Carl Buchholz looked around the empty Maryland wrestling room and thought about everything he was missing. The red mats, spread from wall to wall like carpeting. The thick climbing ropes, hung from sections punched into the ceiling tiles. The pull-up bars and exercise bikes and the plastic medical drawer containing supplies for sopping up blood. Even though the semester-long hiatus was nearing its end, all this made him feel nostalgic.
“These are my stomping grounds,” the senior said. “This is what I’ve known since I was 5.”
Buchholz could have ridden quietly into the sunset this year after a long and successful wrestling career, but he chose a different path. It had been five years since he last played a different sport, when he suited up at offensive guard for Great Valley High School outside Philadelphia. But before graduation, Buchholz wanted to try college football.
Perched on the metal bleachers inside Comcast Center on a recent afternoon, Buchholz was surrounded by reminders of his old world. He had successfully walked onto the Maryland football team, but between film study, weightlifting, practice and games, the new world had hogged all the free time he planned to allocate toward preserving his grappling skills.
Once football formally ends after Friday’s Military Bowl, Buchholz will return to wrestling for one final college season. Until then, the heavyweight-turned-fullback is still enjoying the experience he almost let slip away.
“It didn’t hit me until this summer, coming into my last year,” he said. “This is it. If I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never play football again. It was short notice, but something I had to do.”
He grew up an outlier, a wrestling-first child in a family of offensive linemen. Erik Buchholz, a year and a half younger than Carl, plays tackle for James Madison. Ryan Buchholz, the baby brother at 6 feet 6 and 235 pounds, boasts seven Football Bowl Subdivision offers, including from Maryland. Both tried wrestling but eventually gave it up. Carl was a natural.
“He’s definitely stronger than both of us,” Erik said. “Even now that I’m bigger, he can still throw me around, even though I’ve got 80 pounds on him.”
Carl started playing football around age 8 or 9, but always watched his weight to avoid floating into a higher level with bigger kids. Eventually, he learned to cut poundage for wrestling, running miles in layers of clothing to sweat before a weigh-in. At Great Valley, he won 152 matches over four years and was all-state twice.
Wrestling offered a unique physical challenge that football could not. Miss a block on the field, and 10 teammates can clean up the mess. On the mat, it’s one on one, eye to eye, hand to hand. But the skills translate, like the footwork and strong center of gravity necessary to push opponents around. Legendary linebacker Ray Lewis was a high school state champion in Florida. Longtime NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal was an all-American wrestler at Fresno State.
“Wrestling and football go hand to hand,” Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy said. “There’s a definite correlation.”
McCoy had recruited Buchholz out of high school, before he ultimately committed to Rutgers. After two unhappy seasons, though, Buchholz sought change, and because several Great Valley alumni had wrestled in College Park, he found it a fitting destination. McCoy, a two-time Olympian himself, ran a program of national acclaim. Here, Buchholz’s wrestling career could finish with the same intensity that carried him until that point.
“It’s the mental toughness that wrestlers have that a lot of other people don’t get,” Buchholz said. “You have to be a little crazy to do it, I think.”
After transferring from Rutgers in 2012, Buchholz arrived too deep into August to explore tryout options with the football team. Instead, he spent the year wrestling at heavyweight. While senior all-American Spencer Myers served a redshirt season, Buchholz helped clinch matches against Purdue and Nebraska. From December to April, he cut 50 pounds to wrestle at a lower weight class for U.S. nationals.
“He showed his dedication,” McCoy said.
As summer approached, Buchholz sensed it was finally time to act, so he walked into the football office and announced his intentions to walk on. “Do you like to hit people?” one coach asked, and Buchholz answered yes. The next day, after receiving McCoy’s blessing, he was wearing a helmet at football practice, struggling to learn the playbook and tripping over himself as he tried the jump cuts demanded of fullbacks.
Buchholz never appeared in a game this season. He spent its entirety on the scout team, reading plays off laminated sheets during practice to mimic the looks of Maryland’s upcoming opponent. On Saturdays at Byrd Stadium, he wore warmup pants and cheered from the sidelines, and he will do the same at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium against Marshall.
Back inside the wrestling room, just as Buchholz was leaving to go home, teammates began arriving for practice. Soon, midnight will strike on his football experiment. In 2014, the pull-up bars, ropes and exercise bikes will come back. Wrestling will again dominate his life, as it has since kindergarten.
Just not yet.
“I didn’t want to regret not playing,” Buchholz said. “I love football more than anything. The opportunity I got, I’m very grateful for.
“I just wanted to be part of the team, to see what it was like.”