‘Nobody prepared us’: An Ivy League wrestler’s unlikely path to SEC lineman and NFL Draft prospect

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‘Nobody prepared us’: An Ivy League wrestler’s unlikely path to SEC lineman and NFL Draft prospect


A groggy Joey Slackman woke from an anesthetic slumber the morning of Nov. 20. The Penn defensive lineman was in a Philadelphia hospital bed. He had just spent three hours in surgery to repair a torn biceps.

That day also happened to be when Slackman’s name appeared in the transfer portal, college football’s centralized marketplace for players looking for a new school. Slackman, who graduated from Penn with a political science degree, had decided to pursue his master’s, and coaches were now allowed to contact him.

“It was completely surreal,” said Paul Slackman, Joey’s father. “We got there maybe 4:30 in the morning. I said goodbye. They prepped him. It just so happened that was the day that he entered the portal. It totally slipped my mind. We really didn’t know a lot about this whole process.”

Joey arrived in the Ivy League four years ago as a no-star football recruit from Long Island who went to Penn to wrestle. He has never been a headlining player. But to the surprise of the Slackmans, Joey woke up after surgery as one of the hottest commodities on the transfer market.

“I remember coming to, I was pretty delirious and nauseous from the surgery, but I just remember when I was finally cognizant, looking over at (my dad),” Joey Slackman said. “He had his phone in his hand. He had just gotten off with a coach. He’d hung up the call and said, ‘You won’t believe what’s happening.’ I felt like I was still under, or I was delirious.”

Two hours after he was awoken, bandaged up and put in a wheelchair, Slackman was discharged. Still somewhat groggy from the anesthesia, he started to respond to coaches on the five-hour ride home to Long Island.

“The entire way back, his phone is blowing up, getting texts and calls,” Paul Slackman said. “I was getting so many calls from coaches. This went on for hours. We probably had seven or eight phone conversations and were texting with 20-25 different people.

“It was really insanity for those first 24 hours.”

For many transfer portal entries, the recruiting process is a second spin on the wheel; most of them were recruited by football programs out of high school.

Slackman joined Penn as a heavyweight wrestler, ranked 12th in the country in his weight class. Paul, a PE coach who had won a Division III national title as a tight end for Ithaca (N.Y.) College, had entered Joey in a wrestling tournament in the second grade. His son hated it.

“I remember him saying, ‘I don’t ever want to do this again,’” said Slackman’s mom, Dana.

Slackman liked football, though, and loved getting to play with his friends. He gave wrestling another try in middle school after his football coaches told him it would make him a better lineman.

With his blend of power, determination and focus, Slackman blossomed as a wrestler. He went to wrestling camps and earned national recognition. He emerged as the top 285-pounder in New York and twice received All-America honors at the nationals in Fargo, N.D. His dad purposely tried to stay away from coaching him in middle school and high school but made it a point to teach that it was Joey’s effort that mattered most.

“He worked out religiously, regardless of his condition, the weather, time constraints,” Paul Slackman said. “A few years ago, he just had pec surgery. He was in a sling and wanted to stay in condition. We were on vacation near Sarasota. He had the surgery a week before. He decided to go running with the sling on. He ran 8-9 miles alongside this main road down there. He had all these cars honking and waving at him. That really signifies the determination he has.”

Joey attributes that determination to how his parents raised him and his younger sister, a fencer at the Air Force Academy.

“In our household, we literally were not allowed to use the word ‘can’t,’” he said. “It was like the equivalent of cursing. Stuff like that shaped my mentality. Growing up, I was not a determined kid. I was chubby. I was lazy. School came easy to me, so I didn’t put in a lot of effort, but then wrestling helped propel me to that toughness. I think it’s the toughest sport there is. You’re out there, wearing a silly outfit, and you’re by yourself. It forces you to make a choice of whether or not to grow up and figure it out.”

Because his high school football team struggled, Slackman didn’t get much recognition until his senior season, when he was named first-team all-state. By then, he’d figured that wrestling was his ticket to a high-level education. He chose Penn over recruiting interest from all of the Ivy League’s wrestling programs.

Midway through his freshman year wrestling for the Quakers, he tore his ACL and his meniscus. Three months later, the pandemic shut down college sports, and everyone at Penn was sent home. Slackman took a gap year, leaving school while he recovered from his knee injury. He lived with his wrestling teammates in Philadelphia while working for a non-profit called Beat the Streets, an organization connected to the wrestling community that helps underprivileged kids in the area.

“When he was training for wrestling, alongside the (Penn) football program, I remember him saying, ‘I really miss football,’” recalled Dana.
Slackman decided to try to join the Penn football program and play both sports. He was cleared in February 2021 but tore his right pec not long after that. That meant another surgery and six more months on the sidelines.

“I don’t think (the Penn coaches) thought much of me at first,” he said. “I was coming off two major surgeries.”

Slackman turned heads quickly once he put the pads back on. In his first college game, he was credited with a half-sack. His middle school football coaches were right. All the wrestling training had made a huge difference in his development as a defensive lineman.

“It’s helped me a lot, especially in the run game and being able to hold my ground because I’m able to understand leverage really well and, without thinking, I am able to prevent myself from being moved, which is a lot of what you have to do as a defensive tackle,” he said. “Learning how to hand-fight is the biggest thing in wrestling, and that’s kind of the biggest thing as a D-lineman, too. Also, a lot of the pass rush moves that I like to hit are similar to moves I would hit in wrestling matches.”

Slackman finished the year with 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, deciding midseason to focus only on football. In 2022, he started all 10 games and made honorable mention All-Ivy League, ranking second on the team with 4.5 sacks and 49 tackles. But on the second-to-last defensive play of the season, he tore his left pectoral muscle. The injury, which would require his third major surgery, only seemed to further drive Slackman.

“He is one of the most focused and dedicated people I’ve ever been around, and he is the toughest person I’ve ever been around,” said Cornell head coach Dan Swanstrom, previously Penn’s offensive coordinator. “He’s just wired very differently. He is the toughest S.O.B. I’ve ever seen.

“He was 305 pounds at like 16-17 percent body fat. He’s a physical freak of a human. … We had to sub him out just so we could practice. He would wreck our whole offensive practice. He was that disruptive.”

In 2023, Slackman became the most dominant player in the Ivy League. He had five tackles for loss in Penn’s first two games. He finished the season with a team-best 12 TFLs and 50 tackles, becoming the first Penn player to win Ivy League defensive player of the year honors since 2015.

The Quakers were still in contention for the conference title when they faced No. 19 Harvard in the second-to-last game of the season. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Slackman tore his right biceps. He took off his pads and tried to root on his teammates. Penn trailed 20-13 before tying the score. Before overtime, Slackman asked the team doctor whether the injury could get worse if he returned to the game.

“The doctor said, ‘You can’t hurt it any more,’” Slackman said. “It was our last chance to keep our Ivy League (title) hopes alive. I went over to our coaches and said, ‘Let’s go!’”

The coaches put Slackman back into the game.

“It’s more than that,” Swanstrom said. “We had this goal-line stand, where it was like three plays from inside the 2. He was in there for all three plays with a torn biceps. Talk about putting it all out there.”

Slackman said he wasn’t trying to be a hero. He had something else on his mind.

“I’d really thought this was gonna be the end for me when it came to football,” he said.

Yes, it was extremely painful to play in the trenches with a torn biceps. Harvard won 25-23 in triple overtime.

“I guess the adrenaline was still running,” he said.

 

Last fall, the feedback from NFL circles was that Slackman could be a late-round pick, but that came before he went on to win Ivy League defensive player of the year. Some NFL teams visited him; one came four times during the year. “That’s when we started to realize, ‘Wow, he could get drafted,’” said Paul Slackman.

But that was before the torn biceps against Harvard made full participation in the draft process unrealistic. So Slackman, who graduated from Penn with a political science degree, filed his paperwork to enter the transfer portal.

“Nobody prepared us for the transfer portal process,” Dana Slackman said. “It’s blown our minds.”

It was not easy to sort out all the offers and opportunities. Michigan, Texas A&M, Miami, USC and others came calling. He estimates about 50 schools offered him. Ultimately, he scheduled trips to Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida and Auburn.

“It was the craziest month of my life, by far,” Slackman said.

Florida felt like an ideal fit. The Gators felt the same way.

“He’s an alpha personality, very articulate and very intelligent,” said Florida head coach Billy Napier. “It’s important to him. He’s very motivated and driven. The biggest compliment I can give him is when he took his official visit here, I literally got 12 to 15 players coming up to me saying, ‘Coach, we gotta get that guy.’ He checked all the boxes.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Andy Lewis, Getty Images; Courtesy of the Slackman family)



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