The Ultimate Competitor: How Ravens’ Tyler Linderbaum balanced standout four-sport high school career while becoming an elite lineman

Before he was standout center at Iowa, and long before he was a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Baltimore Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum was a dominant four-sport athlete at Solon High School.

It was the summer of 2018, and Tyler Linderbaum had just completed his daily assignments for the University of Iowa’s summer program. He drove roughly 20 minutes from Iowa City to Solon (Iowa) High School. Shortly after that journey, he put on a pair of batting gloves.

While he was a freshman lineman for the Hawkeyes, he was also moonlighting as a first baseman and pitcher for the Solon High baseball team.

In Iowa, baseball is played in the summer, so Linderbaum had a choice: he could focus solely on his college football career and skip his senior baseball season or take part in both with the blessing of his Hawkeye coaches.

Ever the competitor, Linderbaum, chose Option B, which didn’t surprise any of his many high school coaches.

“He wasn’t going to pass that up,” said Keith McSweeney, Linderbaum’s high school baseball coach. “We were just lucky that he committed to Iowa, and he didn’t commit to Minnesota or one of the other programs that he had an offer to, because that would have made it almost impossible given the travel rate. Although, I’m not convinced he wouldn’t have come back and played for us on Fridays and the weekend. Seriously.”

Tyler Linderbaum: The Ultimate Competitor

Linderbaum, who was selected with the 25th overall pick in the first round on Thursday by the Baltimore Ravens, was the ultimate competitor during his time at Solon High. He played four sports during his four years at the school and somehow excelled in every competition.

While every one of his coaches knew that football was the end goal for him, they all believed that the gifted athlete could have starred in any sport he chose to commit to for the long haul.

“He certainly could have wrestled in college or thrown the shot,” McSweeney said. “He was one of the reasons we went to the state tournament twice in his four years as a varsity starter.”

Casey Hack, the school’s athletic director, arrived on campus as Linderbaum transitioned from an all-state high school athlete to an Iowa freshman. Hack saw how Linderbaum, a student he had never taught, committed to the high school even after leaving for college. Linderbaum’s dedication to the baseball team during that transitional summer stood out to the new administrator.

“It would have been probably easy to say, ‘I’m not going to play baseball anymore,’” Hack told Pro Football Network. “But it was really important to him, and the Hawkeye staff made it happen for him.”

Linderbaum’s high school football coach Kevin Miller believes his former pupil’s rare work ethic stems from his competitiveness and loyalty. Those same attributes will help the [new team] establish an even stronger locker room culture, and Miller says [new city] is getting a grounded player who will never stop trying to get better at anything he does. It’s in the 6-foot-2, 296-pound center’s DNA.

Said Miller: “The biggest thing about Tyler is he’s never forgotten who he is and where he’s come from.”

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

The Linderbaum legacy was established at Solon High long before the future first-round pick arrived on campus.

Linderbaum’s late grandfather, Jerry, was a longtime baseball coach and history teacher for the school. His father, Todd, was a standout baseball player in his day at Solon High, and he also helped coach Tyler and his older brother, Logan, during their youthful rise in the sport.

Linderbaum had a lot to live up to when he stepped onto the diamond as a high school freshman, making the varsity team that first year. He played alongside Logan, a senior, with Todd serving as an assistant coach to McSweeney.

“The Linderbaum family is synonymous with Solon athletics, particularly so in baseball,” McSweeney said.

But his family’s legacy wasn’t what won Linderbaum a spot on the varsity roster.  He was a standout pitcher and first baseman for Solon High and a big reason why Solon reached the state tournament his sophomore and senior years.

“Great hitter,” McSweeney said. “His senior year, he hit close to .400 and he was an all-conference player, all-district player. He’s the kind of guy that could have played college baseball.”

Typically, Linderbaum’s schedule dictated his position on the diamond. Since he was a thrower for the track team, he would rest his arm early in the season; during that time, he would mainly play first base and occasionally fill in at third base. When his arm recovered from shot put and discus events, he would take the mound as a pitcher.

While McSweeney claims Linderbaum’s best position was first base, the coach never hesitated to move him to pitcher during crucial moments in games. During a state tournament semifinal matchup, McSweeney had to find a closer in a tight game. He picked Linderbaum, a sophomore, over a more seasoned pitcher because he knew Linderbaum could handle the pressure.

“We knew he wouldn’t back down and he was just going to get after it,” McSweeney said.

Solon High lost that game, but McSweeney says that defeat wasn’t on Linderbaum. The coach made a similar decision in a state quarterfinal game during Linderbaum’s senior season, and Solon lost again in extra innings. But McSweeney trusted Linderbaum in the clutch, and he still stands by his decisions despite the results.

Said McSweeney: “He became a really good pitcher his junior and senior years.”

Solon’s Tyler Linderbaum (right) wrestles Williamsburg’s Logan Knutson during their heavyweight championship match at the Class 2A Sectional 3 Meet at Williamsburg High School in Williamsburg, Iowa, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Linderbaum won by fall. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Wrestling with football, baseball, and track

When Blake Williams first arrived at Solon High ahead of Linderbaum’s sophomore year, the school’s new wrestling coach had a plan.

Linderbaum was already committed to baseball, football, track, and basketball. And while he excelled at all four sports, Linderbaum, who wrestled a bit in middle school, favored some over others.

Williams was eager to steal him from his least favorite of the four sports.

“He was a pretty good basketball player,” Williams said. “But I had heard he wasn’t too interested in it, so one of the first things that I did when I got there that summer was try to get him in the wrestling room. He came up for a couple of open practices and decided to go out.”

As a sophomore, Linderbaum was around 225 pounds, according to Williams. He finished the year around 230 pounds, as he continued to excel in football and baseball.

Linderbaum eventually became one of the better wrestlers on Williams’ squad. While he wasn’t the best technician, his tenacity more than made up for those limitations.

“He won a lot of matches, and you could just tell from the start that he had that will to win and that desire to work hard,” Williams said. “He’d be the first to admit that he was probably never a great wrestler. But he learned how to wrestle, and he has just that determination and that refusal to lose.”

Balancing multiple sports doesn’t lend itself to a desirable schedule. During the winter sports season, Linderbaum would bounce from wrestling practice to batting practice, and at times, track meets would be sandwiched between those workouts in the summer. He was also routinely lifting for football.

But wrestling, Williams said, was probably Linderbaum’s most grueling activity on the calendar.

“Wrestling is a grind,” Williams said. “Not only him wrestling in meets, but just the daily grind of the sport is like no other, and I think really that part of it helped him just as much as all the physical stuff that went along with it.”

Linderbaum was an all-star wrestler, placing fifth and third in the state during his junior and senior years, respectively. While balancing standout careers in football and baseball, Linderbaum was manhandling fellow teenagers on the mat.

“Obviously he has a lot of athletic ability but that alone hasn’t gotten him to where he is,” Williams said. “One of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker that I’ve ever had. Everything that he’s ever earned, he’s worked for.”

Solon’s Tyler Linderbaum celebrates after forcing a fourth down during the Spartans’ game against Decorah in Solon on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.

More Chuck Bednarik than Brett Favre

When Linderbaum first joined the Solon football team, he wasn’t focused on the trenches. After playing quarterback in middle school, the natural competitor wanted to try his luck under center as a freshman on the junior varsity squad.

According to Miller, that foray into throwing the football didn’t last long.

“He had the athletic ability to play a skill position,” Miller said. “However, that’s not what he was best suited to do, and it wasn’t what was best for the team.”

Miller saw Linderbaum’s big body and moved him to the offensive and defensive lines. A throwback to the ironmen of old, Miller saw Linderbaum more as Chuck Bednarik than Brett Favre, despite his impressive athleticism and versatility.

Linderbaum, who played center and defensive tackle at Solon, accepted the change and challenge of playing in the trenches, Miller said.

Linderbaum eventually earned first-team all-state and all-district honors as a junior and senior as a two-way lineman. His success led to interest from FBS schools, including nearby Iowa, who snatched him up, initially as a defensive lineman. But Miller felt Linderbaum would eventually move back to the offensive line during his college career, as predicted by another former pupil.

Miller coached former NFL linebacker James Morris at Solon High, and the coach asked Morris, a fellow Iowa alum, to work with Linderbaum during a practice session in his junior year. The feedback Miller received from Morris — who played for the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys during his three-year NFL career — was something out of a crystal ball.

“He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m going to tell you right now, if he plays offensive lineman at Iowa, he’s going to be an all-American and he’ll play on Sunday,’” Miller said.

After playing in two games as a defensive tackle during his true freshman season, Linderbaum moved to center for Iowa in 2019. He ended up starting 35 games at center for the Hawkeyes.

Linderbaum won the Rimington Trophy and was a unanimous consensus All-American as a senior. Morris’ prophecy came to fruition, and Miller understands why it all worked out.

“I think there’s a number of factors,” Miller said. “He plays with a great level of leverage. … His lateral movements, his first two or three steps are very explosive.. … When you bend well and you can move your feet and you just got some of that quick, explosive, quick twitch [movement] that makes usually for a pretty good interior lineman.”

A portrait of Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum is seen on the Consensus All American wall, Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City, Iowa.
220330 Linderbaum Portrait 001 Jpg

A Solon superstar

Since graduating from Solon High, Linderbaum, 22, has been a regular around the athletics program. While Hack didn’t get to know Linderbaum during his stellar, four-sport career at the school, he has seen the alum return to support the department that helped shape him.

“I don’t think there’s a sport that he hasn’t been back to, and at least been a fan or been visible,” Hack said. “He does come back, and we’re excited to continue that relationship and watch his career develop, and hopefully bring him back to inspire some of the kids now to be a great role model for them.”

Miller, who retired in 2020 to watch his son, Cam, play quarterback at North Dakota State, believes Linderbaum’s continued presence around Solon is based on his character and overall wiring as a teammate and competitor.

“Well, first and foremost, Tyler wanted to be a multi-sport athlete,” Miller said. “It wasn’t pressed upon him by any particular coaches or programs. He’s highly competitive and wanted to participate in as many possible sports as he could. And I think that says a lot about him and just his commitment to his school and his friends and his teammates.”

Williams, who still follows Linderbaum’s career closely and texts with him occasionally, sees the NFL rookie’s wrestling background in his trench play and often reminisces about their time together as he watches Linderbaum dominate defenders.

“It’s pretty fun to watch games, because you see him one-on-one with some defensive linemen and it kind of brings you back to when he was wrestling heavyweights from across the state of Iowa,” Williams said. “There are a lot of similar attributes and characteristics that went into both of those battles.”

McSweeney remains close to the Linderbaum family. He believes his former first baseman is destined for success in the NFL.

The longtime coach, who replaced Linderbaum’s grandfather at Solon High, thinks Linderbaum was the easiest gamble to make during draft weekend because of his work ethic, skill set, and dedication to those around him. According to McSweeney, the Ravens got a special player, but more importantly, a special man in the middle of their offensive line.

“You’re getting a tenacious competitor, who is fiercely loyal,” McSweeney said. “You’d be out of your mind to not draft this young man.”

Mike Kaye is the Lead NFL Reporter for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @mike_e_kaye.