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Cole Konrad grateful for opportunity to try out with New York Jets

Cole Konrad grew up right in the heart of Green Bay Packers country in northeast Wisconsin.

But any aspirations that Konrad had of donning the green and gold to play at historic Lambeau Field appeared to end when he was 14 years old.

"I was a freshman in high school and played tackle," Konrad said. "I was only 5-9 and wasn't developed physically yet. I did OK, but that was the last year I played football."

Now a full-grown 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, the two-time NCAA wrestling champion from the University of Minnesota has received a second shot at a football career.

Konrad, along with fellow heavyweight wrestler Tommy Rowlands, was back on the football field last weekend after they were sought out and invited to take part in a New York Jets mini-camp in Hempstead, N.Y. They took part in a three-day National Football League mini-camp on Saturday through Monday.

Both wrestlers said Tuesday they are focused on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, and made that clear to the Jets. Konrad and Rowlands said New York coach Eric Mangini told both players they would be welcome to return to the Jets for another shot at making the NFL team after the Olympics.

"Basically, what they said is if I'm still interested in football to give them a call after the Olympics," Konrad, who played right guard during the mini-camp, said by phone Tuesday. "They liked the work ethic I had. Coach Mangini likes the quick feet wrestlers have and how well-balanced we are. It's definitely on my mind, going that route. It was a lot of fun and I thought I did pretty well.

"I came out of this experience with the sense I could do pretty well at it down the road. I liked it. It was real similar to wrestling with the aggressiveness. It was interesting and definitely something I am thinking about pursuing after next year. Right now, my focus is definitely with wrestling and making the World Team this year."

Rowlands, who last played football in eighth grade, tried out at linebacker during the mini-camp.

"I got invited back for preseason camp but I, as well as Coach Mangini, didn't think it was smart as I would have to forfeit my Olympic dream and/or have serious risk of injury if I did want to start wrestling again in January," Rowlands said by e-mail Tuesday. "He wants me to find ways to become more knowledgeable with football and come to New York immediately after the Olympics and possibly be put right on the practice squad.

"I had a great conversation with him in his office after camp concluded. He loves what it takes to be an elite wrestler, and believes that I could learn how to be an NFL player in time. Obviously, this is something that is ideal for me and something I do have an interest in."

Konrad, 23, was at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs last Tuesday preparing for the World Team Trials when he talked to the Jets. They invited him to their rookie mini-camp that weekend.

"I left Colorado Springs on Thursday, went back home to Minnesota to pack and was on a plane to New York on Friday," Konrad said. "It was a pretty hectic week."

Konrad said Mangini, who wrestled in high school, was intrigued by the prospect of seeing what a couple of top wrestlers like he and Rowlands could do on the football field.

Mangini was with the New England Patriots when past World and NCAA champion heavyweight wrestler Stephen Neal made the New England roster. Neal eventually became a starting offensive lineman and played on a pair of Super Bowl champion teams.

"What Stephen Neal did gives me a lot of hope," Konrad said. "He made the switch from wrestling to football and obviously was extremely successful. I think I have the same mentality and work ethic that Stephen does where you keep working until you are the best."

Rowlands, a two-time NCAA champion from Ohio State, won the U.S. Nationals freestyle title at 120 kg/264.5 lbs. in April and has clinched a spot in the best-of-3 finals of the U.S. World Team Trials on June 9-10 in Las Vegas. Rowlands, who will turn 26 next month, beat Konrad in the finals of the U.S. Nationals.

Konrad, who competes for the Minnesota Storm, will be the No. 1 seed for the Challenge Tournament at the World Team Trials. The winner of that tournament meets Rowlands that evening in a best-of-3 series for the spot on the U.S. World Team. The World Championships are set for Sept. 17-23 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Rowlands, who wrestles for the Sunkist Kids, and Konrad roomed together during the Jets mini-camp.

"We got along real well," Konrad said. "Tommy's a good guy, and we could relate to each other because both of us still have a lot to learn about football. We weren't in the room a whole lot because we were involved with football from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. The Trials came up a little bit, but not too much. We were mainly trying to talk football and cram as much as we could into a couple of days."

Konrad said there were benefits to taking part in the mini-camp with the Jets right after training for wrestling in Colorado.

"We ran a bunch of 40-yard sprints the last day and the linemen had to do each of them under six seconds - that went really well," he said. "All the conditioning workouts, I did real well. The longer the practice went the better I looked."

Konrad started preparing for the international season during his senior season of college where he rolled to an undefeated season in leading the Gophers to the NCAA team title.

"I started dieting during the college season and getting my weight down closer to the international weight," he said. "I worked hard wrestling on my feet to prepare for the freestyle season."

When Konrad arrived at Jets mini-camp he was handed a playbook.

"It was pretty big," Konrad said with a laugh. "It was a binder that was 4 or 5 inches thick. I tried to study it as much as I could. Everything was brand new. All the terminology was really hard. They were throwing out language that was real common in the football world, but it was all new to me."

The complex terminology of an NFL offense made it a challenge for a guy like Konrad, who hadn't played the game in nearly a decade.

"The quarterback would give a long spiel in the huddle that was about a paragraph long," Konrad said. "I'm standing there trying to pick out the part of the play that applies to me. I would take the next 20 seconds to calculate what I'm supposed to do and where I'm supposed to be before the ball is snapped. That was difficult. Then you're all ready to do something and the quarterback calls an audible and changes the play. That was tough."

Konrad said he didn't always head in the direction he was supposed to.

"I might have gone in the wrong direction on a play, but I always hit the guy I was blocking as hard as I could," he said. "The coaches were very encouraging and worked with me on my technique. They were super helpful with the terminology and kind of held my hand."

The players and coaches for the Jets also learned a few techniques from Konrad.

"Coach (Tony) Wise, the offensive line coach, had me showing some wrestling moves out on the field," he said. "I went over some body locks, some arm spins and arm-drag doubles. They got a kick out of that. They had a lot of questions about wrestling and what I was doing with my career."

Konrad said his locker was right across from Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. He also had a chance to get to know first-round draft pick Darrelle Revis, a defensive back out of Pittsburgh, and second-round pick David Harris, a linebacker from Michigan.

"Going out on the field with guys like that was really cool," Konrad said. "A lot of those guys were super successful in college and are guys you've seen on ESPN. Revis and Harris, they are super nice guys. I thought some of those guys would be arrogant, but that wasn't the case at all. They were really down to earth and really cool."

Konrad said the Jets initially contacted Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson to inquire about Konrad.

"The Jets called me about a week and a half before I got out there and I finally got back to them last Tuesday," said Konrad, who has been busy on the mat training for the World Team Trials. "They had been talking to J for a while before that. J told me it was a unique opportunity and told me to go for it."

The money aspect of pro football isn't bad either. The minimum salary for an NFL rookie this year is close to $300,000.

For now, Konrad is focused on next month's World Team Trials. He earned a big win at U.S. Nationals when he knocked off No. 1 seed and 2005 World bronze medalist Tolly Thompson in the semifinals.

"That was a confidence-booster and lets me know I am right in there," Konrad said. "I know I have a shot at making the World Team. My mindset is I don't plan on waiting to make a World or Olympic Team. I want to do it now."

No matter what happens, Konrad said he is thankful for the opportunity to try out for an NFL team.

"The whole experience was pretty memorable," he said. "It's an honor to have someone at the top of another level, like the NFL, recognize what you do and think you have enough potential to carry it over into another sport. Especially a sport like football that is so competitive. I just went in with the attitude where I tried to learn as much as I could. It was a great experience."

Konrad said he will be following at least one NFL team besides the Packers this fall.

"I will be pulling for the Jets," he said. "I want those guys to do well."
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