WOOD-RIDGE, N.J.– Dave Bell never saw an amateur wrestling match before his freshman year at Wood-Ridge High School.
“We had wrestling in gym class and the coach would attend to recruit prospects,” said Bell, 58. “I weighed 80 pounds as a freshman and I fit the bill in body type for the 98-pound weight class.”
Once he hit the mat for the first time, “I was sold,” he said.
"Wrestling is an incredible character-building sport," Bell said. "It takes all the courage in the world to step out on that mat, to summon the courage to fight through every situation. That, in itself, is a life lesson. Wrestling is a manifestation of life's struggles -- to fight doubts, odds, adversity and to overcome."
Bell wrestled at 101 and 108 pounds for the Blue Devils before continuing his career at Slippery Rock State College.
A year before he began teaching history at Bergen Catholic, Bell became the school’s head wrestling coach in 1998.
During his tenure at the Oradell parochial school, the Crusaders won 14 league, 17 district, 13 county and seven state titles .
Bell, who coached at Hawthorne, Cresskill, Palisades Park and Mahwah, wasn’t Bergen’s top choice for the role – two other hopefuls had to turn the opportunity down.
Bell admits his first year was “very difficult” but the change was eased by Dominic Santoli, who later would join Bell’s coaching staff along with fellow former BC grappler Bryan Nunziato.
“I look at my role as being a facilitator,” Bell said. “My job is putting them in situations were they can excel as athletes and young men. It is about having an unyielding commitment to a vision and belief in accomplishing set goals."
Seven of Bell’s wrestlers have won state titles: Nick Suriano , Johnny Sebastian, Joe Grello, Kevin Mulligan, Joey Trause, Frank Cagnina and Shane Griffith.
“But, what’s even more incredible is watching these young men train and compete in the room everyday,” Bell said. “To see the process, preparation effort and evolution of such outstanding young men and wrestlers is the best part of coaching.”
The Crusaders have been the state’s top team and ranked nationally, “but it is necessary to remain hungry and work to do it better each year,” said Bell, who also has been a volunteer coach for USA Wrestling New Jersey since 2000.
“There is never a moment where I feel that I can relax,” he added. “I feel that if I am not evolving, I am letting down the athletes, program and school.”
What you might not know about him is that he’s fond of 17th and 18th century homes and prefers a particular breed of dog, the Cane Corso.
His 5-year-old son, Jonathan, may follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He comes to practice and warms up with the team,” Bell said. “He does the Bergen Catholic warm-up run, does laps around the living room and is obsessed with his favorite wrestler, Joe Grello. I really hope that he wrestles.”
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.