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THE COMEBACK: Cam Tessari's journey back to the wrestling mat

Mark Hazelwood • Apr 10, 2017 at 12:30 PM

Cam Tessari is living a quiet life.

He attends classes, goes to wrestling practice — then does some homework and plays video games. Maybe every once in a while he finds himself in the occasional backyard football game as a student at Lindsey Wilson College.

As an athlete at the private four-year NAIA college in Columbia, Ky. — a town with just 4,510 people — Tessari is just fine with the small-town setting and limited social activities.

“I’m comfortable here, and there are no distractions from my success,” Tessari said. “There really isn't much to do here. It’s a drive if you want to do anything, but this is home to me.”

Indeed, the big city setting twice proved to be a challenge for Tessari, a 2011 Monroeville graduate.

At Monroeville, Tessari was a four-time state champion with a staggering 187-6 record. He was part of a four-man wrecking crew likely to never to be duplicated in Ohio wrestling circles. Tessari, Logan and Hunter Stieber, and Chris Phillips, each finished as four-time state champions in a five-year span.

The foursome led the Eagles to the Division III state team championship in 2010, along with a state runner-up (2009) and third-place (2011) finish.

From there, Tessari joined the Stieber brothers at Ohio State, where the success continued for all three. But before he ever had an official wrestling practice in Columbus, Tessari found trouble.

For the next two years, he was in and out of OSU and Hofstra, then returned home to work construction— and admittedly distanced himself from the wrestling community. Today, Tessari is wrestling for the Blue Raiders, where he was 39-3 and finished as the national runner-up at the NAIA championships on March 4 after a tough overtime loss in the title match.

But the criminal justice major isn't satisfied with his comeback to the sport.

Instead, he's just getting started.

Getting labeled

Less than a week into his arrival in Columbus, Tessari felt labeled after an incident — and it proved hard to shake.

He attended a summer school class he wasn't required to take and went to a local bar afterward. Tessari found himself in a fracas and showed up to practice the next day with a black eye.

“I got punched by a guy who, if you put in a two-person lineup, to this day, I wouldn't be able to tell you which one it was,” Tessari said. “But (Ohio State coach) Tom Ryan called it a fight and said that type of behavior was going to lead to failure.

“I kind of got that label right then and there, but I definitely shouldn’t have been out at the bars, and I was underage at the time,” he added. “But I kind of got a label and it stuck pretty hard — so I started living up to it, I guess.”

Tessari lost 20 percent of his scholarship because of the incident, and little things began to add up, like missing classes and being late to practices.

Still, he was 28-11 as an All-American, placing fourth at the 2012 NCAA championships. The following year, Tessari was set to be the No. 5 seed in the 157-pound weight class at the Big Ten championships.

But he never made it there.

“The week before Big Ten’s, I was arrested for a fight with another student,” Tessari said. “I got in a fight, and I ran from it when the police showed up because I didn’t want to be part of that before the Big Tens.

“I was freaked out — and I was the only person at the entire party that got busted because I ran off,” he added.

After that incident, Ryan told Tessari his scholarship was gone. He could remain on the team, but not on scholarship.

“And they knew I couldn’t afford school without it,” Tessari said. “So I ended up going to Hofstra.”

Looking to keep his wrestling career going in a new location — the transfer to the Hempstead, N.Y. school only made things worse.

City that never sleeps

The Hofstra main campus is on Long Island — just seven miles east of New York City and 10 miles north of the Long Beach boardwalk. For a 20-year-old like Tessari with an affinity for night life and partying — the distractions were everywhere.

“I developed a little bit of a drug addiction,” Tessari said. “Not anything specific, buzz-themed stuff. And I was out every night doing something — anything I was getting my hands on. You’re not going to be successful doing that.”

The end result: He failed every class in the first semester at Hofstra and was headed home — a potential NCAA championship wrestling career over with no college degree.

“To be honest, I don’t remember much of it,” Tessari said of his time in New York. “I have my highlights that I remember, but I couldn’t tell you much of what I was doing with my life at that point.”

Upon his return home in 2014, Tessari began working for Newcomer Concrete, a family-owned business in Norwalk. After a wrestling career that saw his name and photo in headlines constantly in the newspaper as well as on television — the questions soon came his way:

“Aren’t you the wrestler?”

“Why are you working here?”

“I was extremely embarrassed, to be honest,” Tessari said. “I was back home, working construction and being a party animal while the two guys (Stiebers) I’ve been associated with most of my life have been winning titles, setting records and making more headlines.

“So during that time, I didn’t associate myself with the wrestling community for a couple of years,” he added. “I forced myself to be surrounded by bad people — which fed into the problem.”

Still, Tessari made the trip to St. Louis in March 2015 to witness history. Logan Stieber became the fourth wrestler in the 87-year history of the NCAA championships to win four individual titles — and Ohio State won its first-ever team title.

But it was hard not to notice the obvious. Tessari was in the stands watching — instead of down on the mat hoisting the NCAA title trophy with Logan and Hunter.

“Certainly bittersweet,” Tessari said. “I wish all the success in the world to Logan and I was very happy to see his hard work culminate in his lifelong goal being reached. That was awesome for me, that's been one of my best friends for years.

“But I’m sitting in the stands, having scored the second-most points for the team behind Logan in those two years before,” he added. “I wasn’t a part of that. That was crushing, but guess who’s fault it was? Mine. It wasn’t a fun ride home.”

Reclaimed career

Lindsey Wilson head wrestling coach Corey Ruff had the same thought as Tessari after the NCAA championships in St. Louis. He had reached out once before after he left Columbus.

“I thought, 'gosh, I bet Cam is kicking himself right now,'” Ruff said. “Then it hit me that he never wrestled for Hofstra that year. So I looked into it and sent him a Facebook message to see where he was.

“It was like the stars aligned,” he added. “Cam feels like he has a new opportunity in life and decided to give it another try. And obviously he had some warning signs, but once I met him and his parents, I knew this kid just needed a new chance to do something with his life.”

A bit hesitant, Tessari went into LWC thinking he wasn't going to like the experience and just had to get through the wrestling aspect of things. But inspired by the sudden death of his former OSU teammate, Kosta Karageorge, the former Monroeville star was determined to see his second chance through.

“I fell in love with the sport again,” he said. “It's a real close-knit group of guys. I fell in love with this team, and I'm loving it here.”

Even if there is trouble to find in Columbia — one has to search far and wide. It's a dry town, and it's about 30 minutes for an alcoholic beverage, or to just go to see a movie in a theater.

“We do have a bowling alley in town,” Tessari joked. “But I think the big city contributed to some of my failures at Ohio State. Coming from that small town that I’m used to, then I go into the overwhelming big city and try to take it all in and do as much stuff as I possibly could.

“A lot of distractions got in the way of my success,” he added. “I figure if I can keep myself in a place like this, I'll be able to achieve some success.”

After redshirting the 2015-16 school year as he acclimated himself back into college life, Tessari tore through the schedule this past season. Of his 39 wins, only six were by decision — and he pinned 19 of his 39 opponents (49 percent) he defeated.

But it was his last match — the overtime loss for the NAIA championship — that taught him another tough lesson.

“I realized I hadn't done everything I could this year to prepare myself for that match,” Tessari said. “I kind of assumed I would walk through the tournament, to be honest. All the heartache of being in and out of wrestling, I had told myself not to worry about things and just have fun out there.

“I think next year, I need to emotionally invest in my matches,” he added. “I have to fall in love with my wrestling again. I think my heart was my biggest asset when I was at Monroeville and OSU — but I didn't allow myself to emotionally invest this year. I need to put the pressure on myself again.”

Back home, Tessari’s strong return to the mat has left some of his lifelong friends who knew that heart at Monroeville quite pleased.

“It makes me really happy to see him out there,” said Hunter Stieber, now an assistant coach at Oklahoma University. “I’ve been close with the Tessaris my whole life, and seeing Cam go back to college and wrestle is pretty amazing.

“Cam is a very talented person,” he added. “When he's focused, he's dangerous on and off the mat. It was always fun to watch Cam wrestle, he can do some freaky moves. He is pretty fearless.”

Ruff said Tessari has become a team leader that the coach didn't envision.

“What I've seen is a respectful young man who has accountability because he knows that he messed up,” Ruff said. “He's not hiding from it. Cam has a lot of perspective on life and is wise beyond his years, because he's seen and done things that not most everybody does.

“This is a kid who has thrown his cards on the table and is saying, 'here's my hand. I'm not bluffing,'” Ruff added. “I didn't expect him to take the lead — but he certainly did.”

Tessari is proud of his openness on his past struggles. In fact, he's hoping just maybe he can reach others with his disappointments.

“I used to dream to be a college coach one day,” Tessari said. “At this point in my life, I don't think I'm concerned with coaching at the high level of college. I want to help impact other people's lives. Realistically, I'm not the only one who has a story like mine.

“I think by being open and honest about what I've been through — if I can complete this turnaround, if you will — I have a lot to offer someone who might be going through the same situations. Maybe this gives someone the ability to see something in them through my story, and then maybe I can influence their lives somehow.”

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