The Wrestling Background That Bonds Iowa's Offensive Line

The Hawkeyes' current five starting offensive lineman all have something in common: they were successful high school wrestlers in the state, some even with a history of squaring off on the mat.
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There’s this rumor going around Iowa’s offensive line that only state champions play tackle. State champion wrestlers that is.

“That’s not true,” says starting right tackle Levi Paulsen, the 2015 Iowa state heavyweight champion, who also likes to point out that he won a title in eighth grade.

“Who said that?” asks starting left tackle Tristan Wirfs, the 2017 Iowa state heavyweight champion, who was also a three-time discus champ.

The instigator spreading such wild gossip is Landan Paulsen, Levi’s twin brother, whose best finish in a high school state wrestling tournament was second place. He admits this is all kind of a joke, but this season, it might as well be true. In a perhaps too cliché Iowa story, all five of the No. 19 Hawkeyes starting offensive linemen finished third place or better in their respective state wrestling championship tournaments.

Iowa’s coaching staff didn’t do this on purpose. Alaric Jackson, a potential first-round NFL draft pick who did not wrestle at an Iowa high school, initially started at left tackle but suffered an injury in the season opener. He’s expected to miss a few weeks, including this Saturday’s anticipated matchup vs. rival Iowa State. O-line coach Tim Polasek would love to have Jackson back, but reshuffled his unit to add walk-on Kyler Schott, the 2016 Iowa state heavyweight runner-up, into the lineup. Center Tyler Linderbaum, who initially started as a defensive lineman and placed third in the 2017 Iowa state wrestling tournament, rounds out the group.

“It’s certainly a unique situation,” says Polasek. “I’ve walked into the meeting room and caught them messing around, working in their fits like they used to when they were wrestling. They’re Iowa kids. They take a lot of pride in wrestling.”

They also take a lot of pride in reminding each other who beat whom back in those wrestling circuit days. Schott is still not over losing to Landan Paulsen. Pitted against each other in a state meet once, Paulsen took down an injured Schott, who has been angling for a rematch ever since. “I ask him every day, but he never lets me,” Schott jokes. Schott does still have leverage over Wirfs after beating him in third grade. “Kyler always wore this joker singlet,” Wirfs says, laughing at the villain-inspired uniform. “I thought it was so cool. And then he’d go out and pin me in like 30 seconds.”

Now roommates, Schott and Wirfs spend holidays in their high school gyms wrestling each other to stay in shape after they’ve eaten too much over break. Out of everybody, Wirfs and Linderbaum were the greatest and most legitimate rivals, competing in football, wrestling, shotput and discus. By Wirfs memory count, he pinned Linderbaum in six of seven matches. But Linderbaum won the last one.

Levi Paulsen claims he never paid attention to his opponent so he can’t say for sure that he ever wrestled one of his Hawkeye teammates. “I was just focused on my individual technique and preparation,” Paulsen says confidently. What he does remember are those constant battles with his brother. While they didn’t keep a win-loss record book, “it was always so competitive in our practice room. I can’t tell you how many times we walked out with bloody eyes, bloody noses, bite marks, whatever. It was grueling,” Paulsen says. “But afterward, we’d shower, weigh in, get in the car and be best friends. Then we’d come back the next day and beat the hell out of each other again.”

Asked if they still wrestle each other, Levi Paulsen assures “absolutely not, we’re past those days.” It’s healthier that way. The last time the Paulsen brothers wrestled competitively was second grade in the Super Pee Wee state championship tournament in Waterloo, Iowa. The initial 32-kid bracket matched them up to meet in the second round. Then their dad asked officials to put them on opposite ends of the competition … and they still ended up facing off in the final.

“I beat Landan in the finals of every other tournament like 15 times,” Levi Paulsen says. “Then we get to state and my brother beats me by two points. He holds it to me to this day.”

Grudges.

None of these guys have interest in wrestling competitively again. Wirfs and the Paulsens would have to drop at least 30-40 lbs. just to make the 285-pound weight class and they’ve all heard horror stories from the coaching days of wrestling legend and former Hawkeyes coach Dan Gable—there’s a folk story out there that he once stopped the bus halfway to a tournament and made his wrestlers get out and run the rest of the way. That doesn’t mean the linemen don’t still grapple for fun in the locker room or pull fast ones on each other during walk-through. They definitely do. “Don’t tell coach!” Paulsen says.

Jokes aside, Polasek is grateful for his players’ wrestling history. They came to Iowa with a strong understanding of work ethic, discipline and sacrifice. Even if he tried, Wirfs could never forget those long winters where he had to cut weight to get under 285 lbs. “That’s just a whole other deal,” he says. They’re also ahead when it comes to footwork, body control and leverage. “Tristan is a freakshow regardless of wrestling,” Polasek says of his 6’5”, 322-pound tackle. “But I think his wrestling background allows him to stay on his feet and be athletic.”

Ultimately, wrestling has created an unbreakable chemistry here at Iowa. But as Linderbaum notes, maybe most importantly, it’s “something to give each other crap about.”