By Andrew Norin/Arizona Sonora News
Even though he has done it nearly a hundred times, Robert Congel still gets nervous as he walks out of the tunnel and into the stadium, where tens of thousands of fans are screaming in support of him and his 109 teammates. Among the thoughts he is having, is the first time he made the run out onto the field, full of nerves and excitement, ready to play the sport he loves.
Congel is an offensive lineman for the University of Arizona. He has followed an interesting path to Tucson: From sunny Florida to College Station, TX, Congel has had many experiences both on the football field and off. But it is in Tucson where he has really found his feet.
Born and raised in Greenwood Village, Colorado, he began his football career at Cherry Creek High School, where he also participated in track and field.
“At my old school, I threw shot put and discus,” Congel says.
Later in his high school career, Congel was given the opportunity to move to Bradenton, FL for the prestigious IMG Academy which showcases the talent of some of the best athletes in the country.
While at IMG Academy, Congel started to make waves as a top offensive lineman. A teammate of his from those years explained what made Congel so special during his high school days.
“He was still growing like crazy … He had a great attitude about everything,” says University of Miami linebacker, Zac Smith. “And he has a switch that he can flip where he goes from one of the nicest kids you’ve ever met, to mean as hell when he steps on the field.”
Congel humbly attributes his early success to his teammates and coaches.
“The amount of talent at that school was ridiculous,” says Congel. “In practice, I was going against four-and-five-star guys everyday, so it really elevated my play. It was an adjustment at first, but I caught up to speed pretty quick.”
After that experience, Congel was ready for the college recruitment process, during which potential college athletes are ranked like a hotel. They are viewed by many scouts at the same time and given a star ranking out of five that tells people how good that player currently is. Websites such as ESPN and 247Sports make their gradings available to the public.
After a lengthy recruiting process, Congel decided that he wanted to attend Texas A&M in College Station. The coaching staff for the college at the time had been in place since 2012 and welcomed Congel.
“Coach (Kevin) Sumlin is an awesome guy to get recruited by,” Congel says. “I was mostly recruited by Coach [Noel] Mazzone, who is now the offensive coordinator… I grew a very strong relationship with Mazzone.”
Congel was recruited but he did not earn an athletic scholarship, so he was technically a walk-on football player. In his first year, Congel was able to see the field for the Aggies five times. Several of these games were within the Southeastern Conference (SEC), giving him valuable experience.
But after just one season, things at Texas A&M did not go to plan: Sumlin, its head football coach, left the university. The news was deeply disappointing for Congel. After the 2017 season, it was announced that Sumlin would take over as the University of Arizona head football coach—and this would give Congel an opportunity for a new start out in the Sonoran Desert.
That’s when he decided to follow his old coaching staff to the University of Arizona. And for him, it was not too difficult of a decision.
“I would say my relationship with coaches Sumlin, Mazzone, Coach Gilbert and the whole strength staff were the reason I transferred,” Congel says. “I also really like the University of Arizona campus and the history of the program,” he says, including its multiple conference championships, Super Bowl game wins, and successful NFL stars.
But despite his eagerness and high expectations, Congel got off to a rough start at Arizona. His application for eligibility there was denied by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and this meant Congel would be redshirting his entire first season.
Eric Townsend, a University of Arizona graduate and journalist for the Fansided website, ZonaZealots, followed the situation in real time. He explained that the transfer rules in the NCAA are often confusing and inconsistent. And in Congel’s case, the transformation from walk-on player to scholarship-recipient made the eligibility situation difficult.
“Generally the rule is, if you transfer from one school to another as a scholarship player, you have to sit out a minimum of one year,” Townsend says. “I feel like (he was denied eligibility) because he was going to be a scholarship player (at the University of Arizona), and the NCAA saw that as a true program-to-program transfer,” says Townsend.
Despite all the controversy, however, this year Congel has played in every game and is enjoying success. And the best part for him is that he is also happy with his change of scenery.
“I love it here, the people here are so nice and the school is awesome,” says Congel. “Tucson is a lot bigger than College Station, so there is a lot more to do. Also, the fans here are a little bit crazier than at A&M,” he adds.
Outside of playing football, Congel’s favorite things to do are hunting, fishing, and spending time with his teammates and friends.
With just two games left in the 2019 college football season, Congel is hoping Arizona can win them both in order to qualify for a post-season Bowl game. He carries two more years of eligibility and will be using the same mentality he has always had.
“Nothing is given, everything is earned,” he says, in hopes of taking football as far as he possibly can.
Andrew Norin is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.