Wrestling With The Devil


June 14, 2012 by David Gillaspie


All great stories are about journeys, either internally or externally. Wrestling With The Devil is both.

From The Odyssey, to Tom Sawyer, to Saving Private Ryan, a journey works to transport readers into the lives and times of those written about; we thirst for characters who go places and do things that add to our own experience.

Tonya Russo Hamilton joins the ranks of those who capture time and place and delivers a story overflowing streams of thought. She didn’t invent a narrator to guide her story, she has the perfect one in her father whose story she tells in his words.

Wrestling With The Devil is part memoir, part adventure, and an all round inspiration of what you can accomplish in the most trying circumstances. If you’ve traveled to other countries and don’t speak the native language, then you understand communication barriers. Now imagine it as a ten year old.

Antonio Russo traveled from Italy to New York City in 1951. From the familiar hills of southern Italy to the concrete jungle, he moved in order to gain citizenship in the New World. With his family’s blessing, he found uncles and aunts in New York struggling to raise their own kids. One apartment after another, young Russo looked for a solid start. On the verge of living in a home for boys, an uncle living in Oregon sent for him and gave him the foundation to build on.

Tony Russo settled into the rhythms of growing up on Portland’s east side. Four years later his family sent notice they had moved to America, to New York, and sent for their fourteen year old son to join them.

Ms Hamilton weaves the timeline of travel and family drama to expertly deliver a story that recalls a slice of American life in mid-20th Century. For anyone seeking insight on how to make difficult decisions, Wrestling With The Devil is essential reading.

Do you trust your instincts? How deep does family loyalty go? Is home a location, or a state of mind? Hamilton answers these questions and more in a way that allows us to examine our own beliefs.

Following a vulnerable ten year old immigrant from one stage of his life to another may seem quite ordinary, but it is anything but ordinary when the boy grows into a man who challenges for a place on the 1964 Olympic Wrestling Team. In the same vein, a sports story about overcoming obstacles to achieve personal goals may seem pedestrian, but in Hamilton’s hands it is a victory of the human spirit.

The lessons of Wrestling With The Devil become clear while you read. When life presents a situation where you can settle for less than you expect, question why. When those in your life make demands at odds with your goals, make the right adjustment. If you think you are finished with a certain part of your life, expect more.

Tony Russo could have been a ‘throw away child’ left at a home for boys in NYC, but he wasn’t. He could have burrowed into his new life in Portland and ignored his parents request to join them when they came to America, but he didn’t. And he could have had a good life as a journeyman butcher for Albertson’s or Safeway, but wrestling called to him.

And he answered loudly.

To say Tony Russo laid the foundation for a multi-generational sports dynasty is easy, but that’s what he did. To say the team he coached leads the nation in individual wrestling state champions would be correct, but there’s more to it. Ordinary people shrink in the face of adversity. They say things like “This isn’t what I signed up for” on their way out the door. Mr. Russo had the same feelings. He changed his mind after listening to those he trusted, from parents, to coaches, to his brother Pete.

Tonya Hamilton takes what ought to be a sports story and infuses it with the sort of flavor you hope for in fine Italian cooking. She knows her food and she knows her sports; she understands the greater good they provide to so many. When I met her to discuss Wrestling With The Devil, one of my questions was how she came to write about Tony Russo. She handed me the book. I looked at the authors names, Antonio Russo & Tonya Russo Hamilton.

She knows her subject and the sport. Plus, her husband is a former wrestler and current wrestling coach, a man I challenged to an impromptu match in my front yard during a fund raising visit. He knows his wrestling, too. I explained that both my sons were wrestlers and that I told them they’ve done something special if they get to a tournament final and face a Russo-coached athlete.

Wrestling With The Devil, A Story Of Sacrifice And Triumph From The Hills Of Naples To The National Wrestling Hall Of Fame is about a road less traveled, but one with clear markers for others to follow.

Enjoy the journey.

(published on oregonsportsnews.com and oregonlive.com)


2 thoughts on “Wrestling With The Devil

  1. David Gillaspie says:

    There’s a trick to participating in events. Once you start, find a way to keep up. Ask questions, take suggestions.

    If you read a book and like it, talk about it, write about it, relate it to what you’re doing so others can understand the value of reading it.

    Then send an email to Ellen like this:

    “I recently met author Tonya Russo Hamilton and reviewed her book Wrestling With The Devil about her father. He is a legendary wrestling coach here in Oregon, one in a family of coaches that runs three generations with no end in sight.

    Tony Russo has a harrowing story of being a ten year old from Italy sent to America for a better life, but falls through the cracks in 1951 NYC. Just before landing in home for boys, his uncle in Portland sends for him. This lost boy gains his better life through sports and education and lights a fire for others who follow.

    He and his author daughter, a kindergarten teacher, would light up your stage, Ellen. I’ve known of the family through sports but didn’t know their Old Country roots. Tonya is sweet as pie, a girl raised in a wrestling family who married a wrestling coach. When I asked her why she married a wrestler she said, “how many tournaments do you think I went to?”

    Their story is as much a social history of mid-century America as it is about sports, and the roots they’ve put down are as deep as the first pilgrims. Their daring tale of risk and renewal reflect the choices we’d all hope to make if faced with similar circumstances.

    You will love them to pieces.”

    Michelle Obama went on Ellen and they goaded each other into a push-up contest. I can’t wait to see what happens with Coach Russo on Ellen. “Shake hands and wait for the whistle.”

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