Rodak follows long, winding road to continue wrestling career

By Kate Fratar

He’s a lawyer and army officer, but University of Chicago graduate Neal Rodak made his first career wrestling. Torn between an unwillingness to say goodbye to the sport he loves and the excitement to pursue other goals, Rodak has shown devotion and toughness throughout his career, one which has again found its way to the Maroons.

After 17 years of wrestling, including 5 as a professional, Rodak (A.B. ’98) will likely throw in the towel this year. Preparing for the U.S. Open in April, the All-American and current member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program has made the most of his time on the mats and is now finding it hard to tear himself away.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight between Rodak and wrestling when he first hit the mats. Born and raised in the Chicago southwest suburb of Oak Forest, Rodak joined the wrestling squad at the age of 13 at the behest of his high school football coaches. They noticed the incredible amount of strength the then-linebacker packed into his small 4-foot-10, 75-to- 85-pound frame. Rodak struggled in the early going and wanted to quit midway through the season. His father Ron convinced him to see out the remainder of the year, insisting that he should finish everything he started.

By sticking with the sport, Rodak started gaining experience and soon realized his potential. A year of taking hits from older, stronger wrestlers inspired Rodak to start lifting weights to see what he could do with some added muscle. Eager to prove himself the following season, Rodak no longer viewed wrestling as just fulfilling his commitments.

“I really like the fact that if you work hard in wrestling, you’ll improve,” Rodak said. “There seemed to be a strong correlation between the harder I worked and the better I did.”

After Rodak’s progress in his junior year, Oak Forest coach Ron Stewart decided to pitch him to Maroons head coach Leo Kocher. At that time, Rodak hadn’t emerged as a superstar, but his potential and exceptional academic standing fit Kocher’s profile of a student-athlete well. Rodak likewise wanted a solid education as well as the chance to excel in sports. Ready to join the Maroons, Rodak graduated as the fourth-ranked wrestler in the state.

“If there’s anything that characterizes Neal Rodak, it’s making the most of opportunities,” said Kocher, who coached the future All-American from 1994 to 1998. “Neal lived up to the student-athlete ideal that I try to sell when I recruit. He took full advantage of everything that this school has to offer.”

Determined to improve, Rodak arrived in Chicago focused on building his natural strength and developing his technique at the college level. Showing tremendous discipline throughout the transition, Rodak transformed himself from a brawler who relied on overpowering opponents into a well-rounded wrestler and one of the program’s best athletes. He used every moment to perfect his skills, even going after the bonus points in his blowout matches.

“At practice, he was there to get as good as he could as fast as he could,” Kocher said. “If that’s your approach, you can’t avoid getting better.”

Rodak learned his incredible work ethic from his father, who held down two full-time jobs as an elementary school teacher and bartender to support his family. With injuries and fate playing a hand, wrestling would offer Rodak an unfortunately large number of chances to show his own grit.

In his second year, Rodak got his first crack at competing in the NCAA tournament and experienced his first stroke of bad luck. Fighting to clinch All-American recognition with an eighth-place finish, Rodak tore the cartilage in his right knee. He pulled out the win by switching from leg attacks to cradling his opponent’s head to win his certificate, but his knee swelled that night and then stiffened and locked when he returned to the mats the next day. Given his reliance on his right leg for leverage on drives, the handicap severely limited Rodak’s attacking ability and prevented him from collecting another win to finish better than eighth.

“He wrestled the best that he could and tried not to let the knee interfere,” Kocher said. “It was his first time at NCAAs, and he wanted the experience. I think he figured he’d have eight months to recover.”

After his first glimpse of the big time, Rodak returned for his third year healthy and ready to bust out as one of the toughest wrestlers in Division III. Along the way to posting a 32–6 season record, he took down top Division I and NAIA scholarship athletes. Rodak finished the season by placing third in NCAAs for his second All-American honor. He emerged as unstoppable in his final year as a Maroon, poised for a run at the national title. Posting a 37–7 record, Rodak earned the second seed in the regional meet, just behind the defending national champion.

Fate intervened against him again a mere 10 days before the regional meet. Returning from a tournament at Case Western, Rodak and teammate Jeff Combs contracted food poisoning from a fast-food meal. Rodak spent the next few days hospitalized, struggling to keep any food down. He returned having lost 10 pounds from his already light 118-pound weight.

“It was a terrible break,” Kocher said. “Through no fault of his own he was robbed of a chance to win a national title.”

The knock to his body by the food poisoning proved an insurmountable setback. In his face-off against a three-time All-American in the regional quarterfinal, Rodak pushed the match into overtime. There, his weakened body finally caved, and he was eliminated from the competition in a devastating ending to a promising season. Though he closed the book on his collegiate days as a four-time UAA champion and two-time All-American, Rodak presumed that his wrestling days were over and wasn’t entirely thrilled about it.

“I figured that I was going to law school, and I was done with it,” Rodak said. “There was a bit of a bitter taste left in my mouth.”

Rodak didn’t stray too far from the sport while studying law at Arizona State University. Coaching local high school teams, he led three squads to state championships. It wasn’t much longer until Rodak found himself back on the mats with the Navy, giving him a second shot at a career.

After graduating from Arizona State, Rodak enlisted in the Navy Judge Advocate General Program. His collegiate record grabbed attention at his first post, and with a little encouragement from co-workers he decided to take another stab at the sport. Untroubled by Rodak’s three-year break, Navy coach Rob Hermann gave him a shot on the 2002 squad. This time around, Rodak came in with his strength, work ethic, and technique developed by Kocher and Chicago. At first, with just six months to get back into shape before competing, it didn’t seem like enough.

“The first two months were just brutal,” Rodak said. “It was like ‘What are you doing?’”

As always, Rodak stuck with it, and quickly got back into the swing of things. He would wrestle with the Navy for three years, snatching a bronze medal at the 2002 World Cup and a silver at the 2004 Armed Forces Championships. He then moved up to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which drafts athletes with Olympic potential and trains them for competitions worldwide. Between two-a-days and wrestling in 6 to 12 tournaments a year, Rodak balanced a full-time athletic schedule with his responsibilities as a judge advocate general corps officer.

That increased training regimen includes an increase to three practice sessions a day while he prepares for his final professional appearances and rebounds from knee surgery. Doctors want him to wear a protective brace at the prestigious U.S. Open in April, but Rodak prefers going all out in perhaps his last event.

“I’d rather have more mobility and risk going without it than the other way around,” Rodak said.

Depending on his performance in the Open, it could be his last tournament. If not, there will be the 2006 USA World Team Trials held in Iowa in May. The 17 years of wrestling have taken their toll on Rodak’s body, and he has decided it’s now time to pursue other goals.

“I don’t want someone to have to show me the door for when I’m done. I always told myself that I wouldn’t hang on,” Rodak said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s going to be tough to walk away.”

As Rodak wraps up a successful wrestling career, he’s not looking ahead to retirement. His post-military plans are to return to Chicago where he’ll start putting his law degree to good use as a U.S. attorney or in litigation. Rodak will also team up with Kocher once again, this time as a volunteer coach with the Maroons.

“The wrestling program would be extremely lucky to have someone of Neal’s caliber, both as an athlete and as a person to work with us,” Kocher said. “It would be a great, great thing for our kids.”