Top 10 Wrestlers Who Played In NFL
By Gary Abbott
Wrestling and football have been linked, going way back in time. On the high school and youth levels, many football players also wrestled. In some instances, there are college athletes who competed in both football and wrestling, much more in the earlier years, but it is still going on. Just in 2019, Fresno State football running back Josh Hokit became a Div. I All-American in wrestling. It can be done.
During the 2013 year when it was recommended that wrestling no longer be on the Olympic program, USA Wrestling did extensive research on wrestlers who competed in the NFL. We compiled a huge list, something that helped us bring more attention to wrestling in the USA as we battled our way back into the Olympic Games.
There are two ways to look at this thing. Who was the best wrestler, who also competed in the NFL? Who was the best football player, who also wrestled? For fun, we will provide a top 10 list for both questions. (Please remember that this is just one man’s opinion).
Best Wrestlers who played in the NFL
We have a lot to choose from, including a World champion, an Olympian, and a few NCAA wrestling champions and some multiple NCAA All-Americans.
Clearly, the top choice is 1999 World champion and two-time NCAA champion Stephen Neal, who won three Super Bowl rings as an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots. Neal won his NCAA titles for Cal-Bakersfield.
Right there at No. 2 is three-time NCAA Division I champion and three-time NCAA Division II champion Carlton Haselrig, who played on the offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Haselrig wrestled for Pitt-Johnstown.
Both Neal and Haselrig are Distinguished Members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and neither of them played college football.
1964 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler Bob Pickens, who played on the offensive line for the Chicago Bears, gets in at No. 3. Next is two-time NCAA wrestling champion Jim Nance of Syracuse, a running back for the New England Patriots. Add in NCAA champions Curly Culp of Arizona State (who is also in the NFL Hall of Fame) and Art Baker of Syracuse.
We included two-time NCAA wrestling All-Americans Bob Golic (Notre Dame), Charlie Getty (Penn State) and Steve Sefter (Penn State), and Oklahoma State wrestler John Ward, who reached third at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. We also have a few Honorable Mention wrestlers in the NFL who were NCAA Div. I All-Americans.
I know many great wrestlers on the high school level may have only played football in college, but we have to give props to those guys who were All-American college wrestlers, regardless of how good some of the others were in high school.
Top 10 Wrestlers Who Played In NFL
1. Stephen Neal, New England Patriots OL** – 1999 World freestyle champion, 2x NCAA wrestling champion (Cal-Bakersfield) 4th 1996, 2nd 1997, 1st 1998, 1st 1999
2. Carlton Haselrig, Pittsburgh Steelers OL** – 3x NCAA Div. I champion, 3x NCAA Div. II champion (Pitt-Johnstown), Div. I champion (1987-1989), Div. II champion (1987-1989), 3rd 1986 Div. II
3. Bob Pickens, Chicago Bears, OL – 1964 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman Team member
4. Jim Nance, New England Patriots, RB – 2x NCAA wrestling champion (Syracuse), 1963 and 1965 champion
5. Curley Culp, Kansas City Chiefs, DL – NCAA wrestling champion (Arizona State), 1967 champion
6. Art Baker, Buffalo Bills, RB – NCAA wrestling champion (Syracuse), 1959 champion
7. Bob Golic, Cleveland Browns, DL – 2x NCAA wrestling All-American (Notre Dame), 3rd 1978, 4th 1977
8. Charlie Getty, Kansas City Chiefs, OL – 2x NCAA wrestling All-American (Penn State), 3rd 1974, 5th 1973
9. Steve Sefter, Philadelphia Eagles, DL – 2x NCAA wrestling All-American (Penn State), 4th 1985, 6th 1981
10. John Ward, 3 NFL teams, OL – NCAA All-American wrestler (Oklahoma State), 3rd 1969
Honorable Mention (also NCAA All-Americans)
Ralph Cindrich, LB, Houston/Denver/New England– NCAA All-American wrestler (Pitt), 4th 1969
Antonio Garay, DT, San Diego/Chicago/Cleveland – NCAA All-American wrestler (Boston College), 4th 2000
Lorenzo Neal, 7 NFL teams, RB – NCAA All-American wrestler (Fresno State), 7th 1992
** Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame
Best football players/coaches who have wrestled
Being a big-time NFL football fan, but not an expert on professional football by any means, we will refer to the experts when it comes down to this list. Pretty much, we started out by figuring out the wrestlers who have been elected to the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. These guys are the elite of their sport, and to make this list, you pretty much have to be in the NFL Hall of Fame, or are expected to be there in short order.
The next reference we used was the recently published NFL 100 All-Time Team, which was published by the NFL this year in celebration of its 100th anniversary as a league. If you are in both the Hall of Fame, and also recognized in the Top 100 pro football stars of all time, that is some high-level football.
So, all of our top 10 are both Hall of Famers and Top 100 of all time, except for two. Multi-sport super star Jim Thorpe is in the Hall of Fame but didn’t make the Top 100 list of the NFL. Thorpe is on some of the media lists of the top 100 football stars. The other we included was a current player, kicker Adam Vinitieri, who is not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame, but is on that Top 100 NFL list (there are only two kickers).
We also added a coach, Hall of Famer and NFL Top 100 coach Chuck Noll, who did play in the NFL but is in Canton because of his coaching record.
From there, it all comes down to opinion. My top three are people I think may have been the best (or very close to best) in their position group, linebacker Ray Lewis, defensive back Ronnie Lott and defensive lineman Bruce Smith. As a fan, I saw these guys play often on television. From there, it gets a bit subjective, but I did refer to a number of lists from football journalists.
Getting really close to being on both top 10 lists was Curly Culp, who just missed the top 10 football heroes, and sits at No. 5 on best wrestlers who played in the NFL. He ended up Honorable Mention, based on his NFL Hall of Fame spot. He deserves special recognition for being in both conversations.
10 Best NFL Players/Coaches Who Wrestled
(Note: All are enshrined in National Football Hall of Fame, except Vinatieri)
1. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2018)***
2. Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2000)***
3. Bruce Smith, DE, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2009)***
4. Jonathan Ogden, OT, Baltimore Ravens, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2013)***
5. John Hannah, OG New England Patriots, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1991)***
6. Mike Webster, C, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1997)***
7. Randall McDaniel, OG, Minnesota Vikings, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2009)***
8. Jim Thorpe, RB, New York Giants, Canton, Cleveland, Oorang, Rock Island, Chicago, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963)
9. Adam Vinatieri, K, Baltimore Colts, NE Patriots, (still active player)***
10. Chuck Noll, Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1993)***
Honorable Mention, also enshrined in NFL Hall of Fame
Curley Culp, DT, Kansas City Chiefs –Pro Football Hall of Fame (2013), NCAA wrestling champion
Larry Csonka, RB, Miami Dolphins, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1987)
Dan Dierdorf, OT, St. Louis Cardinals, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1996)
Henry Jordan, DT, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1995)
Leo Nomellini, DT, San Francisco 49ers, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1969)