When Vinnie Russo’s name is discussed around Bloomfield and neighboring communities, the accolades are long and kind-hearted. A simple post on social media recently, regarding his improving health, elicited a bunch of responses.
“One of the best guys around.”
“So happy to see you back on the mat, best of health Vinnie.”
“Vinnie is the role model for all (high school wrestling) officials in New Jersey. He is the consummate professional, and a wonderful human being.”
“Not only is Vinnie a superb referee and a good friend to myself and my brother, Sam, he’s much more than that. He’s a loving family man, an outstanding individual, a genuine and kind-hearted man who goes out of his way to hep others. Blessed to call him my friend! Continued good health Vinnie, and many blessings always !
“Long time friend, great man.”
“Vinnie is a class act. Always been one of my favorite refs, on and off the mat.”
“Great man and mentor. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
And the one which everyone agrees, on, coming from one-time Bloomfield wrestling great, Rami Ratel, “Vinnie is the G-O-A-T.” (Greatest of all Time)
It goes on and on.
When Vinnie Russo takes to the mat to officiate a high school wrestling match, it’s a continuation of a busy schedule for a loving family man. A native of Bloomfield and resident of Cedar Grove, Vinnie and his wife of 33 years, Lorraine, have three daughters, Kandice, Mia and Shea.
Vinnie and his younger brother, Guy Russo, himself the first state wrestling champion at West Essex High and today a long-time wrestling coach at the Delbarton School, are partners in a successful family business, begun by the Russo family’s patriarch, the late Vincent Russo, Vinnie’s dad. Eldest brother, Mark, is a successful chiropractor and himself a distinguished wrestling official.
“The biggest lesson my dad taught all of us was to be humble,” said Vinnie. “Work hard, and do something good for someone else. My parents (the late Marguerite and Vincent Russo) were all about hard work. They taught my brothers and I well.”
Russo holding the initial Golden Whistle Award, in 2013, at Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City. A year later, the award was changed to the Vinnie Russo Golden Whistle Award. This weekend, another official will be the recipient. (Click on photo for larger image)
When Russo isn’t running his construction company, or officiating a match, he’s been the NJSIAA’s wrestling official assignor, and state rules interpreter, since 2009. Among his many responsibilities include the placement of every official for the state sectional and group team championship matches, as well as all 32 districts, 8 regions and the ultimate venue, Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for the state championships. He also handles the assignment of officials for 85 New Jersey high schools. Russo’s diligence in providing a quality product for high school officiating included the placement of numbers on the back of each official.
“A lot of those officials are also my friends,” said Russo. “But when it comes to those who officiate the big matches, it’s all done on merit. Friendship has no significance, and never will. You have to draw that line. I have to be honest and straight-forward. I’ve had to tell plenty of friends that they were being re-assigned, or moved off a bigger match. It’s part of the job. I’m a purist and realist. And most appreciate the honesty and work hard to get better. It’s not an easy sport to officiate.”
His cell phone is constantly buzzing, from officials checking in for an upcoming event, as well as a myriad of friends and coaches checking to see how he’s doing, and that all-important reminder when it’s time to take some medication.
Because, you see, Vinnie Russo, 58, considers himself fortunate to be alive and well.
Vin and his wife, Lorraine, have three daughters, left to right, Mia, Kandice and Shea.
Two years ago, a surgical procedure on his heart was followed by an even more serious condition, which led to his barely negotiating the kitchen floor at home, without family assistance. He lost over 40 pounds, as his pituitary, adrenal and thyroid glands all began to malfunction. He’s on a strict medical regimen now, and will be for the rest of his life. The medication has him back to good health and he’s been fortunate enough to begin officiating again, including working the NJSIAA girls regional wrestling championships, on Feb. 17.
“That was incredible for me,” said Russo. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed working the matches and just seeing how those girls conducted themselves in a big venue. They were great, so classy and hard-working. I’m so glad this sport is catching on with the girls. And I’ll tell you what, every official who I assigned that day all said it was one of the best events they’ve ever been a part of.”
Just a year earlier, Russo wasn’t sure what was in store for him.
“My wife and daughters had to literally help get me to the shower,” said Russo. “I was really sick and the doctors didn’t know what it was. I really thought I was checking out.”
Wresting has long been a part of Vinnie’s life. His parents began the first wrestling program for youngsters in Bloomfield when Vinnie took to the sport at South Junior High. When Vinnie got to Bloomfield High, he wrestled for coach George Middleton and assistant, Bruce Lackey. He was good enough in high school to earn an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Training Center after his senior year of high school. Vinnie later wrestled at Montclair State.
One of Vinnie’s closest friends is former Bloomfield High wrestling coach, Sam Fusaro. The two are the same age, with Fusaro graduating from nearby Belleville High, in 1978 before landing a teaching and coaching job at Russo’s alma mater. They are inseparable, whether it be on a fishing boat, or spending time together, talking wresting.
“Two summers ago, a surprise party was planned at Rami Ratel’s house, for Sam to celebrate his retirement as Bloomfield’s wrestling coach,” recalled Russo. “I was pretty sick, but I told my wife I had to get to that party, at least for a little while. The party started at 2 p.m. and around 3, my wife is helping me walk up the steps to Rami’s house. Sam is already there, and talking to the crowd about what the party means to him. He’s getting pretty emotional, saying how much he wished his friend Vinnie Russo could be there, but that I wasn’t feeling well. Meanwhile, I’m about to walk in at that very moment. You couldn’t plan that any better. It was like a scene from a movie. Sam is a special guy.”
Fusaro, never one to talk about himself, returned the accolade.
“Vinnie is a great man, no other way to put it,” said Fusaro. “What he’s done for wrestling in this state, and to make sure quality officials are a part of this sport, is incredible.”
Ironically, Fusaro and Russo will be inducted together into the Bloomfield High School Hall of Fame this coming May 3, along with another BHS wrestling great, Joe Chiaravallo, a 2000 graduate and state finalist that year.
Vinnie officiated his first wrestling match in 1983. Sixteen years later, he recalled vividly working the epic 1999 match between state powerhouses Phillipsburg and Paulsboro, which, he said, put him on the map.
“That was something special,” said Russo. “Two great programs, Paulsboro won (27-26) and that really got me going.’
Russo has officiated 12 NJSIAA state championship bouts, beginning in 1992. Among the finals he worked was the legendary 2003 final between Jerry Rinaldi, of Lodi, and defending champion Jeff Black of Absegami, in the 189-pound championship, at Boardwalk Hall.
“That was crazy,” said Russo. “Wrestling fans are generally attached to a certain team, or area, but I’ll tell you what, the entire crowd that day was into every move. It went into overtime and Rinaldi won (6-4). What a great match.”
In 2013, Russo was awarded the first Golden Whistle Award, at the NJSIAA championships, in Atlantic City, for outstanding work as an official. A year later, the name of the award was amended to the Vinnie Russo Golden Whistle Award.
“That was overwhelming,” said Russo, a member of the Northeast Chapter of officials. “To have an award reflect my name for excellence in officiating is something I’ll always treasure. Every year, when they give that award out, it has my name attached. Like my dad always said, be humble, and believe me, I am.”
In 2016, Russo was named Wrestling USA Magazine’s Official of the Year, the first from New Jersey to garner the award in its 20-year history.
2019 will be another big year for accolades in Russo’s life. In addition to his upcoming induction in the Bloomfield High Hall of Fame, he will receive the prestigious Richard C. Mirshak Award at the NJ state wrestling finals on March 2, in Atlantic City. This summer, another Hall of Fame will open its doors when he’s inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Russo will tell you that on New Year’s Eve, 2019, he gets his biggest honor, when he will walk his daughter, Mia, down the aisle.
It’s no wonder that another New Jersey high school wrestling legend, Mike DiPiano. Sr., called Russo, “absolutely the best. LaFamilia.”
“Mike is a treasure,” said Russo of DiPiano. “And it’s not just what he accomplished with wrestling, it’s his legacy through his sons, Frank and Michael, who are both tremendous coaches, and all the work he’s done to promote organ donation. Twenty years ago, his life was saved by organ donation and he’s given back every day, since.”
As another wrestling season concludes this weekend, Vinnie Russo takes stock in his life, as he always does.
“My family is everything,” he said with a broad smile. “My wife, daughters and family members were there for me when I could barely move. And I’ll always be there for them. I have a great life, with so many wonderful friends. Wrestling has done so much for me, and I just try and give back as much as I can. I just try and do what my dad said, to be humble.”
As Rami Ratel said, Vinnie Russo is indeed, The G-O-A-T.