end of his NFL career. He has since recovered, and now is passing on the skills that launched his career, serving as an assistant coach for wrestling and football at his alma mater, Greater Johnstown High School.




Most NCAA Wrestling Championships

Carlton Haselrig, Pittsburgh-Johnstown, 1987-89, DI and DII

Tim Wright, SIUE, 1984-87, DII
Dan Russell, Portland State, 1988-91, DII
Pat Smith, Oklahoma State, 1990-92, 94, DI
Cael Sanderson, Iowa State, 1999-02, DI
Cole Province, Central Oklahoma, 2001-04, DII
Les Sigman, Omaha, 2003-06, DII
Marcus LeVesseur, Augsburg, 2003-05, 07, DIII
Kyle Dake, Cornell, 2010-13, DI
Logan Stieber, Ohio State, 2012-15, DI
Joey Davis, Notre Dame (Ohio), 2013-16, DII
Riley Lefever, Wabash, 2014-17, DIII

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