When the toughest challenge of his life struck, John Passaro understood.
He had been bitter. He had stayed away from wrestling – no participating, coaching or even following what was going on in the sport. After all, he had spent six years doing far more than he was asked. And then his dreams of county and state glory ended when he was injured and didn’t make the podium at the Suffolk tournament for William Floyd High School.
“I remember putting everything I had into it – total dedication, total discipline,” Passaro said. “If it was an hour and a half practice, I stayed for two and a half. If we were supposed to a run a mile, I ran three. My goals were to win leagues, win counties and win states. I damaged some ribs in the league tournament as a senior and didn’t even place. I lost to a kid who I teched earlier in the year. I couldn’t believe it. I asked myself what the heck I did everything for. I hated wrestling for a while; I probably avoided it for 17 years or so. I wanted no part of it. I felt like it wasn’t worth it – I did everything I should do and felt like I got nothing out of it. Of course, I was wrong.”
While he slowly changed his mind and got back into the sport with sons Maverick and Travis, it was when his daughter Jess was suddenly rushed to the hospital with a brain injury in 2009 that he realized wrestling gave him the tools he needed to face a foe more powerful than ever before.
“I never realized what wrestling meant to me until I had adversity,” Passaro said. “It just kicks in and you go into wrestling mode. You block everything out, you figure out what the obstacles are and figure out how you will overcome each one. There are setbacks and you work harder. You work as hard as you think is possible and then you have to work harder again. It’s about constantly moving forward and not listening to the noise around you. The biggest thing about wrestling is that you always reach a point when you’re on the mat with someone better than you. You have to find a way to win anyway. Life is the same way. There are things bigger than you; my family was faced with an opponent much bigger than us. You still have to come up with a plan to win. You realize you have the ability to take yourself to levels you never thought possible.”
In his book, Passaro brings it all to life, telling the tale of what can happen when a family believes and sacrifices, even in the face of unlikely odds. It details the battle Jess and the Passaro family had (and have) in dealing with significant illness and talks about the trials and triumphs of sons Maverick and Travis, both All-State grapplers in New York.
We don’t want to give away too much because the book is worth reading. It pulls no punches and will move, touch and inspire. You’ll feel the power of the story.
Instead, we’ll share some of the answers John Passaro gave us about his work in an interview last week.
New York Wrestling News (NYWN): The book provides such a compelling story. Have you done a lot of writing before?
John Passaro (JP): It was the right time and place to write about my own personal experience. As the events of the book were going on back in 2009, I was sending out text messages to close family and friends. I saved all of those and that was where I was drawing from. It allowed me to remember minute details. I took me about two months, writing a few chapters a day. I really wanted it to be simple to read, a book you could read in one sitting. I love to read, but a lot of times I get into a book and a paragraph or a chapter goes on forever and it loses me. I didn’t want that – I wanted it to be something that would be hard to put down.
The funniest thing is that whenever I wrote in high school and thought I wrote a really good paper in honors English, I would get a grade much worse than I expected. I was always baffled by it. I thought I could write. Let’s just say I wasn’t encouraged to write by my teachers, especially because I wrote about things like politics and religion, which were controversial.
But I always loved to write and I always knew I was going to write someday.
NYWN: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
JP: What was really hard for me was I always knew the first chapter had to be gripping as well as accurate and detailed and emotional. I wanted to write a long time before I really got going because I probably started the first chapter five or six times before it finally really came together. After that, I never forced myself to write. I needed to go chronologically and any time I felt the next chapter, no matter where I was, I sat down and did it.
NYWN: You spent a lot of time talking about the early times when Jess got sick, but then skipped over multiple years of time. Why did you choose to take that approach?
JP: The hardest part of the book was making it as positive as possible. It’s highly emotional. I don’t think people want to hear about the day-to-day since Jess came home. I wanted people to focus on the messages instead.
NYWN: What do you see as the key messages you wanted to get across?
JP: A lot of it is about keeping the faith and not allowing yourself to get pinned. At a tournament, no matter what the score, you’ll see guys flop over and get pinned. Then you’ll see guys who are down 10 points with 10 seconds left and they’re still fighting. You can’t break them. That’s the whole point. Whether or not you’re broken is up to you. I never wanted to break. Wrestling taught me never to give in.
I also believe that things happen for a reason. If I was successful in wrestling earlier on, I probably wouldn’t have married my wife or had the desire to coach as much as I did or get my kids involved as much as I eventually did. In the end, the prize was that I didn’t get the prize. It’s funny because I feel like I won by not being as successful in wrestling as I wanted to be.
NYWN: Were there things you wanted to put in the book but couldn’t?
JP: When you go through something like this, you’re part of a special club. Your take on life is different. You see other people with difficult circumstances and you hurt with them. It’s a different way of looking at life. Things are hard, but I wouldn’t trade it because it gave me a new attitude and approach to life. You have to believe that somehow, some way, something good will come out of everything. And more than believing it, you have to make something good come out of it.
There have been some situations in the wrestling community that I felt a connection to over the years. When [Hauppauge’s] Nick Mauriello was on life support [in 2011], I didn’t know the family but sent his father an e-mail, telling him I kind of knew what he was going through. I told him to hang in there and believe, and we’ve become good friends. Nothing made me happier than seeing Nick make a full recovery.
When I heard about Aaron Paddock’s injury, I felt the pain that was involved. Same thing with Vinny Vespa. It’s been great to see them bounce back too. I know wrestling had something to do with those guys getting better.
NYWN: Were you ever hesitant to put such personal experiences in the public eye?
JP: My wife is very private and didn’t want me to do it. She lived everything and didn’t want to re-live everything. I definitely saw her point of view and there have probably been only one or two things in my life I overruled her on, but this was one of them. I felt like it was something I needed to do. Sometimes you write an e-mail and don’t know whether or not to send it. The book was the same way because of how personal it was. But I hit send.
The outpouring of support brings some happiness. The wrestling community has been unbelievable; it’s been heartwarming.
NYWN: Any last thoughts you wanted to get across?
JP: There is one other part I wanted to mention – in sports, people always say it’s not about winning or winning isn’t important. I disagree. It is important. If you don’t have the burning desire to win a wrestling match, you won’t figure out how to score points or what you need to do. If something’s important in life, you figure out what you need to do. You need to win. We had an opponent much bigger than us, probably the most ferocious opponent we’ve ever faced, but we needed to figure it out. The best wrestler doesn’t always win, it’s the guy who’s willing to do whatever it takes. It’s about winning and learning; not winning and losing. I can guarantee that if I wasn’t involved in sports, wrestling in particular, I never, ever would have made it through this situation. Our family never would have made it through and never would be where we are now.
To find out more about the book, you can go to amazon.com, where it is available in the paperback ( here) or Kindle edition (here). The Kindle edition is available on iPad or iPhone or any type of tablet.
Editor’s Note: Maverick Passaro was the 2012 New York State Champion at 126 pounds and is now at Rutgers University. Travis Passaro took third in New York in 2013 at 120 pounds.