FINDLAY - Tony Guerra has battled opponents and obstacles in his life to become one of the most decorated wrestlers in NCAA history. Guerra, a two-time NCAA champion for the University of Findlay, is a quick study.
Ohio high school wrestling has long been regarded among the very best in the country. Winning a state championship often has as much to do with luck and timing as it does skill and drive. Guerra was possibly the unluckiest participant from the very beginning of the 2003 tournament.
A district champion, Guerra, then a senior at Waite, positioned himself to open the state tournament against a fourth-place finisher from another district. To Guerra's dismay, his opponent was Charlie Agozzino, the projected state champion from national power Lakewood St. Edward.
"I guess I just had a bad draw," Guerra said. "I think the winner of our match was 90 percent sure they'd make the finals."
Agozzino won a 2-0 decision and went on to finish second in a brutal 140-pound division. Guerra fought through the consolation rounds to finish fourth, losing his last match by disqualification after inadvertently slamming his opponent.
It was a weekend marred by "what ifs" for Guerra. But Findlay University coach Shawn Nelson, watching from the stands at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, knew what if.
"You put him in any other situation, maybe he's in the finals," Nelson said. "Us sitting back, seeing that as coaches, we understand those types of things happen. Some people don't, but we did."
What Nelson and his staff did not know at the time was that Guerra's unfortunate draw was trivial compared to other aspects in his life.
Guerra starred in baseball and soccer at Waite, earning all-league honors in both. But when he arrived on the Findlay campus in the fall of 2003, he became exclusively a wrestler for the first time. Nelson elected to redshirt Guerra, allowing him to become acclimated to an increased level of seriousness on the mats while competing in open tournaments. Twice during that season, Guerra defeated Ohio State prize recruit Ryan Needle, a three-time New York state champ with far more fanfare than Guerra.
"We knew he had some skills and as long as we kept working with him he could be pretty good," Nelson said.
Instead, Guerra exceeded Nelson's craziest expectations. Guerra was fifth nationally as a redshirt freshman before winning the 149-pound national title as a sophomore in 2006. He won his second championship this March when he defeated Central Oklahoma's Jason Leavitt 2-1 in the second overtime of the 157-pound final.
"I think the coaching had a lot to do with it," Guerra said. "I have experienced college wrestlers as my coaches. Also, the talent in the [practice] room, everybody you wrestle is going to be pretty tough. Those two things right there are probably the biggest things that helped me get to where I am now."
Along with two special relatives.
Countless stories are told about a troubled youth turned star athlete turned model citizen. Guerra, although a prime candidate, was never a troubled youth. Misguided, not troubled.
Tony and his younger siblings, Alicia and Justin. moved in with their grandmother, Joan Lorton, and aunt Tammy Lorton just as he was starting high school.
"We just needed a stable home, somewhere we could depend on, somewhere we could come home to every day after school," Tony said. "[My grandma] was always there for me."
"Growing up, I think he was always more mature than his age," Joan said. "I've never had a problem with him. Never."
It was an improved living situation though one Guerra hoped would be temporary. So he made a commitment to achieving goals that many in his situation would have never bothered setting. Attending college, once an afterthought, was now a possibility and a means of improving himself.
"After my sophomore year I kind of thought I might want to do something with my life, I might want to go to college some day," he said. "My junior and senior year I focused a lot on academics and wrestling, and I think you could tell because my grade point average went up and I went to the state tournament both years."
During that same time, Guerra began dating his future fiancee, a freshman named Andrea Padilla. She was from a traditional home, two parents, much different from Guerra's upbringing. The couple plan to marry in May.
"He's a lot more responsible than I would be in that situation," Padilla said. "I don't know how he did it. He raised his brother and sister and all they really had was him. They're just all good kids and I don't know how any of them did it."
Guerra, 22, is dealing with new challenges these days, playing the day roles of wrestler, teammate and student before returning home at night to Andrea, a nursing student at Owens, and their young son, Austin, a 19-month old with an unwavering smile.
"There's been times when I just wanted to give it all up, but then I have these two over here and I know I just have to keep working hard and hoping things work out," Guerra said.
Remarkably, Guerra, a pre-physician assistant major, has maintained a near 3.0 grade point average. He will apply to the physician assistant program at Findlay upon graduation this fall.
Guerra wishes to become a high school coach, possibly at Waite, but first will likely join Nelson's staff as a graduate assistant. Nelson said he will do anything to keep Guerra on staff, though Guerra's knowledge of wrestling is certainly not the only reason for doing so.
"Looking at his life, as a father, and the fact he does have a little bit more strain than most people, being able to keep everything in perspective is a very, very hard thing to do," Nelson said. "Why shouldn't he deserve the same chances as everybody else?"
Guerra will now attempt to be only the 15th wrestler, and second at Findlay, to win three Division II national championships next season. It will be the culmination of a career few could have predicted similar to the way few could have predicted a boy with a blueprint for failure could grow to become a man so many admire.
"If you feel sorry for yourself then you're never going to accomplish anything," Guerra said. "You just have to put things behind you and take everything in stride day by day and try to make the best of your situation."
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