Kyle Langenderfer describes himself as a wrestler who plays football. But this is a very emotional week for the defending state 138-pound wrestling champion who does a very good job of masquerading as a 5-foot-8, 150-pound linebacker for Lincoln-Way East's unbeaten football team.
On Saturday, win or lose, he will put on his football uniform, shoulder pads and helmet for the last time and play the last game of his life against Glenbard West for the Class 7A championship in Champaign.
For a kid who recalls playing flag football in first grade and tackle football with the Mokena Burros in third grade, being coached by his father, playing with his friends, it is a very emotional experience.
"It hits you. This is my last football game," Langenderfer said. "In truth, I was thinking about it the other day with my dad. We are a football family. My dad played football at a small military school on the East Coast. If you are a Lincoln-Way East football player, the community knows you. It is sad for it all to come to an end.
"But this is the best way, in the final. I'd rather go out on top than in the second round, like the last two years. Oh, I do think about if I had more size, what my life would be. But you play the cards you are dealt. On Saturday afternoon, I'll put on my football uniform for the last time."
His athletic career won't end on Saturday, however. He has accepted a scholarship to wrestle at the University of Illinois. In college, he'll compete against other 149-pounders. He won't have to face 300-pound offensive linemen any longer. He'll miss the challenge.
"How many people have told me that I'm too small to play football? Too many to count on first impression," he said. "Usually before they see me play they say I'm too small to play. But after they see me in practice or a game, they lean to thinking I'm not too small."
Langenderfer admits he probably is 5-foot-7 rather than the listed 5-foot-8 on the roster. But that doesn't take away from his tenacity and nasty demeanor on the turf. Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar refers to him as "our mini-Clay Matthews," comparing him to the Green Bay Packers' mercurial linebacker.
"He is an All-State football player, just a shorter body," Zvonar said. "He is as physical and aggressive and quick and ferocious as any football player we have had. His wrestling skills carry over to the football field. He sets the tone for our physicality on defense. He is our team leader on defense. He can come off the edge and rush the passer or he can drop into coverage. He is hard to block."
But there came a time last spring when Langenderfer had to make a difficult decision. Wrestling or football? He had won a state title in wrestling and had a scholarship offer from Illinois. Did he want to skip his senior year of football to concentrate on wrestling? Or would he try to win a state title in football with his friends?
"He was being pulled in a lot of directions in recruiting," Zvonar said. "It is tough for a multi-sport athlete when he is elite in one sport. He had to sort out his future after the state wrestling meet. In the spring, he wasn't sure what to do. But he signed for Illinois in wrestling and decided to complete his senior year in football. It was a happy ending to the story when he decided to finish out his football career with his friends and teammates."
Langenderfer started wrestling when he was 4 years old with the Orland Park Pioneers. His older brother was too big to play football at his age so he began wrestling and Kyle followed him around the mat.
"I loved wrestling, the one-on-one aspect," Kyle said. "It's just you on the mat. Sure, it's embarrassing if you get pinned. You win or lose by yourself. But there is no better feeling than pinning an opponent. You get out of it whatever you put in it. What you do is what you will get on the mat."
He placed sixth in the state at 125 as a freshman, second at 135 as a sophomore and won at 138 as a junior. As a senior, he likely will compete at 145. At Illinois, he could be a 149-pounder.
He started to play flag football in first grade, then tackle football in third grade with the Mokena Burros. He also played baseball and hockey. Why football?
"I was into contact sports in general. I liked the contact and the team aspect. And my dad coached me in fourth and fifth grade," he said.
"I liked the team aspect of football, more than wrestling. I was playing with my best friends. It was fun to play, flying around. I got better when I was in high school. I had more time with my friends. My friends and family went to Burros games. But in high school we had a chance to play in front of the school and the community and the state."
The challenge of competing against 300-pound offensive lineman was appealing to him. As a sophomore, he weighed 135 pounds at most. He "got landed on" by a big lineman. But he insists he never, ever has been "washed out, blown away or pushed around." And he hasn't been "landed on" since. He learned to play smart, utilize his speed and explosiveness, use his feet and hit and shed blocks.
"I learned from that experience. As a junior and senior, I didn't back down from anyone," he said.
Lincoln-Way East's 4-4 defense is testament to Langerderfer's resolve.
"We are aggressive and scrappy. Any position you put us in, we'll battle you, whatever you are trying to do. From defensive line to linebacker to defensive back, we have no weak link, no area to pick on," he said.
When the season began, he set some goals for himself and his team. "I wanted to be the best player I could. Being an All-Stater was a goal. I wanted to break the 100-tackle mark (he has 112). And I wanted a pick-six (return an interception for a touchdown). I haven't got one yet. I'll see if I can get one this week. But the biggest thing was the team championship," he said.
As he prepares for the trip to Champaign, he is trying to keep everything in perspective.
"It will be the last time I put on my football uniform. But I still have a job to do. I don't want to let my emotions take over. One thing is for sure: I'll keep a film of the game," he said.
"I've been on the varsity since I was a sophomore. In the last two years, we lost in the second round of the playoff. Last year was very disappointing. We thought we had a state championship team. So this season we wanted to have a rebirth of Lincoln-Way East football on offense and defense. We have sold out to do it. And here we are."