More Than A Coach National Wrestling Hall Of Famer Jose Campo
Jose Campo admired his dad and wanted to be just like him. Following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary wrestling coach and Hall of Famer, Joe Campo, Jose, at a mere three years old, started wrestling and dreamed of winning a high school state title — becoming the apple of his dad’s eye. But a championship wasn’t in the younger Campo’s future and choosing shortcuts became very costly to his career. In high school he struggled with bulimia, in his first three years of college he had three major surgeries, and in 1976, he was kicked out of college in West Point’s largest cheating scandal in history. From there he continued in a downward spiral including alcohol and drugs, rebelling and running. Then, in 1985, Campo says everything changed when he came to know Jesus Christ. Campo would go on to be named National Coach of the Year in 1993 and more recently, was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame making him and his father, the first father and son to be inducted. He spent decades coaching, sharing his story and mentoring students through Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He’s written two books and West Point brought him back on campus to talk to cadets this past fall. Risen caught up with Campo to hear more about his upbringing, his trials, family and faith.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Marcos, California
Risen Magazine: Your father is Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach Joe “the Gov” Campo. Both you and your brother got into the sport… how did your love for wrestling develop or was it more of, this is just what our family does?
Jose Campo: It’s so funny, because we grew up in a real small town in upstate New York. This town had never won anything in any sports. My dad comes in and changes this town into an athletic powerhouse. I would go to the football games and I would see them carry my dad off the field on their shoulders. I saw the influence that he had, not only on this team, but on the school and on the whole community. This was a small little town that absolutely loved my father.
On Friday nights, it was like party night at our house. My mom would let us have soda and potato chips. And we had six kids living in a one bedroom, no bath apartment. We didn’t have a bathroom. My father had a toilet sticking out of the bedroom that they were living in. We had six kids living in that, so on a Friday night we would be drinking soda, thinking everything’s cool. All of the sudden we would hear this chanting coming from outside of our apartment, “We want coach. We want coach.” My dad would get all of the kids, and we’d go out on the porch, and there would be the entire school outside of our apartment saying, “Speech. Speech.” My dad would give the greatest pep talk to these kids, and they would go running away from our house. Of course, as a little boy, I saw this and wanted to spend all of my time with my dad, so I started wrestling at three years old.
Now here’s the funny story my mom would tell me. At three years old, my mom would give me my father’s lunch and send me on my way, and I would walk three blocks up to the school, eat lunch with my dad, and spend the rest of the day in his classes, and then whatever he was coaching – football, wrestling – I’d hang with him and go home at night. I knew as a little boy, I wanted to be a coach just like my dad. That’s all I dreamed about – being a coach just like my dad. Our elementary school was right next to the [high] school. I’d go to elementary school, then come to my dad’s practice. I went to every practice in this small little town. Can you imagine going to high school practices all the time? So, I was extremely successful as a little boy, and then we moved from upstate [New York] down to Long Island. Now, all of the sudden, we’re at a big multi-cultural school, and still I was involved in all these sports, and was doing great. Then, I get to ninth grade, and everything changes. I rebel.
JC: I don’t know why. I don’t know why.
RM: Had your relationship with your dad changed?
JC: You know what happened was that when I got to high school, I found out that everyone else was not only as good as me now, some were even better than me. So, instead of me following the laurels of all my dad’s great champions, I started looking for shortcuts. In wrestling, you have to make a specific weight class. If you’re one tenth of a pound over, you can’t wrestle. I learned of this new diet that you could eat as much food as you want, and not gain a pound.
at ten years old, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make my dad proud of me. The underlying theme of my whole life was I wanted to make my father proud of me.
When my parents were sleeping, about three in the morning, I would walk up to the refrigerator, and eat as much as I could. And then I would go down to the bathroom and stick my finger down my throat. I was bulimic. Now back in the early 1970’s, no one ever heard of the word bulimia. And I didn’t understand that the choices that I was making had severe consequences. I would vomit until I could taste the acid in my stomach and I didn’t know that the acid would eat through all the enamel on my teeth. Now my teeth are all messed up.
On the weekend, I would take laxatives. And instead of taking one to two pills like the box would say, I would take eight of them. I would eat as much as I could, and then I would take laxatives and all day Sunday I would be on the toilet. And then, in a Spanish class one of the players on my [football] team gave me the answers to the test. So I started cheating on tests. I said, “Can you imagine? I don’t have to study, and I can still get A’s?” Since I didn’t get caught, I just kept cheating all through high school. I got so good, that I cheated on my SATs… and never got caught.
RM: Wow. How long did the eating disorder go on for?
JC: Every wrestling season. I was addicted to it during wrestling season.
RM: And what finally made you stop?
JC: I ruptured my esophagus because I vomited so much and I lost my whole junior year of wrestling. I wanted to taste the food, but I didn’t want the consequences of gaining the weight. Now all the sudden, I had to exercise to get all the weight off. But, now I look back… we had six kids in our family, and I’m just grabbing the food, and throwing it right in the toilet! You know what I mean? How could I? My dad worked so hard. No one could change me, the way I was doing it, and because of the lifestyle choices I was making, I was never a champion.
Can you imagine? Starting at three years old, going to wrestling practice every day, and then getting to high school and never even a league champion. The son of the greatest coach in New York history. You know, it was so funny, because my older brother was the champion of our family.
RM: That must have been an interesting dynamic. What was your relationship like with your brother?
JC: He was, and still is my hero. My older brother listened to everything my dad said. He was athlete of the year at our high school, he went to West Point. He was captain of the Army wrestling team. My dad was so proud of him.
I tell a funny story [about why West Point means so much]. In 1965, when we were away in upstate New York, around the corner comes this brand new Corvette convertible Stingray. My brother and I had never seen anything like that before. We go running up to the car and say, “What kind of car is that?” The guy says, “It’s a Corvette Stingray.” We say, “Where did you get it?” He said, “I just graduated from West Point and when you graduate from there, they give you one of these cars.” So we’re like “Oh! Really?” The guy gets out of his car and walks to our apartment and knocks on the door and he has this big thick yearbook from West Point. My dad comes to the door, and he gives my dad the yearbook, and on the yearbook it’s written, Thanks Coach, I couldn’t have done it without you. It was my dad’s first West Point graduate. I saw the tears of pride coming down my father’s face. Then I said to myself at that time, at ten years old, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make my dad proud of me. The underlying theme of my whole life was I wanted to make my father proud of me.
RM: Did you not feel like your dad was proud of you? Or did you just want to feel more?
JC: You know, fathers back then didn’t tell you they loved you; even though he did. My father was a demanding coach. Everyone loved him because our teams always won, but he demanded. I say he coached against perfection; even though you might have won, there were always things that you could have done better. It was tough being the son of the greatest coach ever. I wanted my dad to be proud of me, so I go to West Point. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach like my dad. That was my purpose, my dream, but you don’t really go to West Point to be a teacher and a coach, you go there to be an army officer. I knew how proud my dad was of my brother so I go thinking, maybe if I go to West Point – since I wasn’t as successful as an athlete – maybe if I go, my dad will be proud of me too. I go to West Point, and the first year I blow out my knee. I was in the hospital for six-and-a-half weeks with knee surgery. Sophomore year, they find a tumor in my body. I had to go all the way down to Walter Reid Hospital in Washington, D.C., and get my rib removed. Junior year, I blow out my shoulder.
RM: What?! This is unbelievable.
JC: In three years, I had three major surgeries on my body. Then at the age of nineteen, the doctors came and said, “Your body is too messed up, you can’t compete in athletics anymore.” I was an athlete my whole life, that was my identity. I wanted to hang around with the athletes and I still wanted to be known as an athlete. Then these hockey players at West Point come to me and said, “Hey do you want to go party?” I didn’t know what that meant. But I had no courage so I said, “Yeah, okay.” I follow these hockey players and we’re walking through the woods and we walk for about ten minutes and all of a sudden, we stop and there’s some warm beer that they had stashed. We start drinking and then one of the guys takes out some weed.
In high school I was a straight arrow. I didn’t mess around with anything. Now, all of a sudden, here’s the moment of truth and of course I start smoking weed with them. And then instead of me studying really hard and graduating from West Point, in 1976 I was involved in the largest cheating scandal in the history of West Point.
RM: What does that mean exactly? What did you do?
JC: National news, New York Times headlines… over 150 of us got kicked out of West Point for cheating. It was a ten-page take home quiz that everyone in the entire class got and it was the same. So, a thousand cadets got the same ten-page take home quiz and we had a week to complete it. At West Point you’re not supposed to get help from anybody, you’re supposed to do everything by yourself. However, one of the cadets wrote down at the bottom of the paper he turned in: “I received help on this quiz.” So, when West Point saw this, all of a sudden, they do an internal investigation. They look for similarities and out of the thousand people, 152 people get kicked out of West Point.
RM: Wow. That couldn’t have been an easy conversation with your parents.
JC: The hardest phone call I ever had to make. I have to call my dad. “Hey Dad, I gotta come home. Dad, I just got kicked out of West Point for cheating.”
RM: How did your dad respond?
JC: Not well. Luckily my mom was also on the phone and she said, “We still love you. You come home.” My dad didn’t say a word.
RM: And this was during your junior year?
JC: Yes. I went through three years there, I had 120 credits, you only need 126 to graduate from college. So here’s the thing that most people don’t know about. When everyone [general public/national news] finds out, they question, “Wait a second. You [West Point] gave 1,000 people the same take home quiz?” So, they [West Point] said, “Okay, cadets you screwed up by cheating, but we also kind of screwed up by giving everyone the same test so here’s what we’ll do, you can come back for your senior year and graduate.”
So ninety-five percent of the people went back. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach so I said, “I’m not going back.” My dad was like, “What?! You’re not going back? Everyone is going back!” My older brother who had graduated [from West Point], went in the army and he calls me up and says, “Listen you wanted to be a teacher and a coach your whole life, you don’t want to go into the military. Don’t worry about what mom and dad say. You go do what you have dreamt about your whole life.”
He takes me to church and the first time I go, the pastor tells a story that he was a high school wrestler. I had never known a pastor who was a wrestler!
RM: So your brother was the one that kind of gave you that permission to pursue your dream.
JC: Yes. But, not going back separated me and my father even worse. However, the cool thing is that I went into coaching so that aspect brought my father and I closer together. Here’s the bad thing. I run. I have no courage, so instead of going home, I run all the way to California where no one knew me, and no one knew all the bad things I was doing. After I got kicked out of West Point, I had eleven years of drugs, alcohol, and was living in the worst part of San Diego. You can imagine. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t even get a girlfriend.
RM: Did you have any faith in your life up to this point?
JC: I was raised Catholic, like most people in New York, but I thought since I didn’t win the big matches that God was mad at me. Then in 1985, one of my dad’s best wrestlers, a guy named Bobby Antonacci, went to my dad’s house, and my dad told him everything that was happening with me. Bobby and I grew up together, I wrestled with him in junior high and high school. He was the first Christian I ever knew. Bobby flies from New York to San Diego to find me and he says, “You know I spoke to your dad. Your dad hasn’t forgiven you, but you have a Father in Heaven that not only will forgive you, but He’ll make the mess that you made of your life into your message.”
JC: I said, “Bobby, I’m tired of living the way that I am. I’m ready to change.” He takes me to church and the first time I go, the pastor tells a story that he was a high school wrestler. I had never known a pastor who was a wrestler! I’m thinking, “Wow! I can’t believe it. I’m coming back next week!” I come back next week. The pastor isn’t there. I’m bummed, I can’t believe it. The assistant pastor is there. He tells a story about forty wrestlers for Christ. Have you ever heard that story before?
RM: No, it’s not familiar.
JC: There’s a story back in the Roman Empire…when Nero was the Emperor. Nero wanted everyone to worship him, so he grabbed the forty best body guards, and they were wrestlers. Then word gets out that some of these wrestlers were followers of Jesus Christ. Nero goes to the leader, the coach of the team, and a guy named Vespasian and says, “There are rumors that my body guards are followers of Jesus. If this is true, you need to put them to death.” So Vespasian gets the forty guys and lines them up on a line. He says, “There is a rumor that some of you are followers of Jesus. If that’s true, please step forward.” All forty stepped forward. Vespasian says, “Wait a second. You don’t understand. I’m under orders that if you are followers, I have to put you to death! Stand on the line, think about that again.” All forty stepped forward.
They’re on a frozen lake and he says, “This is what we’re going to do, you’re going to take off all your clothes, you’re going to march to the center of the lake and you’ll all die together in the center of the lake.” Vespasian is around the fire, staying nice and warm and he hears, “Forty Wrestlers for Christ! Forty Wrestlers for Christ!” Then as the night goes on, one of the wrestlers gives up and crawls back to the fire and sits next to Vespasian and they can hear, “39 Wrestlers for Christ!” Vespasian sits there. He is so close to the team as their coach that he takes off all of his clothes and goes out to the center of the lake and dies with the rest of the wrestlers.
RM: Wow! That is a crazy story.
JC: Forty wrestlers for Christ. [Hearing] my second sermon, I’m thinking, “You got me God.” So that day I became a Christian. And I knew I wanted to be a teacher and a coach. I would get in the car, and every day at 7:30 a.m., I would drive around San Diego looking for a high school
that needed a wrestling coach. I did something I had never done before, I turned on a Christian radio station and every day Focus on the Family came on and I would hear these amazing stories about how people like me, that screwed up their life, changed their life and now were more successful, so it gave me motivation. I drive to Mt. Carmel High School [in San Diego], they have two wrestling rooms and they just happened to need a wrestling coach.
RM: Now you are a Christian, and a wrestling coach, is that where were you got introduced to Fellowship of Christian Athletes [FCA]?
JC: I’m teaching at a public school, and the basketball coach had a plaque on the wall from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I had never heard of that before. I said, “Coach! Where did this come from?” And he said, “Someone gave me two scholarships to send kids to FCA camp. I picked two kids on the team sent them to camp and they give me a plaque.” I thought, “Wow! Really?” The next month, the coach gives me a copy of the FCA magazine to read. In the copy is an article about a wrestling coach in Santa Ana that does Bible studies with his team and sends them to summer wrestling camp. The very next Saturday, I’m at a wrestling tournament with my team, and who’s sitting next to me? The man that the article was written about! I said, “Aren’t you the guy they wrote the article about?” He said, “I didn’t think anyone read that magazine.” I said, “I want to get involved with the camps and teach. Any way I can do that?”
I went to my first FCA camp and I have been the head wrestling clinician at the FCA camp for the past twenty-two years.
RM: How have you seen kids respond to camp or combining faith with sports?
JC: Here’s a funny story. When I went to the FCA store where they have shirts – they had football, basketball, etc., but they never had a wrestling shirt. I said I am going to make our own wrestling shirt. So what kind of shirt do I make? Wrestler for Christ. Whenever anyone comes to our camp they get a Wrestler for Christ shirt. With that being said, about ten years ago I’m at our county championships where whoever places high enough, qualifies for the state meet. My team didn’t do that well and I’m sitting in the stands disappointed. One of the final matches was going on and this kid was from [school] out in the desert. A lot of people didn’t know where he was from so no one cheering for this finalist, except one man. He’s yelling, “Come on, Robbie! Come on, Robbie!”
I look at the guy wrestling, his uniform is ripped, his coaches don’t know anything about wrestling, but at the last second he takes the guy down and wins. His father is jumping up and down yelling, “Yay, Robbie! Yay, Robbie!” He turns around and looks at me and says, “It’s because of you he won!” I am like, “What? What are you talking about?” He says, “You taught him everything he knows at FCA camp.” As I look at the kid, he is putting on his Wrestler for Christ shirt. All of a sudden, I now remember Robbie.
Robbie came to camp the summer before and told a story about how is mom was a drug addict. She was a prostitute for drugs and his father was a mean alcoholic that would come home and beat up his mom. He beat up his son, and now there his son was standing on top getting his gold metal wearing his Wrestler for Christ shirt.
RM: Your excellent coaching landed you in the Hall of Fame. Your father had the honor so this was the first time a father and son had both been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
JC: Six years ago, I joined my father as the first father and son ever to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. When I get my award, the first one I go to is my dad. And finally see those tears… that I wanted to see for my life that he showed to that West Point kid back in 1965. At 55 years old, I finally saw those tears of pride in my father.
RM: Amazing. Another divine turn of events happened as this past fall was the 40th anniversary of the cheating scandal and I understand West Point asked you to come back to campus and speak to the students.
JC: Yes. I become a Christian in ‘85 so for the last thirty years I have gone around and shared my testimony. I started one of the first FCA huddles/Christian clubs and now there are over 125 in San Diego county. West Point had heard that I was telling my story and the next thing you know, they fly me back and I was able to share my story to the football team, baseball team, wrestling team; one thousand students in the junior class. So can you imagine, they kick me out forty years ago, now they are paying me and flying me back to share my story. One thing I talk to everyone about is poor choices – bulimia, drugs, cheating – I try to get them to understand that their choices have consequences. My goal is to get people to think about the consequences before they make their choices.
RM: And this past December, after forty years of teaching and coaching, you retired. What do you plan to do next?
JC: I know I have to serve; I have to give back. I want to have a life of significance in my remaining years. I love wrestling, I love coaches, I have been around coaches my whole life. I say a high school coach is the most influential person in America, and especially a wrestling coach. No one gets closer to their athletes than a high school wrestling coach. I feel like kids need role [models] and there are less fathers involved in their families. The problems I see are one, the schools financially are not supporting athletics like they used to, and two, when it comes to supporting what a coach is trying to do, it is tougher to find families willing to do that.
JC: Well, with those two things people don’t want to get involved in coaching anymore. They start it for a couple years and then all of a sudden they say, “The school doesn’t support me; the parents don’t support me. Why should I do this?” So, the future of high school sports is in trouble which is why my goal is to, what I call, “Coach the Coaches.” I want to try to encourage them, to remind them that the lessons that we try to teach take about eight to ten years. The reward is when I get a call saying, “Hey coach, I am getting married. Will you come to my wedding?” or, “Coach, I just had a baby.” Or, “My mom just died.” Our goal is to be involved with their life, for the rest of their life. Not just for the four years that we have them in school. We want to build lifelong relationships. This is the vision God has placed on me, to coach the coaches and remind them that what they’re doing is very important.
RM: You definitely treated your wrestlers like family. Didn’t some of them aid in you meeting your wife and your proposal?
JC: At school, the football coach said, “There’s a fine looking substitute teacher that just walked in, you want to meet her?” I said, “Coach. I had the worst blind date of my life last night, don’t worry about it. I’m going to take care of myself.” I go back to my gym. I’m teaching in my class in the gym and ten minutes later two of my wrestlers come walking in. I said, “The football coach is trying to set me up with some substitute teacher.” They said, “Coach, we just skipped out of her class.” I said, “Is she nice?” They said, “Oh, she’s really nice.” I said, “Go talk to her for me.”
They come back five minutes later saying, “Coach, she loves wrestlers. Her brother was a wrestler in Nebraska.” I said, “Really! Go tell her to call me.” They came back and said, “Coach, she says you need to call her.” I tell everyone that substitute teacher has been my wife for twenty-six years now. I even proposed to her in front of my wrestling team. We had a meeting with all the parents and all the wrestlers at the beginning of the season and I said to my friend, “I wonder how many of these guys have ever seen anyone propose to a woman?” I called my girlfriend at the time to come out in front of everyone and proposed to her. I’m very blessed.
Books written by Campo: Wisdom from the Corner: Inspirational Stories
Building Champions in Life (2005) The Gov: A Dream Changer (2011).