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REDEMPTION: Wrestler Cam Tessari ends on top

Mark Hazelwood • May 14, 2018 at 8:38 PM

It was the walk Cam Tessari always envisioned.

A legendary figure in Ohio high school wrestling, revered for his daring moves and engaging personality — the 2011 Monroeville graduate always knew his last steps toward his final collegiate match would be for a national championship.

He visualized competing for a title at one of the most recognizable athletic universities in the world, Ohio State. He imagined a sold-out crowd and a national television audience watching him in St. Louis, helping the Buckeyes win their first and only national title at the 2015 NCAA championships.

Instead, three years later, he was inside the Iowa State Fair Exhibition Center on March 3 in front of a little more than 1,000 people — where down the hall a flea market was taking place.

And there was nowhere he would’ve rather been.

“It was my destiny to experience failure and downfall — only to be rebuilt into the man I am today,” Tessari said of his finish of his wrestling career at Lindsey Wilson College — a small, private four-year NAIA college in Columbia, Kentucky.

In the eyes of many, Tessari’s 39-3 season as the national runner-up at the NAIA championships in 2017 was an extraordinary personal comeback in itself. He lost his scholarship to one Division I powerhouse, battled drug addiction and failed every class at another college — but had returned to the mat and delivered.

But with one last year of eligibility in 2017-18, life had again drastically changed for Tessari by the time he returned to the NAIA title match. No longer was it the eyes of outsiders he needed to impress — but those of a newborn son and fiancee.

“Of course I wanted him to win, but to me, he had already won,” said Rachael Sergent, Tessari’s fiancée, whom he met through wrestling. “He had already become this amazing person and an amazing dad, and an amazing partner.

“The championship was just the last part of a long, rewarding journey,” she added. “Because that’s what he wanted — to go out on top.”

Blazing a trail

Tessari was a four-time state champion with an astounding 187-6 record at Monroeville. He was part of a four-man wrecking crew likely to never to be replicated. Tessari, Logan and Hunter Stieber, and Chris Phillips each finished as four-time state champions in a five-year span.

From there, Tessari joined the Stieber brothers at Ohio State. But for the next two years, he was in and out of various troubles at OSU and Hofstra University in New York.

Multiple fights off campus cost him his scholarship at Ohio State, and his admitted temptation for the night life cost him at Hofstra. A short distance from New York City and Long Beach, Tessari developed an addiction, constantly using recreational drugs and failing every single class in one semester at Hofstra.

“I couldn’t tell you much of what I was doing with my life at that point,” he said.

With no championship, no wrestling career or a college degree, Tessari returned home in 2014. He found work at Newcomer Concrete, a family-owned business in Norwalk — abruptly walking out on the sport for what he assumed was probably forever.

But a phone call and a chance at redemption landed Tessari at Lindsey Wilson College in a town with just 4,510 people — and very limited social activities.

Despite harboring bitterness and cutting himself off from the sport completely, Tessari decided to make the trip to St. Louis in March 2015 to watch his former teammate, Logan Stieber, become the fourth wrestler in the 88-year history of the NCAA wrestling championships to win four NCAA titles.

Ohio State also won its first-ever team national championship. But Tessari was in the stands watching — instead of down on the mat with Logan and Hunter celebrating with the trophy.

Over the seven-plus hour drive to Ohio, Tessari had all of his mistakes hit home. It was crushing, he kept telling himself, not to be on the bus ride back with his former OSU and Monroeville teammates.

But he also knew whose fault it was.

So when LWC head coach Corey Ruff reached out to Tessari for a second time, the conversation was different. Deep down, he knew what many around him had always hoped: the sport of wrestling wasn’t ready to let him go.

“Since I started wrestling, my goal was to be a Division I national champion,” Tessari said. “But at that point, I had used up all of my eligibility — and several chances. Going to Lindsey Wilson, it was a consolation prize. That’s how I viewed it at the time.”

He’s still got it

After a redshirt season and getting acclimated again to college life, Tessari went into last season on a mission.

He went 39-3 in 2016-17, but the season ended in an overtime loss in his NAIA national championship match.

After showing no hesitance in bringing Tessari into his program, Ruff saw a completely different set of circumstances met head on by Tessari this past year. With his fiancee back in Columbus expecting and then delivering son Abraham on Nov. 22, 2017, perspective certainly changed.

Tessari was 4 1/2 hours away in Kentucky throughout that period, following through on his commitment to LWC — and himself.

“That definitely shaped his perspective and inspired him even more,” Ruff said. “It also threw some more obstacles in the way.”

But with a new purpose and focus, Tessari wasn’t to be denied. He lost just one match in the regular season, to Tres Leon from Cumberland (Ky.), who became his opponent for not only the Mid-South Conference championship — but again in the NAIA championship match.

There was no slip-up this time around. Tessari was able to score a takedown with just five seconds left in the match to win the title with a 4-1 decision.

“It was a pretty poetic finish and hard for me to put into words, even now, just how meaningful that was,” Ruff said. “But for Cam to see there is more to life than wrestling — he’s always known that — it’s a pretty good thing for him to make sure he did it the right way.”

After getting his arm raised in his final match, Tessari leaped into Ruff’s arms to celebrate. He had fallen in love with the sport again, became a national champion — and was a father starting a family.

“All I could think was, ‘thank goodness I finished the way I wanted to,’” Tessari said of the moment he won. “I get to go home and enjoy my son. It was almost a sigh of relief.

“I went and grabbed Abe and we did a little bit of a victory lap,” he added. “I had a blast thinking over the past five or six years, the journey I went on. It was a really proud, cool moment for me.”

Tessari had returned to wrestling and went 62-4 at LWC, finishing as an NAIA champion and finalist in both years. But the one thing Tessari said he learned above all in his return had little to do with the sport.

“The thing I’ve learned from the whole journey is the process to get there,” he said. “I wasn’t anointed any extra knowledge along the way.

“You set goals every year, and it’s hard work, but that’s everything in life,” Tessari added. “Last year, I put in a lot of work and didn’t get there. This year I ended on top. Win or lose, that part doesn’t change. But it’s the process that teaches you life lessons.”

Small gesture, big impact

To Tessari, it was just a simple act that didn’t feel anything more than that.

Or maybe not.

Last winter, he was asked to visit and drill with three Norwalk High School wrestlers.

Among that trio was Ethan Hernandez, who in March finished his sophomore season at 49-2 and third at the state championships.

While at the state championships in Columbus, Hernandez also passed a photo of Tessari in a hallway marking his accolades as a four-time state champion.

“We were able to drill and learn quite a bit from him,” Hernandez said of his interaction with Tessari. “I actually hit a move he showed me in my next match right after that.

“It meant a lot that someone as big as Cam would take the time to help three kids he really didn’t know,” he added. “And not just help, but extend his knowledge.”

And that is a role that Tessari is learning to embrace.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “I’m leaving it all on the line, everything I’ve done. A kid like Ethan isn’t in any trouble of falling down that path, but I know people are still watching and looking up to me.

“Having gone through all of that and still coming out of it — there is an easier route than what I went through,” Tessari added. “I want to help kids with that story. If anyone is still following or listening to me, yeah, I made mistakes and did a lot of bad things. But maybe that is what some people need to hear … you can come out of it.”

As a high-schooler, Hernandez is blown away by Tessari’s story.

“A lot of people looked at him negatively after that stuff,” Hernandez said. “But he pushed through. People told him what he is or was, but to turn it around and get back in the gym and work harder says everything.

“To be able to gain people’s trust back is probably the hardest thing you can go through,” he added. “He had to gain that back from mistakes that destroyed that trust. To do that and win a national title — I’m sure everyone close to him is extremely proud of him.”

Off to the sunset

On a late April day, Tessari sits in his parents’ living room in Norwalk, holding Abe and reflecting with Rachael.

He graduated on May 12 with his degree in criminal justice, and was an NWCA NAIA All-Academic selection for his grades. He desires to possibly work his way into becoming a U.S. Marshal.

The path he took was admittedly less than ideal — but Tessari doesn’t bother reflecting on the alternative.

Through it all, he was 103-22 in four years of college wrestling, a three-time All-American and a national champion. Although it’s too early to reflect on Tessari’s legacy, Ruff is confident in one aspect of his LWC tenure.

“I know that he is going to be a great advocate for our program,” the coach said. “We each treated each other right, and he mentored a lot of young men here. Not that it’s the role he wanted, but he’s a smart man that helped a lot of young people in our program that hadn’t experienced life as much as Cam had.”

Or as Tessari often told himself: nobody said it would be easy, but it would all be worth it.

“I couldn’t have planned it any better myself, and I know how crazy that sounds,” he said. “But I finally got my fairy-tale ending. It’s been the greatest experience of my life.”

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