By Anna Kayser
At the beginning of his recruitment process with the Iowa Hawkeye football program, Leighton Jones was handed a piece of paper.
“There were about 15 or 16 wrestlers who have made All-Big Ten [on that paper]. All-Big Ten isn’t easy at all to do,” Leighton said. “It wasn’t just all the guys that wrestled, it was all the guys that placed or were state champs.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 21, the rest became history.
Leighton’s career has been building toward the opportunity to add his name to the list of Iowa football players with wrestling in their blood. Both sports went hand-in-hand from the very beginning, and together helped his skills grow to the level of a future Division I football player.
Picture him at four-years-old – something that’s a far cry from the current 6-foot-4, 275-pound offensive lineman who sports a Brownsburg singlet from November to February. That age is really where this story begins, when he was handed a mini jersey and set of waist flags for an upcoming fall season of flag football.
Even at that age, a competitive nature snuck through his quiet persona. Football season then transitioned into wrestling season – as it would for the next 14 years of his life – and Leighton took his first steps onto a mat as part of Brownsburg’s youth wrestling club.
“A lot of people were scratching their heads and calling me silly,” Leighton’s dad, Marshall Jones, said. “But you’ve got to start them early, right?”
Once he started, there was no stopping for Leighton. Four years later at about eight years old – his second-grade year, as he describes it – he was locked into playing football. The same soon followed with his love of wrestling, when he met Chad Red of Red Cobra Wrestling Academy in Avon during his third-grade year.
“He absolutely loved it from day one, so we knew it was something that was going to take off,” Laurie Jones, Leighton’s mom, said. “I think just being involved in all these activities, they gave him immediate friends from early on and he’s such a social kid. All of these teams – I’ve got pictures where some of the boys he’s with right now, they’ve been wrestling together since Leighton was five or six. That’s how deep it runs.
“Forming these relationships was easy for him and then all of the sports time, that’s how he identified himself. We knew that he might actually be really good at both of these things.”
Even from a young age, one could probably guess what role Leighton would play on the Brownsburg high school wrestling team. He was already bigger than a lot of kids his age, especially those in the wrestling room.
“So, he either had to go against a lot of older guys or he just didn’t have training partners,” Marshall said. “His best friend’s dad and I kind of agreed that we would keep the boys together to play youth football because they didn’t have anyone else to drill against. With wrestling, there was no one else.”
That’s where the shift to Red Cobra came into play. He would step into the room and immediately be wrestling kids the same size as him, regardless of whether or not they were a few years older.
The strides he made at the academy level were immeasurable, due to his hard work and dedication to the sport. From the beginning, Red saw something special.
“I was just continuously seeing him growing, every year he continued to get better from day one coming in,” Red said. “I would always call him NFL just because he was a big kid, but he moved extremely well for his size and again, he had a great work ethic – never complained, always worked… he was always up at the front, one of the leaders of the pack.”
With his strong foundation set in both football and wrestling, Leighton’s drive and focus was locked completely into his opportunities in sports.
“That’s one thing that I’ve seen him do time and time again,” Marshall said. “He’ll go in and kind of assess [the situation], and once he has things [measured up], he locks it and it’s full steam ahead.”
Thus began a routine of constant travel for opportunities that Leighton couldn’t miss out on as he began to build the foundation for the football player and wrestler he is today. Opportunities that include, most recently, a selection to play at the US Army Bowl at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Texas just last month.
“Having your dad as a coach is pretty special,” Leighton said. “He’s always looking out for me, making sure I’m doing the right thing and always [trying] to give me the best chance at every opportunity, whether it’s taking me across the country for wrestling or going to football camps, whatever it was.”
The turning point of going down the sports-dominated road came with its challenges – challenges that often can extinguish the flame of enjoyment from young athletes early on.
For Leighton, the key to growing up and continuously having fun in the two sports that dominate his life began at home.
While Marshall is the designated coach in the household, Laurie is the force of power balancing out the scales to make sure they don’t tip too far into the pressure of being an athlete.
“My mom looked at my school stuff, my social stuff and made sure I was able to hang out with friends and have a normal childhood on top of going to tournaments every weekend,” Leighton said. “I felt like I was living a high school life in middle school just being on the road traveling non-stop. She’s made sure I was having a good time when I wasn’t in football and wrestling.”
For Laurie, school was the biggest thing. If Leighton worked as hard at school as he did on the football field or in the wrestling room, his future would be there waiting for him when the time came.
The social component, that came easy. He had developed relationships with his peers at Brownsburg from the early onset of sports, and they grew up together from the attraction to athletics.
“He has a natural desire to please and to work hard, so that work ethic he put right into school,” Laurie said. “And the relationships that he was forming spending all of these times with these families, it was just the perfect combination.”
With the well-rounded approach to Leighton’s development from an early age, it showed the future Division I football player that there was more to life than sports. It took the pressure off that side of his life, allowing him to thrive in it.
“It really went a long way and at the time I didn’t really notice it,” Leighton said. “I mean, nowadays, kids are cutting weight from like first grade and all of a sudden, they get to high school and want to quit. I feel like it kind of helped me make sure I wasn’t burnt out and just enjoyed the sport for what it was, rather than living and dying through it.”
The outside support for other aspects of his life helped Leighton’s drive stay strong in both football and wrestling. Working hard and staying focused in every aspect of his life is what sparked Iowa’s interest in him in the first place.
Following 6 AM workouts at Red Cobra, Leighton would make his way to Brownsburg football’s first-period weightlifting session. One day, that dedication to both sports went noticed and ultimately led to his commitment to the Hawkeyes.
“Iowa [defensive line] coach Kelvin Bell was there to talk to some other football recruits, just watched him work out and was really impressed with his work ethic,” Marshall said.” That [sentiment] just kept going with the [other] contacts at Iowa.”
Leighton’s hard work throughout his early high school years paid off, and his recruitment process rocketed with Iowa at the front and center. The interest shown from a number of college coaches who saw the combination of skills from football and wrestling was instrumental in how he would move forward.
“I honestly thought I was going to wrestle in college all the way until my sophomore year… I started getting recruited a lot more [in football] and that piqued my interest,” Leighton said. “I realized I could be a pretty big football recruit and go somewhere big.”
At the time, Jones was coming off a tough semifinal loss at the 2021 IHSAA State Tournament but finished strong in third place with a major decision against one of the best heavyweights in the state.
It wasn’t only his physicality that made Jones stand out, but his strong mentality.
“What was interesting, almost unilaterally regardless of the school, they almost talked to him more about his wrestling than football,” Marshall said. “I think it was that validation that, here’s a kid that’s competing at the highest levels in wrestling. A lot of the coaches were talking about his resiliency.”
In June 2021, following his sophomore year at Brownsburg, Leighton and Marshall took another cross-country trip for three total Big Ten camps in the span of a week, unofficially kicking off his recruiting process.
The trip, which took the Jones family all the way to Lincoln, Neb. for a freestyle camp and back east to Happy Valley for a Penn State football camp, made its first stop in Iowa City for Leighton’s first taste of Iowa football.
“When he went out to a camp at Iowa for an afternoon and was a defensive lineman, all the other coaches were noticing his footwork and hand skills and were like, ‘He’s a wrestler, right?’” Marshall said. “[Iowa head coach] Kirk Ferentz called him out and spoke to him personally – one out of like 200 linemen campers – and said, ‘You wrestle, right?’ That kind of became the discussion point.”
At their cores, wrestling and football are very different. Football is entirely a team mentality – as an offensive lineman, specifically, Leighton plays a crucial part in making sure plays develop the way they’re meant to. Wrestling, on the other hand – while there is still somewhat of a team component, moreso in some competitive environments than others – leans hard into an individual drive to succeed.
When you lose in football, it’s a full team loss. The emotional and mental weight that comes from wrestling is often completely different.
“I always kind of preferred football because it’s obviously easier,” Leighton said with a laugh. “When you lose, you don’t feel [that immense, individual pressure].”
Having an individual mentality instilled in him from an early age improved his growth on the football field, one of the ways the two sports go hand-in-hand.
When it comes to reaching his goals and focusing in on the individual fundamentals that will ultimately help the Iowa football team when he takes to the turf.
“I always have my goals in mind and where I’m trying to get to,” Leighton said. “That goes along with preparing more and being honest about my weaknesses and strengths, as well as the role I play on the team.”
Leighton is able to tap into that team mentality too, especially in the leadership role he plays during Brownsburg wrestling practices.
“I was always kind of a ‘lead by example’ guy, but this year my goal was to be more vocal,” Leighton said. “I mean, the senior heavyweight – most people will listen in the room, and if they don’t then you’ve kind of got to get into them a little. It’s really helped a lot, now they just kind of know [what to expect] every day when they walk into the room and to work hard.”
Fundamentally, wrestling and being an offensive lineman pair well when developing skills. Leighton is a strong, quick athlete whose abilities on the wrestling mat translate well to the gridiron.
“Wrestling and football complement each other in such a way that you don’t get burnt out on wrestling because the training is so tough if you train year-round,” Marshall said. “[Leighton] would train year-round in wrestling that was just really complementing his footwork, his hand-fighting and his actual mental game.”
The Iowa football program is a leader in developing successful wrestlers to become some of the best offensive lineman in the game. Tristian Wirfs of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tyler Linderbaum of the Baltimore Ravens are two recent, strong examples coming out of Kinnick Stadium.
When going through his recruiting process, the love of building their offensive line with former wrestlers is what drew him in on the Hawkeye program.
“Leighton fits the mold of many former Iowa offensive linemen that have come before him here in Iowa City,” Tyler Barnes, Director of Recruiting for Iowa football said via email. “He is a relentless competitor both on the football field and on the wrestling mat. He competes in both sports with a dominant mentality, and we love the chip he has on his shoulder. Leighton is one of those guys who can flip the switch once he starts competing and those are the guys opponents should worry about.”
Leighton went on an unofficial visit in July of 2021, one month after the camp that got him noticed by Ferentz. In September he visited again, this time taking in the experience he might have running onto the field in Iowa City one day.
“I went on a gameday visit to their first game in 2021 vs. [Indiana], and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever been to,” Leighton said. “You don’t get that…anywhere else. I thought it was pretty special.
“I realized it was different, and that as long as the coaches weren’t going to leave, they were honest, and they wanted what’s best for me and would push me [to reach my goals].”