AMES — Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell wanted Zach Petersen to grayshirt throughout Petersen’s recruitment.
Another school had the same idea — Petersen doesn’t remember which — but every other offer from the likes of Kansas State, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois wanted him on full scholarship from the get-go.
“That’s bad coaching. Let’s put that first and foremost. Man, what a ding dong I was thinking we were going to grayshirt Zach Petersen,” Campbell said. “We had that conversation and, in all honesty, Zach was a little bit skinny. He didn’t look like the WWE wrestler he does now. He was skinny, a little bit undersized.”
What changed for Campbell and the reason Petersen didn’t grayshirt at Iowa State was the Battle of Waterloo wrestling tournament in 2017. Campbell, defensive line coach Eli Rasheed and a couple other coaches went to watch him wrestle.
“What I loved about Zach was I loved the motor that you saw and that’s what we’re seeing now,” Campbell said. “I watched him pin the first guy in 10 seconds. Then the next guy, about two hours later, he pinned in 24 seconds. That’s when I thought, ‘We can’t grayshirt this guy. This guy is good enough to play for our football team now.’”
Campbell loves multisport athletes, not just because of the skills a person can pick up but because it teaches athletes how to compete — especially a sport like wrestling where it’s one guy versus another with no teammates to help.
“I think one of the great crimes we’re doing today with youth, especially youth sports, is we’ve gotten into this culture of, man, we’ve got travel baseball and we’ve got AAU basketball and we’ve got these 7-on-7 leagues,” Campbell said. “One of the great things about being in this state, to be honest with you, is watching so many kids that are four-sport athletes. That wasn’t that way maybe in Ohio and certainly not that way down in some of the southern states where some of these kids are just specializing in sports.
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“The greatest ingredient you lose is you lose competition and how to compete. You can’t compete in the weight room. You can’t go compete with the trainer, even though that’s what they want you to believe.
“When you compete, it’s you’re winning or losing and you’re figuring out a way to win. So, for me that is a huge piece of our recruiting process because it gives us at least one answer to the intangible that’s really important: How do you compete? How do you act when things don’t go well? How do you respond to adversity? Those things are really, really important to our staff and at least in our evaluation of a young person coming here.”
Petersen had the competitive drive Campbell looks for.
Petersen saw the coaches that day in Waterloo. He was excited to be able to wrestle in front of the Iowa State coaching staff, but he did admit he was really nervous. But he channeled that nervous energy into motivation.
“I remember coach Rasheed talking to me afterwards, and he doesn’t know much about wrestling, but him seeing what I did, he was really happy,” Petersen said. “We talked for a while afterwards, and he learned a lot about wrestling.”
Petersen was actually giving up weight wrestling at 220. In high school at North Scott, he only weighed 215 pounds.
“It was a mistake by me asking him to grayshirt,” Campbell said. “That mistake was an honest one because of what he looked like at that time. What you see now and why he’s been able to play is the one fabric I’ve loved about him from the beginning — the consistency of attitude and effort.”
That consistency is something Petersen picked up through wrestling.
“You have to know how to perform when you’re fatigued,” Petersen said. “Wrestling is non-stop for six minutes. If you let up for a moment, someone is scoring points on you or something even worse can happen.
“Being able to perform when you’re tired, when you’re hurt — it’s a mindset you have to go through.”
Campbell saw him wrestle on Friday and by Sunday, he offered Petersen a full scholarship.
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Ironically, Petersen was about to call Campbell that same Sunday night to tell him that he was going to accept the grayshirt offer because he loved the culture Campbell was building in Ames.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. I don’t want you to grayshirt, I want you to come right now,’” Campbell said. “Obviously, the rest has been very fortunate for us. I really appreciate him and his family trusting us and that we would do right by him.”
Petersen put on 26 pounds in the offseason to bulk up to 262 pounds and it’s easy to see why Campbell is so excited about the sophomore, who played in eight games last season as a true freshman weighing just 236 pounds and playing defensive end.
This season, Petersen has recorded 18 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, two hurries and one pass breakup. He made his first start last week against TCU in place of the injured JaQuan Bailey.
“Let’s just think about what he did in our last game,” Campbell said. “He played almost every rep for us on defense, every critical play for us in the fourth quarter, he made — he had the tackle for a loss on the counter play, batted down the ball and he forced the fumble. He played outstanding. He graded out at championship level for his performance.
“What I love about him is that he’s the same guy every single day. He’s the same player. He practices that way and the great ones we’ve had since I’ve been here, they’ve all had that same ingredient. They practice incredible, they’re the same guy in the classroom, they carry themselves in the weight room and they’re the same guy on Saturdays.
“Zach has all those qualities and more. He’s been a difference maker for sure.”
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