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InterMat Reads: Wrestling with the Devil

Mark Palmer

12/20/2012
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

"Obstacles cannot crush me."

Those words, uttered by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago, have served as a foundation for the life of Antonio Russo, whose Italian family put him alone on a ship bound for the U.S. as a ten-year-old. In his new homeland, Russo overcame numerous obstacles to not only raise a family, but also to make a name for himself as a wrestler in high school in Portland, Oregon and at Arizona State, then in an enduring coaching career.

This inspirational story is now told in a new book, "Wrestling with the Devil," by Antonio Russo and his daughter Tonya Russo Hamilton, published by Gemelli Press.

A story of solo journeys

You're probably wondering why Antonio Russo's family would be willing to part with their eldest son, sending him alone on a journey from Naples, Italy to New York City, to live with relatives he had never met, in a country where he did not know the language.

Born in a small village south of Naples in October 1940, Antonio "Tony" Russo actually had dual citizenship in both Italy and the U.S. His mother was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania; however, after job opportunities dried up, her parents returned to their native Italy with their young daughter who eventually married and had three children, Tony being the oldest. Laws at the time stated that, in order to retain their U.S. citizenship, youngsters such as Tony had to come to America and establish residence no less than five years before his 18th birthday. As Russo states in "Wrestling with the Devil," "The laws on this have since changed, but, as far as my parents were concerned, to secure my U.S. citizenship, they knew they had to get me to America soon."

So, in August 1951, Russo said goodbye to his parents and his younger brother and sister, boarded a ship all by himself, accompanied only by a suitcase and pockets stuffed with Italian meats and cheeses.

After a week battling loneliness and seasickness on board the ship that transported him to the new world, life didn't become any easier for the 4' 3" tall boy who only spoke Italian. After months of being shuttled among four different sets of relatives in New York, Tony took another long solo trip -- this time by airplane across the U.S. -- to live with his aunt and uncle in Portland, where he found a loving home ... and was ultimately introduced to the sport of wrestling.

As a native of Italy, Tony Russo struggled with the English language in school, which led to fights with other kids. The school's football coach thought involvement in that sport would help Russo deal with his anger and aggression in a positive way. One of the assistant football coaches happened to be head coach of the school's fledgling wrestling program, where Russo found his true home away from home ... and a true passion in his life that continues to this day as a coach, more than a half-century after first stepping onto the mat.

How the book came to life

When asked how "Wrestling with the Devil" came about, Tonya Russo Hamilton replied, "We grew up hearing stories about wrestling and Italy from my father."

"I had always wanted to write down his stories, to preserve these memories," Hamilton continued. "I wrote up one of those stories -- what became the chapter titled "Horse and Cart" -- emailed it to him, and his reaction was so positive." (InterMat readers will find that chapter, which describes a near-tragic accident in Russo's childhood, eerily reminiscent of a similar incident involving former Oklahoma State wrestling champ and 1932 Olympic gold medalist Jack VanBebber, as told in his memoir A Distant Flame reviewed in an earlier InterMat feature.)

"Once I got my dad on board, we wrote an outline, then used a tape recorder to capture his stories."

Hamilton, an elementary school teacher, turned her father's audio recollections of his life into a written document ... which ultimately became a published book. It was a challenging process for Hamilton, one that took three years from initial idea to printed page ... and required a lot of thoughtful consultation with the book's subject. "As I wrote it, I'd call dad dozens and dozens of times," Hamilton disclosed. "I wanted to be sure to get every detail right."

Incorporating the flavor of Italy

As a memoir, "Wrestling with the Devil" is a first-person account of an Italian immigrant's life in the U.S. that took some direction from a popular historical novel about Japanese culture. "It made sense to do the book in first person," said Hamilton. "I read Memoirs of a Geisha and thought that approach would work well for telling my dad's story."

"The idea was to put it in his voice, trying to make it authentic to the stories he had told us when we were kids."

The authenticity extends to incorporating Italian into the text in a seamless way that adds richness to the story, without slowing down readers whose only language is English. (An example from the book: "She told us that in America, "gli alberi d'oro" lined the streets. Trees that bloomed with gold.")

"A challenge was changing his dialect to standard Italian," said Hamilton. "I wrote to Dianne Hales, author of La Bella Lingua, and sent her a printed version of my manuscript. She liked the way I handled the dialogue ... She also said, 'There's publisher, Gemelli Press, that is interested in all things Italian.' I sent them my story on a Monday, and heard back from them on Friday."

A taste of the mat, too

Antonio Russo
True to its title -- and the life of its subject -- "Wrestling with the Devil" incorporates plenty of stories from the wrestling mat, starting with Tony Russo's mat career at David Douglas High School (with stops along the way at the Oregon state championships), the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, and, later, at Arizona State. As a Sun Devil, Russo wrestled for coach Ted Bredehoft, and counted among his teammates Charlie Tribble and Curley Culp, 1967 NCAA heavyweight champ who went on to a successful NFL career. Russo also recounts his experience at the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials, held at the World's Fair in New York.

The first-person presentation works to great advantage as Russo describes his on-the-mat exploits, from wrestling practice to actual matches, in vivid detail that any fan of the oldest-and-greatest sport will appreciate. An added bonus: plenty of photos of Russo as a wrestler in high school and as a Sun Devil.

The first-person perspective also makes Antonio Russo's life story all the more compelling and moving, providing the reader with an emotional you-are-there point-of-view that truly tugs at the heartstrings. It is impossible not to read "Wrestling with the Devil" and imagine how you'd react to the various challenges that confronted a young Tony Russo.

Tonya Russo Hamilton nd Antonio Russo are joined by editors Sally Carr and Kari Hock (Photo/Connie Russo)
"Dad had anger issues in the past," according to Tonya Russo Hamilton. "He's very much a survivor, someone who survived various traumatic events, especially in his young life. Yet my dad is so positive. He 'stays the course' and sees good in everything. He has a good sense of humor."

Russo's personality and positive spirit comes shining through in "Wrestling with the Devil." It's a true-life tale of redemption, of overcoming daunting odds, of making your way in a new world, and, of particular significance to mat fans, finding life-shaping success from a life in wrestling.

"Wrestling with the Devil" is available for purchase online at the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. To see Antonio Russo in action as a coach, check out the video at www.tonyrussotakedowns.com.

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