It’s Friday night, under the dark sky of Hanover. The Penn football team is lined up against its opponent of the week: the Dartmouth Big Green. On the defensive line, the Quakers stare down their opponents, determined to make a stop. Dartmouth quarterback Nick Howard snaps the ball. But moments into his rushing attempt, he’s tackled onto the turf.
He’s stopped by none other than junior defensive lineman Joey Slackman. That tackle was just the first of eight for Slackman in Penn’s pivotal win over Dartmouth.
And just to think, three years ago, Slackman wasn’t even pursuing the game of football, arriving to Penn as a freshman wrestler in 2019.
The Long Island, N.Y. native wrestled from a young age. After some time off, he got back into wrestling in middle school, and then eventually in high school. Throughout his high school career, he earned several honors and carved a name for himself as one of the top-tier wrestlers in the nation. The highest ranking he ever earned was No. 12 in the 285 lbs division by Intermat.
But throughout his wrestling career, he was still actively involved with football.
His dad also involved him in football at a young age, and because of his size, Slackman had always played on the line. But wrestling was the sport that helped him get ahead of other linemen.
“As a wrestler, you’re trying to keep a guy’s hands off you, and get hand control, and get the takedown, and score points,” Slackman said. “It’s a lot similar to a defensive lineman where you’re trying to keep a guy’s hands off you.”
Coaches had told him all his life that wrestling could help him improve as a lineman, even since middle school. And now through college, his coaches at Penn acknowledge how he’s been able to transfer the skills he learned from wrestling to football.
“Wrestling is all about body leverage, playing low and utilizing your hands and feeling leverage points and balancing people. And that’s exactly what you do on the offensive and defensive lines,” coach Ray Priore said. “And I think that really helps him out.”
Priore hadn’t recruited Slackman out of high school. He didn’t even know who he was until he got a phone call while at home that Slackman was interested in joining the football team.
Priore then spoke to coach Roger Reina of the wrestling team — a friend of his — over the decision. Slackman said that Reina and the rest of the wrestling staff were supportive of his choice.
“At the time, they said, do what your heart desires, do what you want to do,” Slackman recalled.
For the infamous COVID-19 year of 2020-21, Slackman kept up with both teams. The possibility of being on both rosters still lingered.
Being a dual-sport athlete in college is hard, but not impossible. Penn football and wrestling have seen a handful of athletes do it before. One such athlete was another Joey, Joey Allen. Allen competed both as a football player and wrestler in the '90s.
But Slackman had other things on his mind during that COVID-19 year than just sports, as he took a gap year dividing his time working for two very different organizations: Beat the Street and the Delaware State Attorney's office.
As part of the State Attorney's office, he got to shadow one of the criminal attorneys as an intern and learn more about what goes on in a law firm. It fit in perfectly with his political science major and helped him see a clearer picture of what he wants for his future (which may even include law school).
And through Beat the Street, Slackman received the opportunity to make a positive impact on the local community.
“It’s a wrestling-oriented organization where we help underprivileged kids in the Philly area get acclimated with wrestling and kind of immerse themselves in the sport. And we provide academic tutoring too,” Slackman said.
Beginning in the 2021 season, though, Slackman’s focus was entirely on football.
“Football kind of took precedent. I had a lot of injuries with wrestling that kind of detached me from the sport a little bit and prevented me from getting back to where I wanted to be as a wrestler goes,” Slackman said.
Now in his second season playing on the historic Franklin Field, Slackman has been making big plays for the Red and Blue. Through three games, the junior already has 16 tackles, matching his output from last season.
“He works as hard as anybody that I’ve been around,” Priore said. “It’s important that he has an expectation of himself. He’s his harshest critic about himself, which I think helps him achieve the goals that he’s got.”
While his own personal expectations relate to himself, Slackman is solely focused on his role in helping the team reach its goals this season.
“I’m just a cog in the machine, you know?” Slackman said. “I’m here to do my part and my job and win games.”
And now his hardworking mentality and passion for the game are fueling an electrifying season for the junior wrestler-turned-football player.