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“Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.” –Leonardo da Vinci
This quote by Leonardo da Vinci sums up the journey that defines Antonio “Tony” Russo’s life. Although by looking at him today, you’d never know it.
Trophies, congratulatory letters, and piles of newspaper articles, fill the scrapbooks, and line the walls and display cases of the schools and wrestling rooms where Tony Russo was head wrestling coach.
His Tigers of Newberg High School won eighteen conferences titles, seven Oregon State Championships, and eight Oregon State Dual Meet Championships. The nation took notice and Amateur Wrestling News ranked them as 2nd in the nation during the late 1980’s. By the end of Tony Russo’s reign as head coach, the Newberg Tigers had become a multi-generational sports dynasty.
All of this brought with it accolades. To name a few, Oregon All-Sports Coach of the year, Wrestling Coach of the Year, Cultural Exchange All-Star Coach, and a place in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“None of this would have been possible without the athletes and their dedication and hard work,” Russo said. “They have to trust you as a coach, they have to understand that there is a higher purpose for the grind that you are putting them through. The ones who understood this benefited greatly.” Russo coached over twenty athletes to individual state titles during his career.
As an athlete himself in the 1960’s Russo had an acclaimed career, winning a conference title for the Arizona State Sun Devils and wrestling his way to an alternate position on the 1964 Olympic team.
“Wrestling opened doors for me that would have never been opened otherwise. It allowed me to go on to higher education. Wrestling made that happen for me,” Russo stated. “The influence my coaches had on me was huge. The sport of wrestling gave me more than anyone can realize today and I wanted to pass that on to young athletes. I knew that if the sport of wrestling could make such a difference in my life, then it could make a difference in the lives of others, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Rewind to 1940’s rural Italy. Young Antonio Russo was climbing trees, chasing birds, and working on his family’s leased farmland. Too busy being a kid to understand his mother’s wish for a better life.
“In Italia, i ricchi sono sempre più ricchi e i poveri sono sempre più poveri.” In Italy, the rich are always richer and the poor are always poorer. Antonio heard his mother speak these words over and over, but even so, nothing prepared him for what would happen the summer of 1951.
That summer his family boarded a bus and traveled to the Bay of Naples. Once there, they put ten-year-old Antonio aboard the SS Independence headed for America. Antonio would be traveling alone, his only comfort the salami and provolone cheese his mother had stuffed into the pockets of his jacket. On August 15, 1951 Antonio disembarked on New York soil and began a new life in America.
“I knew I was in America,” Tony said. “I had heard about the Statue of Liberty, and I recognized her right away, but this was the most frightening thing I had ever experienced, and to this day it makes me nervous to think about it. Even when my family took me into their homes, it didn’t feel right. In New York, I didn’t fit in, I was nervous and there was no stability. It wasn’t until my Uncle Tony and Aunt Gladys sent for me and gave me a home in Portland, Oregon that I started to feel comfortable.”
His aunt and uncle enrolled him in school and despite the language barrier, his academic struggles, and social turmoil, Tony found one thing he excelled at – the sport of wrestling.
After high school, further education was not an option financially, and thus he entered an apprenticeship program at Ladd Wholesale Meat Company. This would be his career and he felt comfortable pursuing this as he had participated in the pig slaughter every year as a young boy in Italy. His family’s specialty salami was Soppressata, and it’s still his favorite today.
Antonio worked his way up the ladder but he could never shake his love for wrestling and he continued to participate at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland. In 1963, preparedness and opportunity collided when he received a letter from the head wrestling coach at Arizona State University, Ted Bredehoft, asking him to come to ASU and try to wrestle his way on to the team. The rest is history.
In 2012, Tony wrote a memoir with his daughter published by Gemelli Press titled, Wrestling with the Devil; A story of sacrifice, survival and triumph, from the hills of Naples to the Hall of Fame.