Rob Nixon figured it could be a pretty big deal. But this?
On Tuesday, the Bound Brook (N.J.) High School athletic director learned his school’s wrestling prodigy, Andrew Campolattano, had chosen to keep wrestling in college -- instead of playing football.
What came next was hard to fathom.
The 25 transcripts he had the guidance office prepare Wednesday morning proved to be way too few.
Nixon’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing: “Take a look at the Top 20; that’s who is calling,” he says.
Coaches from nearby wrestling powers made their way to the Central Jersey school that very day. And the ones who couldn’t get there -- the ones held up in airports because of an East Coast snowstorm -- went into panic mode.
“I had a coach from a school more than 1,000 miles away call me and tell me he was getting on a plane so he could come here and look Andrew in the eye and offer him a full scholarship on the spot,” Nixon says. “We didn’t think it would be anything like this.”
Campolattano is a 191-pound mixture of speed, strength and smarts on the mat. A fourth straight state title is all but a certainty. And when people talk about future titles, it’s not just college.
“He has said he wants to be a four-time state champ, a four-time NCAA champ and an Olympic champ,” his coach, Kyle Franey, says. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn‘t believe he has the potential.”
But does Campolattano want wrestling as much as wrestling wants him?
He himself has admitted he lost some of his passion for the sport. And last April, he not only said he was headed to Rutgers to play football, he told wrestling coaches to stop recruiting him. He said his decision was final.
The announcement stunned the wrestling world. Many felt jilted, and questioned his heart.
Campolattano can’t explain it.
“At the time I was happy with my decision and committed to it,” he says. “I just want to see what else is out there and explore all my options and make the decision that’s best for me.”
His change of heart buys him more time. Football signing day is next Wednesday; wrestling’s version is not until April. But it serves also another example of how stressful National Signing Day can be for a high school senior.
For some, it’s about picking a school. For Campolattano, it’s about picking a sport.
“This is just a high school kid trying to figure out what he wants to do,” Franey says. “Unfortunately, half the world wants to know what it is. This is not your average high school kid.”
To understand the craziness around Campolattano, you first need to understand the craziness around wrestling.
Its fans are as passionate as any and have sort of a love-hate relationship with the sport: They love it -- and have been known to hate anyone who doesn’t.
One unofficial motto is: “I’d rather lose at wrestling than win at basketball.”
So when Campolattano -- who some feel will be the best ever from one of the sport’s strongest states -- announced he was going to pursue football, many in the wrestling world felt betrayed.
Especially when you consider this: While he is arguably the top wrestling recruit in the Class of 2011, he may not be in the top 1,000 in football.
While his physical tools make him special in wrestling -- “he is, by all definitions, a freak physically when it comes to the sport,” Franey says -- they make him only an undersized outside linebacker in football. He is rated by Rivals.com as just a three-star prospect, only No. 20 overall in his own state. Simply put, he’s nothing spectacular.
Bob Behre, who has covered wrestling for more than 15 years for The Star-Ledger, said some in the wrestling community turned on him when he made his decision.
“There’s no question they felt jilted,” he says. “Fans would come up to me and ask, ‘Why would he want to play football?’ They felt like he was taking the easy way out.
“And maybe he was. What it takes to get ready and stay in shape. It’s a 12-month deal with your diet. Having gone through that since he was 8 or 9, that’s tough. It was very understandable to me, but if you’re a wrestling nut, you don’t understand.”
“There was a lot of stuff in the community,” he says. “A lot of fallout in the (Internet) forums. ‘How can you turn your back on us?’ Stuff like that.”
Campolattano, never shy, wouldn’t admit to hearing it.
Of course, he’s been a topic of discussion in the New Jersey high school wrestling community since … well, before he got to high school.
“He was the chosen one,” Franey says. “By the eighth grade, everyone knew about him … He was raised this way. Trained this way. This isn’t a coincidence.”
Such training brought plenty of victories -- and plenty of other things.
“In terms of the pressure, this kid had the world on his shoulders,” Franey says. “He’s the face of wrestling in the state.”
It’s not unusual for grade-school wrestlers to want to take their picture with him. But that’s not the worst of it.
“There are mothers who will come up and ask him for a picture or an autograph for their son -- and you know it’s for them,” he says. “It’s a little bit awkward.
“Did he choose football to get away from that? I’m not going to speak for him or put words in
his mouth. But it’s been difficult.”
The lastest Intermat rankings came out on Thursday.
Campolattano maintained his spot as the No. 1 recruit at 215 -- No. 11 overall. But even Intermat rankings expert Josh Lowe admits that is low.
“It’s based on the fact that he didn’t compete much in the summer tournaments and there was a question of whether he really wanted to compete in college,” Lowe says. “He’s definitely a top-five talent and could go higher than that.
“If you look at the kids in this class and project who is likely to win a national title once or more than once, he’d be there.
“His record is staggeringly impressive.”
He’s currently 150-1 with 99 pins. He already is one of just 25 three-time state champions in New Jersey history and on course to become just the second four-time champ. The state record for victories and pins are both within reach.
All this from someone who admits he hasn’t been fully dedicated to the sport in more than a year.
“I’m going to take things more seriously now,” he says. “I need to amp it up. I wouldn’t say that I lost my edge, but I wasn’t always trying to get better. Now I have to match what other people are doing if I want to be the best.”
Franey said he hasn’t been at his best in nearly two years.
“His sophomore year was the pinnacle,” he says.
First, he beat senior Mac Mancuso in an epic state final at the 189-pound level that proved to be his coming out party. Mancuso, a state champ as a sophomore, missed the tournament the year before because of injury. Many wondered if a sophomore -- even as talented as Campolattano -- could handle an experienced senior.
He did. In fact, Campolattano actually let Mancuso up in the final minute only to clinch the match seconds later with a takedown. He then had a stellar summer season. “He beat a college coach in a tournament,” Franey says.
But then …
“I don’t know what it was, but that’s when he leveled off in his training,” Franey said. “I’m not saying he didn’t train, but the level was different. The 5:45 workouts before school ended.”
His lone setback came early in his junior year, when he lost to Mike Evans, a senior at nearby national power Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy.
“I wouldn’t say it was a fluke,” Franey says. “He’s a scholarship wrestler at Iowa.”
Training may have been the key.
“It was the last week of December,” Franey says. “(Campolattano) had only been in the room for three weeks. Blair had been wrestling for months. Had it been in March, would it have been different? I’m not sure, but it would have been nice to give him an extra month or two.”
For a sport that can be described as a grudge match, those associated with it apparently do not hold grudges.
Franey said one rival school not only stopped practice to announce that Campolattano was going to continue in the sport, but that the wrestlers stood and clapped when they heard the news.
Behre said the response among the fans has been the same.
“It’s been pure joy,” he says. “The wresting community is so tight. It’s something they secretly hoped for. They love seeing that kid wrestle. It was like a late Christmas present.”
A video Behre did with Campolattano explaining his change of heart –- sort of his version of "The Decision" -- already is one of the most viewed of the high school videos nj.com has produced. (Not surprisingly, videos of Campolattano pins are among the site’s all-time best.)
The video, does not, however, reveal the ultimate decision: Where he will wrestle in college?
Rutgers, where he intended to play football, now has a top-ten wrestling program and is just a few miles from his home. Penn State, the current No. 1 team in the nation, is coached by the legendary Cael Sanderson -- the only four-time undefeated champ in NCAA history and an Olympic champion.
“That will be his workout partner,” Behre says. “That’s not too shabby.”
Franey doesn’t put too much stock in that, noting he could go to Cornell and train with Damion Hahn, another all-time New Jersey great.
Franey rattles off Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Iowa, N.C. State, Rider, Boston University, Columbia, Penn and the Olympic training center among possible destinations.
“You name it, they have called,” he says.
But then he’s quick to say, that just the beginning of a list.
“He’s going to weigh all his options and his options are unlimited,” Franey said. “He’s the jewel of this class. Dominant guys at the 197-pound level are few and far between.”
Campolattano, who is almost as impressive in the classroom as he is in the wrestling room, didn’t want to set a timetable for his decision or even list any favorites.
Academics -- he said he wants to major in business or finance -- will be a key. But the biggest thing is just taking his time and getting it right.
“I’m jumping back in,” he says. “I just want to find a good home and a good fit.”
Campolattano has been overwhelmed by the reaction to the news: “It’s been crazy,” he says.
And while he figured it would make college coaches happy, he said he’s been surprised at the overall response.
“Everyone is ecstatic,” he says. “I was amazed at how it made so many people happy.”
Starting with himself.
“It wasn’t that I don’t want to play football,” he said. “I love football and I love wrestling. I just
decided wrestling was best for me.”
And a lot of other people, apparently.