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How choosing WWE over football saved Northwestern's Jack Schwaba

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Jack Schwaba's medical retirement was a bit unusual. What he's pursuing now that football is over is even more so.

Original photo by Simon Hofmann/Getty Images || Illustration by Josh Rosenblat

There was no outwardly visible injury to point to, no external scar to symbolize an end to the football chapter of his life.


The end of a football career looms ominously like a rain cloud that guarantees a downpour. The question is when, not if, it will come. And when it does, no preventative measure can be taken. There's nothing to be done.

The luckiest, most talented players get to call it quits on their own terms in graceful conclusions to long, successful careers. Those cases are extremely rare though. Most players have the game callously ripped from their lives, whether they're ready for it or not, like a thunderstorm that, despite all the wishful thinking in the world, ruins a perfectly pleasant day.

This can come via a catastrophic injury or the inconvenient fact that one simply isn't good enough to play at the next level. But it nearly always comes, and comes far too soon.

And that's what makes Jack Schwaba's story so unique. Once a promising superback, Schwaba, now a junior (or redshirt sophomore, in football speak), left the Northwestern football program in November. While his retirement was distinctly medical — the NCAA gave Schwaba a Medical Hardship Waiver, allowing him to keep his scholarship — there was no outwardly visible injury to point to, no external scar to symbolize an end to the football chapter of his life.

"What I went through, it's not exactly black and white," he says gingerly. "It's not like I broke my leg so I couldn't play football anymore."

It's the first time Schwaba is speaking on the record about the end of his football life, and it's clear he's choosing his words carefully.

"I went through a pretty traumatic time with issues of mental health," he says, stopping short of providing any specifics. It's understandably a sensitive topic. "It took a lot of time to cope and handle it, and I had to sacrifice football."

An aspect of elite college athletics that isn't given proper attention is the amount of stress athletes — kids, mind you — are under each and every day. Schwaba felt the stress increase with each 5:30 a.m. winter workout and with each set of midterms that meant finding time to study between road trips.

At a school that operates on the quarter system like Northwestern does, those cycles of midterms seemingly never cease. It's a delicate balancing act. There are three options in college, academic success, athletics, and free time, and you only get to pick two. Having all three is impossible.

"Division I football — and I might get in trouble for saying this — it's not a game anymore," Schwaba says. "It's a job."

College sports are, for some, a much needed and highly applicable crash course in time management and discipline. But for those with the predisposed disadvantages that Schwaba has, managing the anxiety is an uphill battle. A battle that Schwaba, his family, and team doctors agreed wasn't worth his happiness.

That's not to say the decision to retire was a simple one though.

Schwaba grew up in nearby Kenilworth, and dreamt of playing Big Ten football, perhaps at Northwestern, a school that runs in his blood — deep. His great-grandfather, grandfather, father and mother are all Northwestern alums, making him a fourth generation Wildcat. And after moving to a Pittsburgh suburb, Schwaba was one of the finer players on one of the region's best teams. Naturally, the sport always had been a major part of his life, a key piece to his identity.

Now, a short few years later, he had no choice but to accept that football simply couldn't be a part of his process anymore.

"It hit me really quick," he says about his retirement. "The sport I'd been playing for the last 11 years... it was just like ‘wow, it's gone.' I'll never get to score a touchdown again. I'll never get a sack ever again."

Yet it wasn't all negative. When he remembers all the things he won't have to do again, rather than the ones he won't get to do again, Schwaba cracks a warm, relieved smile.

"I went through a pretty traumatic time with issues of mental health...I had to sacrifice football."

"At the same time I also knew I'd never have to go through hours and hours of meetings," he says. "I'll never have to do the week at Kenosha again. I'll never have to be away from my family for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Of course, I do miss playing the actual game of football. But there are very strenuous things about playing Division I football that I frankly do not miss."

Stepping away from football took a massive weight off Schwaba's impressively broad shoulders. It allowed him to pursue other passions that had been on permanent hiatus, passions forced to take a perpetual backseat to football.

"Jack was placed in this position where he had to learn how to be a Northwestern student who wasn't a football player, which meant he had to broaden his experiences at the University," his mother, Kathy, says. "You take football out of Jack's equation, and it opens up the opportunity to do other things."

Schwaba suddenly had the time to chase another dream, one that showcases not only his 6-foot-4, 250 pound frame, but also his effusive personality and keen showmanship. He could now divert all the time and effort that football used to monopolize to his new, uncommon goal.

***

The drive from Evanston to Cicero, a town to Chicago's immediate west, is one of those that takes way longer than it should. There's no direct route, and a stoplight seems to rear its ugly head every ten seconds. Making the trip on a weekday during rush hour, as Jack Schwaba does every Tuesday and Thursday (as well as on Saturday afternoons), makes the trek nearly unbearable.

There is a reason he submits himself to the torture of bumper-to-bumper traffic so often, though. Cicero is home to Just Pro Wrestling, the only WWE-style wrestling gym in the Chicago area, and it's where Schwaba is chasing that new dream, that new uncommon goal. He wants to become a professional wrestler. And he's working diligently to learn the intricacies of the craft.

He's a relatively late starter — there are teenagers in the gym who are far more experienced than he is — but he's a quick learner, and perhaps most importantly, he's hungry and eager to improve. He rehearses his back flop, which produces a deafening bang on the canvas, multiple times before practicing the technique of throwing an opponent from rope to rope. To a newcomer to the institution of WWE-style wrestling, it's shocking just how coordinated the whole ordeal is. It's not the chaotic free-for-all one might expect; there's a calculated method to the madness.

The end goal, performing live in front of millions at WWE's Wrestlemania, provides all the motivation needed to power through the tedious repetition needed to master a new maneuver, to embark on that nuisance of a drive and to attack the steep learning curve Schwaba faces.

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"You can see the energy of the crowd on TV, I just fell in love with it," he says. "You see these larger than life personalities in the ring... it just clicked."

It's helpful to think of the ranks of professional wrestling as similar to that of professional baseball. There are minor leagues, which take the form of independent regional organizations that put on showcases for young hopefuls. Those who show the most promise get noticed by talent scouts and move up the ranks until, for a select few, they get their crack at a WWE show.

"The goal is to hopefully get lucky enough to get a match with one of those promotions, maybe even the WWE," Schwaba says. "Shoot for the stars, right? It's a grind."

Luis Ramos, the owner of Just Pro Wrestling, is a stocky high school math teacher who hustles to his gym after class gets out. He arrives just in time for the evening training session and is happy to talk about any and all things wrestling. As is to be expected for someone who promotes young wrestlers, Ramos insists the professional ranks are an honest meritocracy. Work hard, and there's a chance a big break is possible.

"If you put the hard work in, and you promote the right way, as we help to promote our guys, you'll get noticed," Ramos says.

To get noticed, it's imperative to distinguish oneself from the thousands who share the WWE dream — and yes, there are thousands. The best way to accomplish that is to assume a polarizing character in the ring. It's not whether you're loved or hated that's important; it's whether people have strong feelings one way or the other. Winning or losing the match is virtually inconsequential; it's about securing a place in the memories of the powers that be, positively or negatively.

Enter Jack Sheridan — an homage to the street that runs through Northwestern's campus — the privileged Northshore character Schwaba transforms into as soon as he steps into the ring.

"Jack Sheridan is a yuppy, elite kid," Schwaba says. "His dad works for the board of trade, he's had the best trainers from day one. Everything was given to him. Obviously, this is kind of a bad guy, real scummy character. He's going to turn a lot of heads."

Jack Sheridan is the quintessential villain, an easy-to-hate archetype that is vital to the dynamic a wrestling match seeks to cultivate. Schwaba knows he's going to get booed every time in the ring, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest. As long as he's in the limelight and at the center of attention, a situation in which he's always felt oddly comfortable, he's satisfied.

"Put me in front of a crowd of people, I love the spotlight," he says proudly. "I love being loud."

Finally, Jack Schwaba's personality isn't hidden behind a helmet.

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Schwaba (center) takes in coaching at Just Pro Wrestling. (Daniel Rapaport)

***

"Put me in front of a crowd of people, I love the spotlight. I love being loud."

Jack Schwaba's smile is genuine and his laugh unfettered. When he says he's the happiest he's ever been, it's easy to believe him. The main cause of stress in his life, football, no longer plagues him.

"It's a beautiful day in Evanston," he says, and he's objectively correct. It's 70 degrees and cloudless, and it's clear that spring has arrived. "I'm great. Never felt healthier or mentally stronger. Letting go of football to devote time to getting healthy was an amazing thing for me to do."

Despite redshirting his freshman year, which would suggest a five-year path to graduation, Schwaba has taken advantage of the sudden abundance of time to catch up on classes. He'll graduate with a degree in History next year, one year earlier than initially planned.

Then, he'll become Jack Sheridan full-time. At least for a little while.

"You're not young forever. I'm going to chase this dream and see where it takes me."