Away from the bright lights of a NCAA championship meet where the roar of the fans fills your ears and 20,000 people – and more on television and streaming platforms – are watching your every move, Connecticut wrestling official Nick Grosso has been working on his craft.
There was a time when Grosso could be seen practicing his skills as a wrestling official while collecting trash in the city of Bridgeport. Before he became a supervisor in Bridgeport’s Public Facilities Sanitation Division, Grosso used to hang off the back of a truck that collects trash on city streets.
You’ve seen the trucks before. They drive a few hundred feet and stop. You hear the air release from their brakes. There is one person on the back of the truck, one arm grasping a bar on the vehicle and standing on a small platform before they jump to the ground, grab a garbage can or garbage bag and toss it into the back of the truck.
In this case, it was Grosso, who would leap off the truck and crisply practice one of the 30 signals he might use in a wrestling match. And he would do it again. And again. And again.
“Each time I would do a different signal. Up and down the streets of Bridgeport for years, every time I came off the truck – 500 times a day for 10 years,” he said.
It’s that preparation that makes it look smooth when Grosso signals during a match. Now it is second nature to him.
It has helped Grosso to be where he is today – one of two Connecticut men working as an official in the Big 10 Conference, the best collegiate league in the sport and one of the few Connecticut men to ever be assigned to work at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships. Only six Connecticut men are known to have worked at the Division I tournament.
Grosso, 38, will be working his third NCAA Division I tournament beginning Thursday in St. Louis.
One of those six men was Stamford’s John Engel, who is believed to be the first Connecticut wrestler to win a NCAA Division I title in 1931 when he wrestled at Lehigh. Engel earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 but broke his collarbone and didn’t compete. Afterward, he had a long career as an official that included an assignment to officiate at the Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960.
Grosso is one of three Connecticut men to officiate at the NCAA Division I championships this century. Hall of Fame official Brian Manzi last officiated at the nationals in 2001 and Rey Santiago officiated at the 2014 NCAA Div. I championships in Oklahoma.
“The intensity and pressure of every point is so important,” Manzi said. “There is no one better prepared than Nick Gross. He works harder in a year than I did in my career. New England isn’t known for their big-time wrestlers so to have someone from the Northeast recognized is huge.
“I really believe (Grasso) is one of the very best officials in the country,” said Manzi, a member of the Connecticut chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “It’s his poise, his signals, his judgment, his movement on the mat. We call him Mickey Smooth because he is. He knows what is going on and is able to get into position (to make the call).”
It’s not often an official in New England gets the call to officiate at the Division I level. But when Grosso got the call, he was ready to take advantage of it.
“My signals are what basically got people to notice me and help get to the level where I have gotten to,” he said. “You can’t get that level without hours and hours and hours of practice.”
The Big 10 was looking for a younger official to join their ranks. Manzi got a call. He recommended Grosso, who had been a high school official with some experience with Division III matches. Under the bright lights and intense pressure, Grosso prospered.
“I remember feeling the pressure my first year but when I get on the mat, it is a sanctuary,” Grosso said. “When I get there (on the mat), I feel calm and I feel at home. My preparation has prepared me for whatever will happen.”
It’s a merit-based environment. Some get their chance and are not invited back. Grosso has finished his fifth year in the Big 10.
“I just love doing it. I don’t care about the accolades,” he said. “It’s kinda cool. You get to be involved.”
Grosso was a high school wrestler in Connecticut at Bunnell in Stratford. “I was just a marginal wrestler,” he says today. He did some coaching with Bunnell and Bridgeport Central before joining the Marine Corps, where he served overseas and did some wrestling.
Once, he was discharged, he spent some time coaching in Trumbull before transitioning to officiating. It’s his way of staying involved in the sport.
“I just love the sport of wrestling,” Grosso said. “It did a lot for me and the way for me to give back now is to be the best official I can be. It’s not about me. It is about getting the call right.”
It’s also about preparation.
“It is knowing the rule book. Studying the rules from front to back,” Grosso said. “Preparation is how you deal with coaches. It’s the proper stance you take, the tone of voice you have, the way you penalize so you’re not confrontational, which helps gain respect of the coaches. It shows you are in command and you’re not losing your composure in those crucial situations.”
This season with the COVID-19 pandemic, additional precautions needed to be made. Like all officials, Grosso wears a mask at all times with a whistle inside. He had to saw off a piece of his whistle to ensure it fit under his mask. Before the season, Grosso worked with a woman in Arizona to get masks that fit and worked in competition.
“It was just another challenge,” he said with a chuckle.
Grosso was on the mat for several Big 10 matches this winter, including the Michigan vs. Michigan State dual meet in February – a huge meet in Michigan. He was on the mat during the Big 10 championship meet at the end of February. You can see him on television gliding around the mat to get into position to make the call.
“They go by in a blink of an eye,” he said of the matches. “You’re focused. There are 22,000 people (watching you). I am the guy who wants to make the call, be the reporter and relay what is happening (on the mat) to the coaches, the fans and the wrestlers.”
Grosso has plenty of support at home and on the job. While most matches are on the weekends, he uses his vacation time to travel to the events. “My management is very accommodating, and I get to do something special that most people don’t get to do,” he said.
His wife of five years, Shanon, holds down the fort at home when Grosso is on the road. They have a daughter, Alexis, 3 and live in Cheshire with Shanon’s twin sons, Joe and Josh.
“She is a saint,” Grosso said. “If you don’t have that support and understanding (it doesn’t work).”
Grosso will be on the mat beginning Thursday at the NCAA championship meet. “My goal is to make the tough situation look easy,” he said. “I want to step back, take a deep breath and the deliver the information I need to deliver in a calm manner.
“I want to stay involved (in wrestling) as long as I can,” he said. “I am humbled and amazed to do what I do. Not everyone gets this chance to do that. I am trying to lead by example.”
Officials at NCAA championships
|The following Connecticut men have been officials at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships.|
|Joseph Alissi*||West Hartford; Athletic Director at Kingswood-Oxford|
|Dave Camaione||Professor at Central Connecticut State|
|John Engel||NCAA D1 champ from Lehigh; Olympic official|
|Nick Grosso||Third time at NCAA Tournament, 2018, 2019|
|Brian Manzi*||12 years at NCAA Div. I tournament 1999-2001|
|Rey Santiago||Official at 2014 NCAA Div. I championships|
*Member of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame