By Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
Tom Borrelli was 22 years old in 1979. A senior at The Military College of South Carolina, better known as The Citadel, where leadership, sacrifice and discipline are as much a part of the curriculum as history, language and mathematics.
He and his wife Lorri had two sons. Their oldest, Kevin, was just 2 years old when he required an emergency tracheotomy. He survived, but the otherwise healthy toddler had been deprived of oxygen for 10 minutes, which resulted in cerebral palsy.
"When you see your son who can't walk ... he can understand what you're saying, but he couldn't talk, he couldn't feed himself, he was in a wheelchair," Borrelli says, reflecting on his son's life. "He had severe brain damage.
"You don't learn to deal with it. You just get through life, deal with it day to day. You get through one day and then you get through the next day and then you do what you have to do."
Tom Borrelli has built a wrestling dynasty in his 27 years in charge of the Central Michigan program. His wrestlers have earned myriad All-America honors and Mid-American Conference team and individual championships. Borrelli has been named a national coach of the year and the MAC Coach of the Year more times than he can remember, and his name is among the most-respected in national wrestling circles.
On Sunday in Ann Arbor, Borrelli will be inducted into the National Wrestling Association Hall of Fame Michigan Chapter, taking his rightful place among the elite in the sport's storied history.
A man may control his destiny, but fate is a one-way street. You do what you have to do.
Coming to CMU
Tom Borrelli had a plan, one he fully intended to see to its fruition.
It was 1991, and Borrelli convinced then-Central Michigan Athletic Director Dave Keilitz that he was the man to lead the Chippewa wrestling program.
He's been convincing people ever since.
In 27 years, Borrelli has built the Chippewa wrestling program into a force, casting it in his mold, a mold that includes equal parts pragmatism, discipline and toughness. Empathy and love are a part of it, too.
Borrelli, a highly successful wrestler during his high school and college days, knows full well what his student-athletes endure on the mat. And in their lives.
He wrestled at The Citadel from 1975-79, was twice named the program's Outstanding Wrestler, and finished with a career 58-27-2 record. After a stint as a high school coach in Georgia and as a graduate assistant at Clemson, Borrelli built a solid program in five years at Division II Lake Superior State.
At age 34, he was more than ready to take over a Division I program. And CMU was ready for him.
"I could just tell right away the program was headed in a new direction," says Kevin Vogel, a senior captain on Borrelli's first CMU team. "He had a plan and was organized; practices were run well. We knew what we should get out of every practice or every run or every lift."
The critical element, Borrelli knew, was to get his wrestlers to believe in his method and, more importantly, themselves.
"I wanted the expectations to be winning national championships, individual national championships, finishing top 10 in the country," Borrelli says.
It took time. It always does. In Borrelli's first six years as CMU's coach, the Chippewas finished runner-up at the MAC Championships three times.
He never wavered. He continually added the right kind of building blocks: blue-collar types who liked to sweat, accepted coaching, were adaptable, and were thankful for an opportunity, just as Borrelli had been when he started at CMU.
You do what you have to do.
"The guys who really respond are the ones with the grit," Borrelli says. "That comes with believing in you, and your system, and what you're asking your team to do every day. We have to find the right kid for that."
By 1997-98, Borrelli's Chippewa program was ready for prime time. CMU won the MAC title that year, then crashed the NCAA party with a fifth-place finish, the best in program history. That finish came one year after the Chippewas had placed 41st at the NCAA Championships.
"He took kids that no one really knew about and made them," says Casey Cunningham, a junior on that team who finished runner-up in the NCAA Championships at 142 pounds. "Guys that were (high school) state placers, and they became All-Americans in college.
"He ran with us, he drilled, with us, he did it right alongside us. It's hard not to fight for a guy that does with you. That's a pretty special guy."
Cunningham would win the national title at 157 pounds the following year, becoming the first - and still only - NCAA Division I national wrestling champ in CMU history. He was one of a record five Chippewas to earn All-America honors that year.
And the MAC? That '97-98 league title touched off a dynastic run during which the Chippewas would capture the crown 14 times in 15 years.
Borrelli's training and motivational methods have evolved with the times. His knack for spotting potential and then producing tangible results on the mat has remained constant, and his fire burns as hot today as it did 27 years ago when he cajoled his wrestlers into believing that they were not simply contenders, but champions.
"We don't have to have the best of everything to be as good as everybody else," Borrelli says. "I'm still fighting that battle. I'd like to win a team national championship, I believe we can win a team national championship here.
"Really, in wrestling, all you need is a wrestling mat and some kids that can train the right way, believe in themselves and think they can beat everybody. That's all you need."
Borrelli learned early on that he had all he needed at CMU and in Mount Pleasant. And he learned, as everybody does, about what he had on the inside.
You do what you have to do.
Loyalty, love and fate
Had he ever cared to, Borrelli could have easily pursued other opportunities, bit on the seduction of more money, better facilities, the lure of being able to land blue-chip prospects simply by dangling a university's name in front of them.
But fate is a one-way street.
The daily grind of practice in the wrestling room? A tough match against a better opponent? Those things don't seem as difficult in the relative light of what Borrelli and his family dealt with on a daily basis for the 15 years that his son, Kevin, lived with cerebral palsy.
"He passed away, February 15th, 1994," Borrelli says, adding that he thinks of Kevin "every day."
The funeral service drew an overflow crowd. The Borrellis, part of the CMU/Mount Pleasant community for just three years at the time, were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. People they knew, and many they did not, turned out to pay their respects.
And Thomas Robert Borrelli, the man who had convinced Dave Keilitz that he was the right man to lead the Chippewa wrestling program, had been convinced by CMU and Mount Pleasant that he was in the right place. The guys who really respond are the ones with the grit.
And Borrelli, following his plan, has convinced hundreds of wrestlers before and since that they were too.