West of Frackville. PA., route 61 winds through the Appalachians toward the old coal towns of Gordon and Ashland. Spindly pine trees line hillsides gray with coal slag, the detritus of a century of mining. About a mile before the Ashland-Gordon fork, there is a red-white-and-blue sign. In keeping with the surroundings, the lettering is faded, the illustration crude. But the message is clear: "Welcome to Spartan Territory, the home of North Schuylkill Area, the state's winningest wrestling team."
Farther down 61, on Center Street in Ashland, is Cesari's Italian-American Restaurant. The paper place mats bear no advertisements for local merchants or real estate agents, only columns of won-lost records and lists of state champions and medal winners. That is because Cesari's is run by Ashland's first family of wrestling.
Like most of the citizens of Ashland (pop. 4,235), 47-year-old Joe Cesari works hard to make ends meet. In his restaurant he is known for his chicken parmigiana with spaghetti. As assistant superintendent of the North Schuylkill school district, the 5'6" Cesari is known as the Big Guy for his rigid adherence to discipline. Around Pennsylvania, Cesari, the only wrestling coach North Schuylkill has ever had, is known for his team's 339 victories, against only 30 losses and two ties, over the past 22 years.
Cesari looks a bit like another local icon, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, and some folks like to call him Joe Pa Jr. Both are named Joe; both are Italian; both have dark, curly hair and wear thick glasses; and both win. Like Paterno, Cesari is not one to brag about his team. So when he says, "If things go our way, we should have a pretty nice team," residents of Ashland figure that this season the North Schuylkill wrestling team might be the best in the state.
Regardless of how the Spartans fare, this will be a special year in Ashland. In March, Cesari will retire from coaching. This is also the final year of high school for Mark, the youngest of Cesari's three sons, all of whom have wrestled for North Schuylkill. Even Cesari admits, "It's the end of an era."
Cesari will miss the day-to-day involvement with wrestling, not so much for the transitory joys of winning, but for what the sport represents to him. "Wrestling is not glamorous—all anybody needs are some shorts," he says. "But it's the toughest thing you'll ever do. The only fun part is winning. There is no professional wrestling, so it's an end unto itself. The discipline is your ticket for anything you do in life, and if you dedicate yourself to it, you become the sort of person who wants to put something back into society. Around here I think people love wrestling so much because in it they see themselves."
Wrestling does seem suited to the hard, bleak coal towns of Pennsylvania, where, for the most part, the coal either ran out long ago or has been left alone because it makes no economic sense to mine it. A century ago in towns like Ashland, boys as young as eight spent nine hours a day learning to separate slate from coal. Today the sons of coal country are no less tough for getting their education in classrooms, and all across the state, boys as young as four are learning to wrestle.
Pennsylvania produces so many first-rate wrestlers that, in addition to such big-name collegiate powers as Penn State, Pitt and Lehigh, colleges like Lock Haven, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Clarion, Wilkes and Edinboro are also among the top NCAA Division I wrestling teams. Out-of-state schools also recruit there. At last year's NCAA tournament six of the 10 individual champions were products of Pennsylvania high schools.
"In Pennsylvania if you're any good at wrestling, people will know who you are," says former North Schuylkill heavyweight Frank Towey, who now competes for Bloomsburg. And from State College to Shamokin everyone knows about Joe Cesari's Spartans. They know that since Cesari began coaching at North Schuylkill in 1966, his teams have failed to win the league championship only four times and have never suffered a losing season.
In 1983 the Spartans won the class AA state tournament—they finished second last year—and since 1975 have had seven individual state champions. Five times the winner has been named Cesari.
Mark's record in junior high was 58-0, and in his first two years of high school competition he placed second, then third, in the state tournament. Last year he won the state title at 138 pounds, capping a 36-0 season by defeating Benton High's previously unbeaten Mike Wenner, in a hard-fought 3-1 final.
Going into this season, Mark's high school record was 101-8, which would be impressive if not for the burden of comparison with his older brothers'. Joe Jr.. a senior who now wrestles for North Carolina State at 142 pounds, was 154-5-1 in high school, while middle brother Steve, a junior at N.C. State, was 155-22-2 for North Schuylkill. "I try not to think about it, but there is a little bit of pressure to be better than my brothers," Mark says. "I want to be, but it's going to be tough." Though Mark is said to have the highest potential of any of the Cesari brothers, Joe Sr. says, "Mark has two shadows; Steve had one."
But it is the father who casts the longest shadow of all. The senior Cesari grew up in Kulpmont, nine miles from Ashland, where his father, Sam, was a miner. Sam would leave the house before dawn and return in time to watch the children while his wife. Jay, worked the night shift in a garment factory. "You can say this about miners." Cesari says. "They all want something better for their kids. They suffer the black lung, killing themselves down there so their children won't have to go down. My dad got out before he got black lung. My father-in-law died of it."
Cesari became the first in his family to attend college, the University of Buffalo, where he played linebacker on the football team. With a degree in health and physical education, Cesari returned to Pennsylvania with his wife, Sandra, and year-old daughter, Lisa, to teach social studies and coach football in Ashland. But Ashland Area High needed a wrestling team, and Cesari was asked to start one. He was not looking forward to the task until a friend told him flatly that there was no way Cesari could create a successful wrestling program in a basketball town. Cesari warmed to the challenge, and though he knew next to nothing about the sport, in his spare time he read all he could about technique, passing along his newfound knowledge the next day in practice.
That first year, 1964, the team wrestled in borrowed uniforms on mohair mats. Competing mostly against junior varsity teams. Ashland won three matches, and Cesari found himself hooked on the sport. Two years later the name of the school was changed to North Schuylkill to reflect a broadening of its population base, and Cesari had his first winning varsity season.
Cesari admits that he has never become a master of wrestling technique. At practice, while his three assistant coaches lecture on the subtleties of escapes, Cesari bounds around the wrestling room—its walls covered by photographs of past Spartan champions—yelling encouragement and advice, scolding and trying to teach his athletes to be winners. When Cesari tells a boy not to work on his best pinning combinations but to emphasize his weakest, or when he tells another that a true champion doesn't sneak a rest when the coach's back is turned, he means for these lessons to extend well past age 18. when most wrestling careers end.
During the 1970s the entire Cesari family became immersed in wrestling. From the time the three boys were big enough to wear headgear, they were learning takedowns, escapes and reversals. Joe Jr. could hold a neck bridge by the time he was three and had mastered the Peterson Roll, a sophisticated reversal maneuver, by the time he was four. After accompanying their father to his team's matches, the brothers would return home and reenact all 12 bouts on the living room floor. The worst squabbles centered around who would get to be the North Schuylkill wrestler.
There is at least one youth wrestling tournament somewhere in Pennsylvania on every weekend of the year, and for nearly two decades one or more of the Cesaris spent Saturdays and Sundays competing. Joe Jr. thinks the early competition makes Pennsylvania wrestlers technically superior to those from other states. "I've been to places like Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina, but it's nothing like here," he says. "I go to elementary school tournaments and see 500 little kids running around."
North Schuylkill wrestling was already well known by 1982, when Joe Jr. was a sophomore and Steve a freshman. By the time both had graduated, it was legendary. The Cesaris were renowned, and feared by opponents. They were the nicest fellows you would want to meet—until their matches began, whereupon they proceeded to destroy their opponents. In 1983 the Spartans won the state championship and had a 27-0 record, the best in Pennsylvania history. "Sometimes it would take longer for our team to roll out the mats than it would for matches," remembers Joe Jr.
The next year, Joe Jr. won all 50 of his matches and his third Pennsylvania high school championship. With plans to be an engineer, he reluctantly turned down a half scholarship to Penn State, where he would have been redshirted, and enrolled in the engineering program at N.C. State. This year he is on track for an honors degree in industrial engineering, is a cocaptain of the 15th-ranked Wolfpack for the second straight year and is a preseason All-America selection at 142.
When Joe Jr. left for Raleigh, Steve won his own state title at 145. Since arriving at N.C. State in 1986, Steve has been sidelined with a shoulder injury and will miss this season after having undergone surgery last month.
With Joe Jr. and Steve off at college, Mark is not only the last Cesari to wrestle for North Schuylkill but also the last of Cesari's sons to help out in the family restaurant. Five years ago Cesari opened the restaurant on the site of the old Roxy Theater, and for Mark it's tough to be flipping dough while trying to make weight. Wrestling season has just begun—North Schuylkill won its first two meets, and Mark easily pinned both of his opponents—and as always, Ashlanders stop by Cesari's for spaghetti, root beer and a little wrestling talk. Lately the conversation has turned to what North Schuylkill wrestling will be like with no Cesari.
The Spartan faithful recall the early days when Cesari began to teach wrestling in an unheated high school shop room. They talk about how much it meant to other students that Cesari never gave his sons special treatment. They remember, too, how much Cesari cared about education long before he became assistant superintendent.
Some of the diners remark on the amount of time Cesari spent with the Tophoney family in the late '70s after Mike Tophoney, a Spartan wrestler, died in an automobile accident. And they remember Cesari's devotion to 105-pounder Chris Rickard after Chris's 13-year-old brother, Paul, killed himself last year. For days afterward Cesari took Chris with him almost everywhere he went. When the wrestler returned to the Spartans and won his first match, it was Cesari who led the packed gym in a prolonged standing ovation.
In Ashland they used to talk about mining, but most of the coal is gone—and thousands of jobs along with it. They used to talk about the wrestling Cesaris, and next year they, too, will be history.
Cesari leaves the nuances up to his assistants, but he has always provided the noise.
The billboard on Route 61 chronicles Cesari's mat achievements.
Spartans like Bill Houser (right) want Cesari to end his reign with another state title.
Flipping pizzas while struggling to make weight is a stern test of Mark's willpower.
One reason Pennsylvania wrestlers are preeminent is that they begin in grade school.
Among Ashlanders, young wrestlers like Howard Smith (left) are a source of pride.