Last summer, Nate Rose was reintroduced to a life in the South Bronx that didn’t include wrestling. He was working for a local delicatessen, delivering sandwiches for $5 an hour plus tips, while contemplating his next move. His only certainty was that he was finished with the sport.
His master plan called for dropping out of the University at Buffalo after one year and kissing his scholarship goodbye. He had listened to an inner voice begging him to quit and telling him wrestling wasn’t worth the sacrifice and commitment. He won back-to-back state titles in high school and gave it the old college try.
For him, it was enough.
“I broke, mentally,” Rose said this week. “I was done. I wasn’t coming back.”
Leaving the only sport he truly loved, the one he stumbled upon as a troubled kid and part-time hustler, also meant making peace with time and energy he invested in wrestling. Buckling meant abandoning coaches and mentors who nurtured him and, in certain respects, saved him.
It guaranteed a lifetime of regret.
Rose could have been headed for a path similar to one taken by his father, a drug kingpin who was gunned down in their native Trinidad and Tobago in 2007. After being held up himself at gunpoint in high school and surviving on some of America’s meanest streets, with darkness behind him and daylight ahead, Rose nearly deserted his only sure thing.
During his two-bit summer job, he scanned the South Bronx's hostile landscape. It was only a matter of time before he found trouble or trouble found him. That was his reality before he found wrestling or wrestling found him. UB coach John Stutzman didn’t know Rose planned to quit if not for this question:
Rose never came up with an answer, thank goodness. He returned to UB with renewed passion and a clear view of how far wrestling can take him. If he needed a reminder, he could look to his opponent Thursday when seventh-ranked Missouri shows up in Alumni Arena with senior J’den Cox.
Cox, the top-rated wrestler in the nation at 197 pounds, will be heavily favored against Rose and deservedly so. Cox, 15-0 this season and 118-5 in his career, is gunning for his third national title. He’s an Olympic bronze medal winner who will be matched against Rose, a redshirt freshman with a 14-5 record.
“Nate’s going to have his hands full,” Stutzman said. “It’s a great experience for him. It’s awesome to see where he’s at. We want to win a MAC championship and he wants to win a national championship. He also wants an Olympic title. You have to beat this guy to do it.”
Over the summer, while Rose was delivering food in his rundown neighborhood, Cox was preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Check back in the years ahead while both participate in international competitions. There’s a chance Rose and Cox will meet again in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“In my eyes, I think I can beat anybody,” Rose said. “I know he’s good, but I’m prepared for it. I’m ready to go out there and wrestle my hardest. Whatever he throws at me, I’m throwing it right back. No intimidation. After a while, because you wrestle so much, intimidation goes out the window. This is why I’m here.”
To assume Cox will be Rose’s biggest challenge would be minimizing the road Rose traveled to Buffalo and the commitment his mother made to her three sons after their father was assassinated. It would be unfair to a high school coach who steered him toward an education and a college coach who handed him one.
How did a 20-year-old man who spent his first nine years living comfortably in a single-family home on a dead-end street in Trinidad and Tobago wind up in Buffalo after snaking through the South Bronx? It began with the one constant in his life over the past decade no matter his address:
“If I go back home, where am I going to?” Rose kept asking himself last summer. “What am I going to do?”
A father slain
Rose is old enough to remember playing soccer and cricket with his friends back in his hometown of St. Augustine (pop. 4,844). He’s too young to recall, and his mother is too pained to revisit, how their lives were shattered by violence. This much is certain: His family hightailed out of the country for the United States.
“It was a peaceful neighborhood,” said Rose, who still speaks with a Caribbean lilt. “Everybody knew my grandfather, and everybody knew my father. I was small. I don’t think I was really rich, but I was stable. I was healthy. My mom had her own job. We had food on the table. But, yeah, for a young kid, life was good.”
If they knew more about the Bronx, they might have stayed in St. Augustine. The Bronx includes some 1.4 million residents, a population greater than that of their former nation. The South Bronx in particular has long been considered ground zero for New York City drugs and violence.
Rose’s family settled about 5 miles east of Yankee Stadium, removed from the city’s worst neighborhoods but nowhere near its best, after his father was gunned down by rival drug lords back in Trinidad.
His father, Andrew Joseph, had moved his wife and three boys to the United States for safety reasons.
“We were trying to get away from that lifestyle,” Rose’s mother, Michelle Rose, said this week by telephone.
Rose was 9 years old when his father died. In the abridged version, according to Rose, his father returned to their homeland to gain retribution against someone who had beaten him. In his quest to settle a score, Joseph was fatally shot in the head.
“I didn’t know how to feel,” Rose said. “I didn’t think it was true at first. I thought he went missing or something. I didn’t think he died until the funeral. That’s when it hit me. I try not to dwell on it. I don’t like feeling hurt. It was stupid. He should have just come with us.”
Michelle Rose was left to raise Nate, her oldest son, and his brothers, Dund’re, now 17, and Manasseh, 13. The three boys have the same parents despite the discrepancy in their last names. Nate took his mother’s surname because his father wasn’t present when his mother registered for his birth certificate.
Joseph’s death left them to fend for themselves in a big city in a foreign country.
“I really don’t like talking about it,” Michelle Rose said. “Where Nathanael is now is phenomenal to me, and I just want him to go forward. Sometimes, I don’t know what he’s thinking. He’s missing that space in his heart from not having a father around. I did my best, to do what I can.
“I always used his father as an example: If you live a fast life, you’re doing to die a fast life,” she said. “I don’t want them smoking. I don’t want them drinking. I don’t want them out late at night. I see these kids outside in the Bronx. I could always vouch for my sons. I’m a crazy mom. I kept them in line. Now he thanks me.”
Michelle Rose works as a nurse’s aide in the spinal unit of the Hospital for Special Surgery, a renowned rehabilitation facility on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. For years, she took classes in the morning and worked afternoons at the hospital while trying to keep her sons out of trouble and food on the table.
With his mother away most evenings, Rose was shaping up to be a troubled kid. School administrators intervened and directed him toward wrestling after he mentioned it was his favorite sport. Actually, he was enamored with WWE. It didn’t matter. He was an aggressive teenager who fell in love with competitive wrestling.
Finally, he had a purpose that kept him off the street.
“It’s the South Bronx – gangs, drugs, violence,” Rose said. “If you’re not careful, you could get caught up in it very easily. I definitely could have gone in that direction. I got in trouble during middle school. I wasn’t the best student. That’s why they put me in wrestling. It put my focus and energy into something positive.”
Coaches to the rescue
He was a natural. His success was immediate, his ascension drastic. He was blessed with long arms, big hands and immense strength below his waist. He was encouraged to attend Eagle Academy for Young Men, an all-boys school in the Bronx with a good wrestling program under a man who became his biggest influence, coach John McGarry.
McGarry was involved with the Beat the Streets program, an initiative supported by Wall Street investors and Manhattan elite who were passionate about wrestling and giving back to troubled kids. At 14, Rose was beating men four years older and faring well in regional competitions.
“I said, ‘What? Wresting? Are you kidding me?' ” his mother said. “I was behind him for months telling him to pick a different sport. There are so many different sports. He picked wrestling? It opened a whole new life for him. I told him that if he didn’t get a scholarship, he would have to go to work. I look at him now. He’s doing great.”
For years, Rose hopped on the subway for an hour each way to a church in the SoHo section of Manhattan, where Beat the Streets was based. He dominated in his first two years of high school before losing in the state qualifiers. He directed his time and energy toward something that would lead him out of the Bronx.
“When Nate was real young, I wouldn’t be afraid to wrestle him,” McGarry said. “By the time he was a sophomore, with one year of wrestling, I didn’t want anything to do with him on the mat. I tried finding people to wrestle him. They took time to work with Nate. And that really helped.”
Rose became the first wrestler from New York City's Public Schools Athletic League to win consecutive state wrestling titles. He was named schoolboy All-American after winning his weight class during a national meet in Virginia. He fared well in international competitions while representing Trinidad and Tobago. He’s the lone member of Trinidad’s national team, which hired McGarry to coach.
Stutzman offered Rose a scholarship, but that nearly collapsed under academic standards. Rose especially struggled with the SAT and nearly walked away from the sport during his senior year. He skipped school for a week and stopped attending practice before surrendering to McGarry.
McGarry, 38, who also teaches world history at Eagle Academy, took the 18-year-old Rose into his Long Island home. For months, he instilled structure and discipline that had been lacking in Rose. He showed him how to become a leader, in part because he needed to set an example for his younger brothers, and made sure his grades were in order.
“I hated life because I was on lockdown 24/7,” Rose said. “You get up early in the morning, go straight to school, do your homework. He takes me to practice. There was no going home and chilling, hanging out with friends, Xbox, nothing. It was straight back to McGarry’s house. I was reading a book and eating healthy food. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this.’ I literally wanted to cry.”
Rose laughs now while talking about McGarry and his lectures in the car. He understands McGarry’s tough love and regimented style prepared the teenager for the demands awaiting him in Buffalo. He provided the emotional foundation Rose needed with his father gone and his mother busy. McGarry saved Rose from himself.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Rose said. “He drove me to school and drove me back home. I appreciate him a lot. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in Buffalo. He really helped me in that transition. I was waking up at 5 or 6 in the morning every day. He was trying to discipline me and prepare me for Buffalo. It definitely worked.”
Rediscovering his passion
Rose’s record this season includes lopsided victories against Columbia University and Sacred Heart in his past two matches. Last year, he had problems controlling his weight after gaining access to the excess of the cafeteria. Who could blame him after a childhood of mayonnaise sandwiches?
He has kept up his grades after learning how to manage his time during his freshman year. He has come to embrace, rather than resent, a disciplined college lifestyle uncommon to many students. He has made a stronger commitment to the weight room and practice sessions he once dreaded.
Last year, Rose looked so miserable at times that Stutzman gave him a nickname: Mope-A-Dope. Rose has been happier and friendlier with his teammates while learning how to trust people around him. He has come to appreciate people like Stutzman and others who never lost faith in him.
In four months, it seemed he matured four years.
“He needs wrestling,” Stutzman said. “This is how he’s going to get his education. Wrestling is his identity. He’s a great kid but, without wrestling, he wouldn’t be at the University at Buffalo. You don’t know where he’d be. … He’s a pure athlete who likes to wrestle and is learning how. He’s just young, green as green could be.”
And that leads us to the magic question: What’s next?
It followed Rose around like a dark secret, an inner voice over the summer that tested his resolve and tempted him to veer down Easy Street toward nowhere. But where Stutzman sees green, he also sees potential for growth. It was a matter of Rose lifting himself from life’s mat and cultivating his primary passion.
Rose accepted the challenge of wrestling Cox for seven minutes, knowing darned well it was seven years in the making. He’s blossoming in Buffalo with the 2020 Olympics waiting for him. In three years, Rose could be in full bloom. And to think how easily he could have wilted into a life going nowhere.
“I was out of my comfort zone,” he said. “What was I going to do, stay home and work? I came back to wrestling. I had to suck it up. I definitely understand it now. I’m wrestling better. I’m doing better with my grades. Working hard just comes natural. I feel normal. Everything just feels right.”