Having done my share of writing for nearly 38 years, I will admit there are a few stories that resonate for a lifetime. When it comes to high school wrestling, there is, by far, one which stands out. It happened 12 years ago and comes to mind specifically this weekend, as the Region 4 championships are once again contested in Northern New Jersey.
To set the stage for this story, I’ll throw in a little ‘Honeymooners’ analogy. Do you remember the episode when Ralph Kramden thought Alice might be stepping out on him, and was planning a strategy with his pal, Norton, to catch her in the act? Ralph’s classic line was, ‘Oh, I’m going bowling, Norton. But I’m NOT going bowling’. Norton was clearly befuddled.
Confused? Okay. But after reading this story, you’ll learn a little more about determination, some incredibly good luck and a bit of fate that not only won Dubuque a second state title, but quite possibly changed his life’s direction. Enjoy.
Long after the final whistle sounded, and the cheering ended on a wrestling mat in North Jersey, three friends remain tied to each other, in part due to a weekend 12 years ago that will forever bond them.
It’s what makes high school wrestling, and its subsequent competition, so special. And while the friendship amongst the three had begun long before a fateful weekend in March of 2001, what occurred over a seven day period a dozen years ago has forever changed their lives. It’s a story of courage, raw emotion and the ultimate victory which would alter Dubuque’s life and strengthen a friendship already cemented in respect.
In 2001, Dubuque was a senior at Glen Ridge, having won a NJSIAA championship at 112 pounds a year earlier. He was rolling through his senior year at 119 pounds, undefeated, and for that matter, unstoppable. Dubuque had won his fourth straight Essex County Tournament championship earlier in the 2000-2001 season, and had just turned in a dominant effort at District 13, for his fourth straight title there.
Even in elementary school, Dubuque was a wrestling fanatic. His idol growing up? Belleville High’s Anthony Conte, a 1996 state champion and Belleville’s lone four-time NJSIAA medalist, to date.
Regions, March 2-3
On Friday, March 2, 2001, Dubuque won his Region 4 quarterfinal at Passaic Valley. Already a three-time region champion, he was scheduled to wrestle Messina, then a sophomore who was just beginning to gain credibility in the sport, the following morning in a semifinal. He was also excited about having just set a new state record for takedowns in a season, eclipsing the mark of 204 by perhaps the best high school wrestler, ever, in New Jersey, Damian Hahn of Lakewood
“I remember going to bed that night and thinking I had to wrestle Joe the following morning,” Messina recalled. “I knew I didn’t have much of a chance, but I was also looking forward to wrestling him. I figured, no one was expecting me to win and I had nothing to lose. What’s the worst than can happen? I lose? Okay.”
The two stepped on the mat around 9:15 a.m. on March 3. Messina planned to be aggressive and see if he could gain some momentum.
“Right off the bat, I caught him with a high crotch and thought I got the two points, but (referee, Mark) Sherman said my foot was out of bounds,” Messina recalled. “We’re walking back to the center of the mat and I’m thinking ‘(Joe) is going to kill me now.”
Dubuque was a devastating wrestler on his feet and would often shoot toward opponents’ legs to gain leverage. As Dubuque moved in, his head collided with Messina’s forehead and Dubuque crumpled to the mat, losing consciousness for about 20 seconds.
“My friends had nicknamed me ‘Rock’, because I have a hard head,” Messina said. “When we hit, I didn’t feel anything, but then I saw Joe lying there.”
Dirk Phillips, Glen Ridge’s wrestling coach at the time and today the Glen Ridge High School principal, recalls the moment like it was yesterday.
“I remember him lying on the mat, and I’m saying ‘Joe, Joe, you okay,'” Phillips said. “He wasn’t responding, but he eventually started coming out of it. Back then, while we had trainers, the response to head injuries is not nearly what it is today. The trainers would not let him continue, and a doctor who was at the match wouldn’t allow him to continue without being examined first.”
Messina, admittedly confused by what was happening, suddenly had his hand raised in victory, marking Dubuque’s first loss of the season.
“At first, I was happy because I won,” Messina said. “But I was more concerned at that point about Joe. I went down to the locker room and apologized, but Joe was quick to say there was nothing to apologize for and that it was a part of the sport. It happens. Still, it was weird.”
Dubuque left Passaic Valley quickly, hoping to get a doctor’s clearance to continue wrestling. Having lost, he would need to wrestle back for third place if he any hope of winning a second consecutive state championship. His first wrestleback would be 90 minutes after his loss to Messina, so time was critical.
“I was determined to wrestle back,” Dubuque recalled. “It was a freak accident, but that stuff happens. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the sport.”
Dubuque’s older brother, John, hurried Joe to an Immedi Center-type facility to get a clearance, which was obtained.
“That could never happen today,” said John Dubuque, who is now the head football coach at Belleville High. “There would have had to be a battery of tests first and of course, Joe would not have gotten back in time to wrestle that day.”
Dubuque returned to the gym in time to face Angel LaPorte of Kearny in the first of two wrestlebacks he would need to win to clinch third place. Montes, then a junior who had won the other 119-pound semifinal, remembers well watching Dubuque try and wrestle LaPorte.
“I didn’t think he should be out there,” said Montes, one of Dubuque’s best friends to this day. “He was wobbly throughout the match. I remember when I was wrestling my semifinal at the same time Joe and Anthony were on the mat and all the commotion when Joe got hurt.”
Dubuque’s eyes were red and he appeared to wobble at times when standing up. But somehow, he caught LaPorte, who in his wildest dreams never thought Dubuque would be in a wrestleback, for a pin in the third period. What probably saved Dubuque’s season that day was referee Joe Luongo, a seasoned wrestling official who was keeping a close eye on him.
“When you’re officiating at that level, you have to know the kid,” Luongo said. “I had worked enough of Joey’s matches to realize he could wrestle his way through it. I handled him with kid gloves that day, but also knew how tough Joey was. I had to give him the opportunity and didn’t want to stop it, especially after he was cleared to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation for a kid. You don’t want to stop it and the kid turns out to be okay.
“However, if I saw any indication he was in jeopardy, I was stopping it. With Joey, he always talked a lot during his matches, so I had a few conversations with him in that particular match. When he’d go out of bounds, I’d ask him ‘how are you’ and ‘what day is it’, stuff like that, and he was responding like usual. It also helped that I had a good relationship with his head coach, Dirk. We had spoken before that match and Dirk seemed okay to let Joey go out there. Ultimately, it was still my decision and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
After beating LaPorte, Dubuque had another hour to try and recoup before he faced Lou Rabelo of North Bergen for third place. Only the top three wrestlers from each weight class advance to the state championships, so there was just one way for Dubuque to qualify. The extra hour seemed to do him some good. His eyes were much clearer and he seemed more focused.
Dubuque put on a typical take down show against Rabelo, building up a big lead before registering a fall to clinch third place.
As the day’s events at Region 4 were concluding, Dubuque received a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd of nearly 2,000 at Passaic Valley. Dubuque was somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention. He even garnered some votes as the tournament’s outstanding wrestler, which was unheard of for someone who finished third.
“Honestly, I still don’t remember a thing from that day,” Dubuque said recently. “The entire day was a blur, literally.”
The injury affected other wrestlers in different weight classes at the region. Pat Trabucco of Livingston, an eventual four-time Essex County, District 14 and Region 4 champion, as well as a four-time NJSIAA medalist, was noticeably down after winning his fourth region title.
“Joe and I are best friends,” Trabucco said that day. “We were supposed to be winning this together.”
Trabucco, who was head wrestling coach at his alma mater through the 2010-2011 season, also recalled the day Dubuque was injured with a vivid memory.
“The reason why we’re all pretty close today is the bond we formed as competitors back in high school,” Trabucco said. “Montes, Frank DiPiano (the current Nutley head coach) and I were all at Joe’s wedding and they were at my wedding. Wrestling is that bond. To be honest, I never doubted Joe’s ability to come back that day and eventually be a champion again. He was that cocky and that good. He just had to get a doctor to clear him.”
There were two newsworthy events going on at Passaic Valley that afternoon. One was Dubuque’s injury and the other was a massive snowstorm which was supposed to hit the local area. The predictions were for more than two feet of snow for early the following week, with 40 mile-per-hour winds that could produce five foot drifts. (If you knew then Passaic Valley coach Nick Zarra, he gave the best description of the storm, with that raspy voice).
On spec, the NJSIAA pushed the next round of wrestling, then called the super regions, back a day to March 7, in deference to the storm. Because Dubuque finished third in the region, he would need to win his first match at the super regions to assure himself a trip to Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands that weekend for the state championships, then win a second time that evening to assure himself a chance at winning a second state title.
The aforementioned snowstorm never occurred. But the extra day off for the super regions would help Dubuque’s recovery. This is also where the friendship between Montes and Dubuque took another turn.
Super Regions, March 7
Dubuqe and Montes had hoped to wrestle each other in a state championship final in 2001. A year earlier, Montes had made it to the 112-pound semifinals before losing and eventually finishing sixth in the state. Dubuque, who was wrestling in the other semifinal that year, went on to win the state championship at the Meadowlands.
“We had come pretty close to facing each other a year earlier for a state title,” Montes said. “So we both felt that it would be our year. When Joe got hurt, it changed all the matchups for the super regions. There was even talk after he originally got hurt that maybe I’d medically forfeit the region final, so we would avoid having to wrestle each other in the super regions.”
Montes didn’t forfeit the Region 4 final. He defeated Messina, 13-8, for the 119-pound title. But that meant he would most likely face Dubuque in the super regions at Union High School, assuming Dubuque defeated Roselle Park’s Dan Appello in the preliminary round earlier that evening.
“I couldn’t forfeit a region final,” Montes said. “You have to understand that when we competed back then, wrestling was everything to us. That’s the way it was meant to be (12) years ago. I always kid (Messina) that he messed everything up that year. In a way, the best thing I ever did was wrestle Joe that night in Union. I’ll never forget it.”
Nor, would the large crowd in attendance that evening at the super regions.
Dubuque won his first round match over Appello, ending Appello’s season and setting the stage for his match with Montes later that night. Both guys were assured of a trip to the Meadowlands, but the victor would be advancing to the winner’s bracket.
Dubuque, who was back in good health, won a 7-5 decision. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the two embraced and Dubuque raised Montes’ hand in victory, even though Dubuque had won. Many in the crowd had tears in their eyes. The standing ovation lasted at least two minutes.
“There were other matches going on, and most of those matches stopped for a few seconds,” Montes said. “It was unbelievable. The crowd was so loud. Our A.D. back then (Angelo Franicola) often talked about what an incredible level of sportsmanship that match had represented. I’ll never forget it, and I had lost. While you never like to lose, I felt good in that I had wrestled really well that night.”
Dubuque would later say, and continues to reiterate today, that there was no loser in that match.
“We had wanted to face each other in the state final,” Dubuque said. “But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
State Championships, March 10-11
Now at the Meadowlands, Dubuque would not be stopped. On March 10, he won by technical fall in a bout that lasted just four minutes. The following day, he started with a 15-5 victory in the semis, setting the stage for the state final opposite Matt Anderson of South Plainfield, himself a state champion in 2000 at 103 pounds. Dubuque would wrestle a vintage match in the finals, recording four take downs en route to an 11-5 victory. As the final horn sounded before nearly 14,000 fans that day, Dubuque broke down and cried.
“If you knew Joe, you’d know he wasn’t the type to be emotional,” Phillips said. “But he had been through so much that week and to realize he was a state champion again meant the world to him.”
Dubuque called Anderson the nicest person he had ever met in the post-match press conference. He thanked his family and friends for their love and support. He would stand on the top deck of the podium that afternoon, and Montes would stand on the podium as well, having finished seventh in the state at 119 pounds.
“When you deal with an injury that could end your season, it puts things in perspective,” Dubuque had said at the time. “I got a second chance, and I’ll never forget it.”
That second title meant so much more to Dubuque in the subsequent weeks.
“If he was unable to continue after the injury,” Phillips said, “I doubt he would have had the college career he did. At the time, Joe wasn’t known, nationally, as a great wrestler. But winning in 2001 gave him a chance to compete in the senior nationals, and he won there as well.”
Dubuque received a scholarship to wrestle at the Indiana University. In 2005 and 2006, he would win a pair of NCAA championships.
“Winning two national championships was great,” said Dubuque, who finished his high school career with a 134-7 record. “But I’m not sure any of it happens without winning that second state title. It changed my life.”
Phillips admits to this day that he’s still not sure he did the right thing in allowing Dubuque to continue wrestling at the regions back on March 3, 2001.
“It still have doubts,” Phillips said. “Obviously, it turned out good for Joe, but I wonder if I should have let him continue. For sure, if that kind of injury happened today, there’s no way he could have continued. There are so many safeguards in place now for head injuries and a lot more awareness.”
Messina, whose season ended at the super regions in 2001, also wouldn’t trade the experience of that weekend.
“I remember watching the state finals with some friends on television that year and hearing them announce Joe’s name and that his record was 30-something and 1, and my friends saying ‘yeah, his only loss was to you,'” Messina said. “I know he was the better wrestler, and I wish he hadn’t gotten hurt, but it does mean a lot to me, today, to know that I was a part of that story.”
Montes would go on to earn a third state medal in 2002 and today is the assistant wrestling coach at Nutley High.
“Messina and I are great friends,” Montes said. “He works out with some of our kids on the mat, but it’s funny, we’ve never gotten back on the mat and wrestled each other, even for fun. We’ve left those experiences to memory.”
“There were so many good wresters from that era in New Jersey,” said Dubuque, who today is a husband and father of two. “I think of guys like Montes, Messina, DiPiano and Trabucco and how talented they were. To be a part of that experience was something I’ll never forget. I’m still close to all those guys because of that and I’ll always be grateful.”
Dubuque won his second state title on March 11, 2001. Many will recall what happened six months to the day later as a timeline in their own lives.
“Things were really different,” Dubuque said of his high school days in the pre 9-11 era. “The times were less complicated. Yeah, there were cell phones and computers, but it wasn’t like now. I’m glad I grew up when I did. I’ll never forget the little things which made that time special. As close as we were off the mat, when we wrestled, it was a battle. When it was over, we were back to being friends. And that will continue for the rest of our lives.”
And thus, the legend of Dubuque Saturday, March 3, 2001.