Jesse Dellavecchia's entrance at the 2021 NCAA finals (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
It's no secret that collegiate and elite-level wrestling demands a tremendous amount of discipline, dedication, and unmatched work ethic from its athletes. The everyday challenges of scholastic pressure coupled with high-caliber losses, injuries, cutting copious amounts of weight, and intrinsic adversities is an all too familiar scenario for Jesse Dellavecchia, a redshirt senior who wrestles for Rider University.
Dellavecchia, originally from Great River, New York (located on Long Island), became Rider's first-ever MAC Champion in 2020 and 2021 at 157lbs, while also becoming Rider's first NCAA finalist in 2021 at 157lbs; dropping a 4-0 decision to Iowa State's David Carr. He also became Rider's 18th NCAA All-American. Before Dellavecchia made the NCAA finals, only five Rider wrestlers had reached the third-place bout: Lou DiSerafino (1980), John Lucerne (1985), Adam Derengowski (1991), Rider's current head coach John Hangey (1993), and Doug Umbehauer (2009). To top off his career, Dellavecchia became Rider's first-ever MAC Wrestler of the Year.
Moments before Dellavecchia pins #1 Ryan Deakin (Photo/Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
From a spectator's perspective, Jesse Dellavecchia looks like every other insanely talented wrestler, right? Making it to the finals in tremendous fashion by pinning undefeated, #1 ranked Ryan Deakin. Well, you're wrong.
Unbeknownst to most, Jesse has fought a battle with mental health for a majority of his collegiate wrestling career; internal and external pressures completely consuming him. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults suffer from at least one mental health disorder in their lifetime. Athletes for Hope - an association that aims to educate, encourage, and assist athletes - found that 35% of athletes suffer from a mental health illness during their career.
Prior to Rider University, Dellavecchia wrestled for Binghamton University where he posted a 15-9 record as a freshman. It was during the 2015-2016 season that Dellavecchia's battle with mental health forced him to leave the sport and attend classes at a local community college. "It wasn't fun for me anymore. School was really hard, and my grades weren't where I wanted them to be. I was just stressed and not enjoying it anymore. I was pushing through for a long time and trying to stick with it, but I eventually couldn't do it anymore. I don't think I was mature enough at the time. Ultimately, I wasn't ready." said Dellavecchia.
After making the decision to step away from the sport, Dellavecchia removed himself from wrestling completely. It took nearly five months before he started to dabble in MMA and kickboxing (FYI: He's a huge MMA junkie!). During those five months, Dellavecchia focused on his mental health, succeeding academically, and saving money. "I was taking classes at a community college and was bored. I didn't really know what to do. I really wanted to finish my degree at a four-year college, and I figured that would give me an opportunity to wrestle again" said Dellavecchia. So, there it was. An opportunity for Dellavecchia to battle again, but this time on the mat.
As Dellavecchia began looking for potential colleges, he knew Rider University was the home he needed after facing countless obstacles at Binghamton. "It was different this time around. When I was coming out of high school, there were a lot of schools that wanted me. When I transferred and left Binghamton, there weren't that many. I knew a smaller school like Rider would benefit me. It's more personable with the teachers, smaller classrooms, and coaches. I'm thankful Rider gave me the opportunity to go there" said Dellavecchia.
With the change of environment and roughly one-hundred miles away from home on Long Island, Jesse's battle with anxiety and depression didn't just go away. Coach Hangey said, "Jesse had a lot of pressure and stress; internally, externally, you name it. It consumed him and it killed the love of the sport for him. Jesse hides it well. But, after being around him and in his presence for a couple of months, we figured out his personality pretty quick. We would notice that he would withdraw. It's not that he wouldn't be visible at practice - he would be there laughing and joking with the guys - but then all of a sudden, we would notice he would withdraw from the group. Not terrible, but enough." Coach Hangey then went on to say, "I was always the buffer in between. The "let's go talk" guy. I would bring reason to everything that was happening, even if it was the worst thing in the world to Jesse. I would always tell him, "Well, we have to get through this. It will only get better from here."
The efforts of Dellavecchia's coaches and teammates did not go unnoticed. In fact, they were the very reason that Jesse accomplished the feats he did as a Bronc. Dellavecchia stated, "I think the most important thing for me was communication, which I didn't have at Binghamton. I talked to my parents and that helped a lot, but it's not the same as always having someone to relate to in the moment. Having my coaches at Rider and talking to them every day helped me. It gave me a different opinion, which changed my mindset, especially during my first two years at Rider. They made it really fun for me while I was struggling. I always knew that if I was struggling to make it through the day and needed to talk, they were always there to help me. Over the years, and especially at Rider, I've learned how to deal with stress and external factors better."
Dellavecchia hugging Rider assistant coach Nic Bedelyon (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Throughout the years at Rider, Dellavecchia developed a strong bond with Rider's Assistant Coach, Nic Bedelyon. John Hangey said, "I think the best thing that happened was that Jesse and Nic Bedelyon were attached at the hip. They often talked over the phone, practiced during the wee hours of the night, and had extra workouts in the morning before classes. Jesse and Nic developed a genuine friendship. Above and beyond being a coach and a mentor for a student athlete, Nic helped Jesse blossom as a collegiate athlete on the mat, and with his depression." He then went on to say, "Those demons don't just go away. He learned to trust me as a head coach and knew he could open up to me about anything. He treated Nic like a big brother, but had the utmost respect for him at the same time. The bonds he developed with each of us were exactly what Jesse needed to be successful."
Eventually, by way of strongly built relationships and an open line of communication, Dellavecchia hit a turning point in his wrestling career. Dellavecchia explained, "My second year at Rider definitely changed everything for me. It was the year I went 165lbs. I redshirted and went to 165lbs the next. I didn't cut any weight and was in the starting lineup. During this transition to a new weight, Chad Walsh was a big inspiration to me, and the team. He was a good teammate, and an even better leader who helped me fall in love with the sport again. I was getting in extra practices with him, and totally focused on wrestling without having to cut weight. Once that happened, I continued to get better." Coach Hangey commented, "When he was at Binghamton, he was asked to cut a lot of weight and it was just expected that he would. That drove him out of the sport 100%. After making the transition to Rider, his redshirt year, we had Chad Walsh at 165lbs, and Jesse was going to sit behind him for a year. It worked out almost perfect for him. We told him to take his time and get back into the sport gradually, just seeing how it goes. We didn't put any pressure on him. Ultimately, it was the perfect scenario for Jesse. We didn't try to force him into the starting lineup; rekindling the pressure that crushed him earlier. He was slowly becoming the wrestler and kid that he once was. After that first year, he was so comfortable with us because he was able to be himself, and he was able to grow and develop as a man. That's one of the many advantages we have at Rider. There is pressure, but it's whatever you make it. Any pressure Jesse had, was pressure he put on himself. That's why he was so successful."
Jesse Dellavecchia (right) in the Round of 16 at the 2021 NCAA Championships (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
At the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Dellavecchia qualified for the tournament and wrestled 165lbs. He went 2-2 with losses coming from Logan Massa of Michigan and Josh Shields from Arizona State.John Hangey said, "He was competitive with them, but they were too big. After Jesse left the tournament he said, "It's the wrong weight. I have to go down." The reason this changed the course of Jesse's wrestling career was the fact that he determined that, and it wasn't forced upon him. It was everything we, as coaches, needed to hear. Jesse became a well-oiled machine. He had a diet and he stuck to it. He ate the same thing for five months and he made weight at 157lbs with no problems. It was because Jesse knew it would help him get to where he wanted to go without it being forced on him. Ultimately, I think that's what helped him fall in love with the sport again. He could really zero in on what he had to do to be the most successful."
It was that very conversation and succeeding changes that allowed Dellavecchia to become the most successful wrestler in Rider's history. With his mental health mending, and his love for wrestling growing stronger than ever, Jesse paved the way for his teammates.
At the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Dellavecchia had the winningest tournament in Rider's history. In the opening bout, Dellavecchia won a 4-2 decision over Oregon State's Hunter Willits. In the quarterfinals, he won by Injury Default to Penn State's Brady Berge. Moving on to one of the most electric semifinals matches of the tournament, Dellavecchia pinned Northwestern's Deakin, who was the top seed at the weight class. In the finals, Dellavecchia dropped a 4-0 decision to Iowa State's David Carr. After the conclusion of the tournament, he stated, "It's a good accomplishment. I'm very happy and proud of myself. It's weird because I knew I could make it to the finals, but there is always a lot of self-doubt along the way. After my semifinal win, it was crazy. I normally don't celebrate. My coaches told me to stay calm and not let my emotions get too up or too down, but I just let my emotions get ahead of me and I had to celebrate. It was one of the best wins of my career, and it was at the biggest tournament of my career. Ultimately, I was very happy with my performance, although I really wanted to win it."
Dellavecchia after his NCAA semifinals pin (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Dellavecchia became the first Long-Islander since Jesse Jantzen in 2004 to reach the D1 NCAA Wrestling Championship finals. In response to the tremendous accomplishment, Dellavecchia stated, "It was awesome to do this for my hometown of East Islip. I love Long Island. The community showed me so much support. I received so many messages from people I hadn't talked to in a long time congratulating me, and I really felt the love. I never even won a state title, so to hear so many positive comments was really cool." Dellavecchia was a two-time New York State Finalist, three-time All-State selection, and four-time NHSCA All-American for East Islip High School prior to attending Binghamton and Rider.
At the conclusion of the 2021 wrestling season, John Hangey commented the following, "As far as being a pioneer, that's what Jesse was. A pioneer paves the way for everyone after them to follow a path and broaden the horizons in their prospective futures. Previously, Rider had five wrestlers in the semifinals. All of them were super close to making it to the finals, but no one could crack that wall down. But Jesse did it, and in tremendous fashion. It was something that had been tried and failed repeatedly. We told Jesse that he could be a national champ, which took him a while to believe those words because it has never been done before in our program. But now, our wrestlers have hope." He then went on to say, "To have Jesse's parents at the NCAA's was awesome. They're Long-Island people. They were yelling "Jesse Boy" from the stands. Good for him. Good for him and his family because they deserve it. We're the ones who benefit from it. I've said it time and time again, Jesse poured his heart and soul into our program from day one as a transfer. It took him some time, but he wanted to get back to wrestling. He gave it all he had. It was really important to him, and that's why he got what he got. He's a great kid. At the end of the day, Jesse D. is Jesse D. He'll get the job done."
Dellavecchia is not only a pioneer for Rider University, but in life. He has continued to battle against the stigma of mental health, and wage war against those internal struggles to accomplish what no one at Rider has ever done before. Jesse and his family were honored by the Towns of Islip and Babylon, New York in early May by presenting him with his very own day.
Jesse D., an MMA junkie, active podcast listener, and video game lover, is setting his sights on some exciting opportunities. "Right now, I have a few options. I either want to coach at a University, eventually becoming a head coach. Or I want to start my own club on Long Island, which I think would be really cool," said Dellavecchia. You can never be too sure what the future holds, but after Jesse's ability to overcome and adapt to life's seemly endless challenges, his future will be bright. "I'm kind of just weighing out my options and seeing where that takes me."
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, visit National Institute of Mental Health or call 1-800-273-TALK.