Jim Harbaugh has a message to all those midwestern boys who dream of running onto the field at the Big House one day—play soccer.
During Michigan football’s trip to Italy last month, the team spent time with Italian Serie A Club AS Roma. That gave Harbaugh the opportunity to extoll the virtues he believes soccer can offer.
“I don’t think there is (a) better game for running and eye-foot coordination, there’s really no other game like it,” Harbaugh told reporters. “I always encourage youngsters in America to play soccer. I think every American boy should play soccer until the eighth grade, then they should play football—American football.”
Earlier this Summer, some of the best quarterback recruits in the nation visited Michigan to participate in Harbaugh’s “Ann Arbor’s Aerial Assault Quarterback Camp.” During one session, Harbaugh converted the school’s indoor football field to a soccer field and made the recruits play a game (which he himself refereed).
There’s a ton of crossover between soccer and football. Not only does soccer require a high level of cardiovascular endurance, but it also builds agility, balance, footwork and vision. Former Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who won the 2016 John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, was once a youth soccer star with dreams of becoming an MLS midfielder. He eventually transitioned to football at the behest of his father, but the athleticism he built through soccer undoubtedly contributed to his success on the gridiron. “I guarantee he’s such a great tight end because of soccer. He worked on his footwork almost exclusively from Kindergarten through sixth grade,” Meg Lally, Butt’s mother, wrote in a 2016 Sports Illustrated article.
Harbaugh isn’t the only high-profile college football coach who believes soccer can help build elite football players. Mike Leach, head football coach at Washington State University, is adamant about his love for recruiting players with a soccer background.
“I’ve had great luck with soccer players, to the point where, in recruiting, it’s a plus if the guy played soccer. They’re coordinated on both sides of their body, both feet are coordinated, and they’re good at making cuts on both sides of their body. They tend to be explosive on both sides of their cuts,” Leach said on the CY Interview podcast. “It’s a huge benefit. All those soccer players and coaches that are maligned by football coaches around the country, I want them all coming my direction.”
Leach cites Wes Welker, who he coached at Texas Tech, as a prime example. In addition to being a standout on the football team at Heritage Hall High School (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Welker was also an All-State soccer player. Chad Johnson and Odell Beckham Jr. are two other notable wide receivers who played soccer into their teenage years.