By Scott Prater
When Maj. Neal Rodak, 50th Space Wing individual mobilization augmentee for the deputy judge advocate, first stepped onto a wrestling mat, he didn’t much care for the sport.
He thought he was a much better football player, but at the request of his middle school coaches, he reluctantly agreed to give wrestling a try.
He won exactly one of his first 13 matches, but a light bulb went off soon after. He adapted and finished the second half of his first season by winning 13 of his next 17 matches.
By his senior year he was wrestling in tournaments around the country. In college competition he earned All-American honors twice and was a three-time NCAA tournament qualifier. He finished his collegiate career with a 135-34 record.
At age 36, he can still be found hanging around the gym. And he’s still winning.
After being invited by Air Force Coach Rich Estrella to compete at the 2011 Armed Forces Wrestling Tournament at Fort Carson Nov. 4, Rodak surprised few who knew him by beating his Navy and Marine opponents while earning a Silver medal in the Greco Roman 55 kilogram (121 pound) weight class.
“I was pleased with my performance,” he said. “My only loss was to an Army wrestler who is ranked No. 3 in the country, wrestles full time and plans to compete at the Olympic trials.”
Estrella wasn’t surprised about the result either, saying Rodak’s skills as a wrestler transfer well to his chosen profession.
“Wrestling is a thinking man’s game, a game of chess — and Neal is a real tactician,” Estrella said. “You have to anticipate what your opponent might be doing and you have to either counter his move or turn it around on him. He’s an experienced wrestler, has extensive international style experience and has wrestled around the world.”
Just like his first year wrestling, Rodak thrives at adapting in other parts of his life. After graduating from the University of Chicago he enrolled at Arizona State University College of Law.
“It seemed like a career path with multiple options,” he said. “My main motivation though, came from watching the criminal trial of a friend of mine. I think he was wrongfully convicted and his attorney was awful. That pushed me to pursue law.”
With his degree in hand, he chose to enter the U.S. Navy as way to gain a wide variety of legal experience.
“Really I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said. “I figured the military would provide a lot of exposure of different areas of law and I wanted to serve my country and get a little better handle on this degree.”
Years later, he wrestled with the World Class Athlete program as an Army officer, earning a Bronze Medal at the 2002 Armed Forces Wrestling Tournament, a Silver at the 2003 and 2004 tournaments and a Gold at the 2005 tournament.
Upon exiting the Army, he took a job as a criminal defense attorney for the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Public Defender’s Office and entered the Air National Guard, which brought him to Schriever this year as an IMA for the 50 SW deputy judge advocate, who deployed.
“Both careers have helped me,” he said. “We’ve been at war for [close to ten years] now and there are a lot of veterans, some homeless, who are in need of legal help.”
For now, he plans to do more coaching than wrestling.
Following his Silver medal winning performance he transferred back to his full time job in Arizona. He’s been helping coach a high school team there and Estrella says he even brings wrestlers down to Arizona for intense special sessions with Rodak.
“I try to help the kids realize that if you work hard, you tend to be successful,” Rodak said. “And people want to help others who work hard. If you’re putting in the work and people help you, it just snowballs and success follows that. In my experience, that’s been true in wrestling, in my marriage and in being a friend.”