USA Wrestling Francis Volpe The U...

Francis Volpe The Untold Story

By Lisa McEvoy | Jan. 26, 2001, 12 a.m. (ET)

This could be a much different story, written about a much more well-known athlete, told to a much bigger audience and penned by a much more prominent writer. It isn't. But Harvard's Francis Volpe isn't concerned with what could have been, only with what can be. The story begins in Allentown, Pennsylvania. As is the case with many boys raised in the state, Volpe grew up surrounded by the sport of wrestling. He started to wrestle as a four-year-old. His older brother, Mike, also wrestled and their father, Robert, would coach both boys when they reached Central Catholic High School. There are three basic elements to this tale. The first is the sport of football. The team component of football stands in stark contrast to the individual nature of wrestling, but Volpe was drawn to both of them. And he excelled in both. So although there were college wrestling opportunities available to him when he graduated from high school, he chose a different route. Only 17 years old when he finished high school, he felt an extra year before college would help him improve athletically, academically and give him a little more maturity. Going to Blair Academy in New Jersey also gave him time to find out more about the colleges and allow him to play football for another year "I think it is one of the best decisions I have ever made," says Volpe of going to Blair. "It let me weigh all the options, look into all the schools and figure out what would be best for me." What was best for him in the end, was to come to Harvard - a place where he could not only wrestle, but continue to play football. It was also a place where a young coach by the name of Jay Weiss was trying to revitalize the wrestling program, and so we come to the second factor in the unfolding plot. The connection between Volpe and Weiss began long before the recruiting process ever started and has blossomed while both of them have been at Harvard. A fellow native of Allentown, Weiss had been a friend of the Volpe family for years. Volpe grew up following Weiss' wrestling exploits at Franklin and Marshall College. And as he turned from family friend to coach, his impact on Volpe increased. "The reason I came to Harvard was Coach Weiss. He has been the biggest influence on my life since I have been at college." Volpe may have trouble putting into words what Coach Weiss means to him but he not only appreciates how important Weiss is, he appreciates what the coach means to the team. "Guys on our team take it for granted because we have such a great coach and great coaching staff. He is the main force behind what makes the team so close. I can't explain how fortunate I am." It is odd that Volpe chooses to use that phrase, for we have reached the final piece of the puzzle, one in which many would consider him to be decidedly unlucky. It started in high school. At first the "stingers" were more of a nuisance than anything else. He shook them off and went about playing the sports he loved. He moved on to college where he was a rare species. He wasn't just playing two sports, he was helping the Harvard wrestling team to its best EIWA Championship finish in 50 years and he was the starting fullback as a freshman on a football team which a year later would win the coveted Ivy League title. Volpe would not be a part of that however. After a season of banging helmets, the pain became more frequent and more intense. As his neck injury worsened, he was no longer able to play football but continued to wrestle, placing fourth at the EIWA's in his first season and earning a spot on the NCAA All-Rookie Team. His sophomore year he earned a wild card berth in the NCAAs but his neck was not improving. In fact, it grew worse and prompted him to take a year off following his junior season to allow it to heal. The year off may have helped, but it is still an issue. What he has to deal with on an everyday basis is not apparent in his results this season. He has wrestled to an 11-5 record, a fourth place finish at the East Stroudsburg Open and seventh at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. He is currently ranked 10th in the country. What might have been if he had never had the injury. While Volpe's name is known in wrestling circles, his talents do not receive the attention from those in the pro sports driven Boston area. As a star football player and wrestler, it is not hard to imagine his story gracing the pages of the Boston Globe or his exploits flashing up on the television screen. But don't expect Volpe to dwell on it or even mention it. There are other matters to attend to, such as leading this year's talented Harvard squad as far as it can go. For Volpe, that means using his leadership talents as well as his wrestling skills. "I have high goals for myself and the team this year," says economics major. "We can send quite a few wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament and barring injuries and having some younger guys step it up, we can really do well this year." As a co-captain with Matt Picarsic, Volpe has taken it upon himself to make sure the team is ready to reach its potential. "We try to get the guys to set their priorities," says Volpe of his role. "The guys set goals and we do everything we can to help them reach them." "It is definitely a captainship the way it should be," says Weiss of the two of them. "They are some of the best captains we have ever had and are doing a nice job putting their mark on the program." Weiss points to Volpe's stint as captain two years ago as one of the reasons he is such a good leader now. "He learned a lot. He was quieter then and I think he deferred to the older captain, but now he is very vocal and very intense. People listen to him." Volpe learned he had to do a little listening of his own if he wanted to accomplish all he has set out to do. He has had to be smarter about his workouts and has to pull back when his neck gets a little 'noisy'. He might have to rest a little along the way, but he plans to be ready in March. "My ultimate goal is to put myself in a position to accomplish all I am capable of achieving." If he seems to have handled what has been a scary injury as easily as he has handled many of his opponents, you don't have to look far for the reason. His brother, Mike, was a freshman wrestler at West Point when he faced a much more frightening affront to his body. He had to battle cancer, which is now in remission, before he could return to Army and the wrestling team to go up against some less deadly opponents. "Just seeing what he went through put things in perspective for me and made me realize how important certain things are in your life," says Volpe. His healthy attitude about the sport may come be useful in the not too distant future. After wrestling for 19 years, he knows it is coming to an end. "I am trying to make the most of these last few months. I would love to keep wrestling but with the way my body has be reacting lately, I think it might be time to turn the page and get a new start." But what a story it has been.