With his athletic career at a crossroads, Adam Coon of Fowlerville tried to imagine life when he’s working in a suit and tie away from the roar of the crowd.
“When I’m sitting behind a desk using my aerospace engineering degree, which would I prefer to have in my back pocket when I’m there?” Coon said. “An Olympic gold medal or an NFL career?
“So, that’s where my head and heart ended up going. I wanted to pursue Olympic gold.”
After putting his wrestling career on hold for 1 1/2 years to pursue a career in the National Football League, Coon called Michigan coach Sean Bormet, who also heads up the elite Cliff Keen Wrestling Club in Ann Arbor.
“Hey, have you guys got room for me?” Coon said, recounting the initial phone call. “I’d love to start training again.”
It probably took Bormet less than a nanosecond to welcome Coon back into the fold.
The unfinished business for Coon stems from the reality that winning the trials on April 3, 2021 didn’t guarantee him a spot in the Tokyo Olympics that summer. His Greco-Roman 130-kilogram weight class was one of three that didn’t automatically qualify for the Olympics.
He needed to reach the championship round of the World Olympic Games Qualifier in Sofia, Bulgaria one month later to become an Olympian. His dream of qualifying for Tokyo ended with a 6-3 loss in the quarterfinals to Mykola Kuchmii of Ukraine.
“After the 2021 Olympic qualifier didn’t go the way I planned, it just seemed like the right time to walk away, just because my head and heart weren’t quite into training for wrestling at that point,” Coon said. “I was devastated when I lost that match.
“In 2016, I was an Olympic alternate for the United States. In 2021, I won the trials, but I still had to win a spot for my Olympic dream to come true. I missed the spot. I was devastated. I wanted to try something else I knew I wanted to do since high school. It was one of those, ‘Hey, I know people were interested earlier. Is anyone interested in giving me a tryout in football?’”
Several NFL teams were interested in bringing a world-class wrestler to camp, with the Tennessee Titans offering Coon a contract. The Titans worked Coon at offensive guard, which required less technical skill than tackle and less knowledge of blocking schemes than center.
Coon hadn’t played football since his senior year at Fowlerville in 2012 when he earned first-team all-state from The Associated Press and was a two-time All-Livingston County Defensive Player of the Year.
“It was definitely very different,” Coon said. “The playbook is definitely a lot thicker than the playbook you have in high school, and just trying to figure out the technical aspects of it. These were the best guys in high school. They moved on to being the best guys in college. They moved on and some were the best guys in the NFL.
“I was one of the top guys in high school. I hadn’t gone through all that filtering to get to that highest level technique I needed to get to. I was starting behind in technique. In terms of physicality, I was up there with the pack. I was at a world-class level. I knew how to handle the physicality of a world-class sport.”
It was a move Coon contemplated back in high school when he was receiving more football offers than wrestling offers from colleges, even though he was a four-time state champion. While deciding on a college sport, he was inspired by the story of Stephen Neal, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Cal State-Bakersfield who went on to win three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots despite being undrafted.
But stories like Neal’s are rare, in large part because someone who hasn’t played since high school loses considerable ground to those who played in college for three to five years.
Coon believes it was his lack of technique that led to a neck injury that prompted the Titans to release him in summer 2021.
“We started going live in practice,” he said. “I got in front of a defensive lineman who was just an absolute bull; the dude was as strong as could be. It was completely my fault. I got myself in a bad position. He did what he needed to do. I was in a bad position and took one right to the head and tweaked my neck. I should’ve been in a better position or I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. At the same time, I’m glad I got hurt and not him, because he was doing the right things; I wasn’t.”
For the rest of the 2021 season and the better part of 2022, Coon tried out for various NFL teams, but heard the same broken record. Teams were impressed by how much he’d improved and would keep him in mind, but ultimately let him go.
Not getting anywhere with football, it was time for Coon to return to his first love. He had been on wrestling mats since before he could walk, tagging along with his father, Dan, who coaches at Fowlerville.
Returning to Cliff Keen brought Coon back to Ann Arbor, where he was a three-time All-American for the University of Michigan.
“I spent so many years of my life in that building,” Coon said. “To walk away from it for a year-and-a-half, then walking back in, it felt like coming back home. It was a nice feeling, because you know where everything is and you know the people, for the most part. A few of the freshmen, I have to learn their names.”
Coon will be personally coached by Momir Petkovic, an Olympic champion and four-time world medalist who helped coach Team USA to its only Greco-Roman world title in 2007. Coon worked under Petkovic prior to winning a silver medal in the 2018 World Championships.
“We are all very excited to have Adam back with the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, training in the room every day and representing us both domestically and all over the world,” Bormet said in a press release. “He has proven that he can win at the highest level, and I can’t wait to see his continued growth under Momir. I have the utmost respect for Momir, who has helped produce some of the greatest Greco results in USA Wrestling history, and I think Adam will absolutely flourish under his tutelage.”
While continuing his own wrestling career, Coon will help train Michigan’s big men as he tries making a living in the sport.
“For wrestling, there’s not tons of money in it like football or basketball or any of the other sports,” Coon said. “You make your money through sponsorships, through stipends. Working here at Cliff Keen, I get a stipend while training here full-time and working with the guys. USA Wrestling has the same thing; based off performance, they can send stipend money to help with training funds.
“When you start piecing it all together, it’s enough to live off to pursue dreams. Let’s be real, if you’re in wrestling for the money, you’re in the wrong sport. I’m in wrestling because I want a gold medal and love the sport. The money is enough to let me pursue that goal.”
There is only a three-year turnaround between Olympics because the Tokyo Games were postponed a year. The U.S. Olympic Trials are a little more than 14 months away, with the Olympics being held in Paris from July 26-Aug. 11, 2024.
Coon doesn’t have any competitions scheduled yet as he shakes off the rust from his longest extended absence from wrestling.
“Nothing is set in stone yet,” he said. “My focus right now is making sure I can wrestle at the best of my ability. I’m not too focused on competition. I want to make sure I’m technically sound and can be a monster and control myself.”
Contact Bill Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BillKhan.