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6-time NCAA wrestling champ jumped to NFL having never played a college down

Carlton Haselrig’s feats on the mat earned him a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. University Of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, photo

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.

Most NCAA Wrestling Championships


Carlton Haselrig
Pitt.-Johnstown, 1987-89, DI and DII


Tim Wright
SIUE, 1984-87, DII

Dan Russell
Portland St., 1988-91, DII

Pat Smith
Oklahoma St., 1990-92, 94, DI

Cael Sanderson
Iowa St., 1999-02, DI

Cole Province
Central Okla., 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 St., 2012-15, DI

Joey Davis
Notre Dame (OH), 2013-16, DII

Riley Lefever
Wabash, 2014-17, DIII

“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.”

With 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 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.

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.”

Haselrig 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.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.