The ‘Principal’ of wrestling

In God’s house, powerslams and piledrivers are the mission for promoter and school leader Tortorello

1a
Steve Tortorello, the principal at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and owner of Warrior Wrestling, addresses the crowd prior to “Warrior Wrestling Six” in the MCHS West Gym on Sept. 1, 2019.

Story by Drake Kizer

Photos by Basil Mahmud

In a dimly lit venue about 30 miles south of Chicago, 800 professional wrestling fans cry out to their favorite, and least favorite, competitors with reckless fervor.

“Moose!”

“Cero Miedo!”

“S-C-U!”

“This is awesome!”

They represent only a handful of the chants that rain down on the wrestlers flying off the ropes and slamming each other onto the mat. The ring is almost entirely black except for a gold “Spartan” helmet logo emblazoned in the center of a weathered canvas. Above that, the phrase “Warrior Wrestling” is etched in gold.

The passionate cries echoed through a high school gymnasium in a struggling town where wrestling fanatics paid as little as $35 or more than $100 to watch costumed villains and heroes pretend to inflict harm on their enemies — all for the purpose of keeping the students who use the gym for standard athletic fare from doing or suffering the same fate in real life.

Steve Tortorello, a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, sits and watches the action with a discerning eye. But as chatter rings through his headset, Tortorello is reminded he’s not just an onlooker.

Instead, he’s at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, where he has served as principal since the 2014 school year. The 33-year-old started Warrior Wrestling at his alma mater in January 2018 and has been running professional-quality shows at the school ever since.

Even though the viciousness of piledrivers, dropkicks and DDTs might be eyebrow-raising to the religious faithful, the promotion isn’t a vanity project. It’s the perfect marriage of two overarching passions in Tortorello’s life: Catholic education and professional wrestling.

“I kind of always had this bug about creative stuff and doing things that I like, but also about raising money for kids at our school,” Tortorello said. “I wanted to do something else that I like, and I wanted to use it to help the school.”


Tortorello, a native of Chicago’s south suburbs, is a University of Notre Dame alumnus. Tortorello earned three degrees, including a master’s in education, through Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, which allowed him to become principal at age 27.

Since then, Tortorello has set his sights on erasing a misconception about Catholic education, which is that its student body is only comprised of the affluent.

“I definitely had classmates and friends who were exorbitantly wealthy — then classmates and friends who struggled and could not have been in school next to me sitting in class if they didn’t have quite a bit of tuition assistance, as well,” Tortorello said.

Marian’s student body is an ethnic stew, with kids from more than 70 zip codes. In each class, roughly 30% of students are white, 40% black, 15% Hispanic and 15% from all other backgrounds.

Financial aid is awarded based on need, and many students from around Chicago Heights request assistance because their families can’t afford private education.

Whet Moser, a writer from Chicago magazine, called the area a “zone of spiraling poverty.” Its streets have become littered with abandoned homes, dilapidated buildings and overgrown vacant lots.

The median household income is $40,611 — more than $20,000 below the Illinois median. Nearly 29% of residents live below the poverty line and about 74% are African American or Hispanic, shows 2016 demographic research from Data USA.

Many kids from the area grow up living in housing projects and low-income apartment complexes rife with gang-related activity and violence.

The website NeighborhoodScout listed Chicago Heights at No. 28 on its 2019 list of “Top 30 Murder Capitals of America.”

Tortorello came from a middle-class family but said his time at Marian convinced him of the great value in maintaining a “super diverse” student body.

“The public schools in our area are — to be honest — kind of rough,” Tortorello said. “And it’s just kind of a rough area to grow up in. So, for those kids, this school is really kind of a beacon for hope and a great way to advance themselves to prepare for college. But that can only be a reality if there’s some way to help them with their tuition.”

The school’s dress code mandates that students wear a Marian logo polo shirt tucked into school-approved clothing. However, students can wear almost any shoes, which can lead to other issues.

If a kid shows up in hand-me-downs instead of a brand-new pair of Nikes, they will likely get some strange looks. Even if the judgment comes mostly silent, Tortorello still notices, he said.

“You see it now in just what different kids drive to school or if they have a car or what different kids might have apparel-wise,” Tortorello said. “You see it come to pass quite a bit in the school, and you try as best as you can to minimize it for the kids so that all they see is one another and their classes, but it’s a reality and something we gotta fight so that the kids can be there.”

Of the roughly 1,000 students at Marian, Tortorello said about 65% to 70% require financial aid or tuition assistance. About 20% would be qualified to receive free or reduced-priced lunch in public schools.

The cost of tuition for a family’s first student is about $11,750 for the 2019-20 school year. That figure decreases by $1,000 if a family sends a second child and by another $1,000 for three.

But the school reports that tuition and fees only cover 87% of the cost associated with educating a student. The remaining 13% comes from donations and “fundraising activities.”

Enter Warrior Wrestling.

It has generated an estimated $32,000 to date for the scholarship fund, money that finds its way to students in need, just as it did for Kyle Brzeszkiewicz, 24.


5a
“Filthy” Tom Lawlor (top) cranks an elbow belonging to Chris Ridgeway during a professional wrestling match at MCHS during “Warrior Wrestling V: May-Hem” on May 12, 2019.

Like countless others, an endowment helped Brzeszkiewicz attend Marian. He later received a college degree and undertook a year of service through AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps as a team leader, where he focuses on his passion — disaster relief and preparedness.

Brzeszkiewicz took U.S. history from Tortorello during his junior year and discovered the duo’s shared love of professional wrestling. When Warrior Wrestling came to fruition, Brzeszkiewicz pledged to assist his former teacher and lasting mentor any way he could.

“Steve bringing a wrestling promotion to Marian is something that we joked about when I was in high school and a little bit afterward when I saw that he became principal,” Brzeszkiewicz said. “So, it’s very nice to be able to give back to the school through also something that I love.”

During a Reddit AMA in April 2018, Tortorello said Marian awards more than $1.8 million in tuition assistance each year. That money, generated in part by Warrior Wrestling, makes it possible for Tortorello to foster an environment where students feel safe.

At Marian, each school day begins with a morning prayer and ends with the Dominican Blessing. The 13th century prayer is short and easy to learn, which means each student’s recitation melts out almost in unison with the person next to them.

In those moments, race dissolves. A tough home life is a memory. Disparity is forgotten — and every child belongs to one group, under faith, and is accepted for who they are.

“We have tons of kids that come from rough neighborhoods or trying personal situations, and many of them consider the school their ‘real home,’” Tortorello wrote in an email. “Their stories vary, but the theme is regularly the same — that they feel loved and cared about here.”

The prayer includes requests for blessings and healing, but also for “hands to do the work of God” and “mouths for preaching words of saving power.” The Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois, say the words of the prayer flow from contemplation to action and back again.

Tortorello takes this seriously.

He won’t stop until that spirit permeates his life, including his leadership roles at both Marian and Warrior Wrestling.


7a
Pentagón Jr. uses a tongue out of cheek pose to fire up the fans during “Warrior Wrestling Six” at  MCHS on Sept. 1, 2019.

Eric Hamilton — a sixth-grade history teacher in Joliet, Illinois — is Tortorello’s best friend and right-hand man in his school-based wrestling venture. Hamilton met Tortorello as a sophomore in Marian’s theater program. After spending a summer working together at an outdoor amphitheater in Tinley Park, Illinois, the duo became inseparable.

The pair soon realized they had an innate ability to anticipate what the other was thinking, so it was no surprise whenever the two buddies decided to bring big-time wrestling to a Catholic gym.

“We’re very different,” Hamilton said. “But we’re also very similar with our practicality and our problem-solving strategies and techniques and the way we would go about completing a task.”

Tortorello, who’d always been engaged in creative pursuits, had been seeking a new outlet outside his daily grind. He eventually settled on pursuing a “fun side project” he’d often dreamed about: starting his own independent wrestling promotion.

In many ways, he’d been already been preparing for this venture. He’d attended numerous shows of all sizes. A decade ago, he’d trained for about six months in Mach-1 Professional Wrestling’s “Wrestling 101” class, which showed him he didn’t actually want to be a performer.

What really energized him was creating the “communal” atmosphere he loved so much.

“I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, and Springsteen used to always talk about how the phrase ‘in concert’ means together,” Tortorello said. “And when it says Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in concert, they’re ‘in concert’ with the audience — they and the audience collectively are making that moment, and I think it’s the same for wrestling. The wrestlers in the ring and the fans collectively — energy-wise — are making that moment, and that’s just a really cool thing to be a part of.”

Getting started wasn’t easy. Despite his best efforts, Tortorello’s early pitches didn’t pan out. A downtrodden Tortorello detailed his fruitless attempts while sitting next to Hamilton at a Notre Dame football game in November 2017, which prompted an intense discussion.

“The way Eric and I operate is we’re just constantly throwing ideas back and forth,” Tortorello said. “I mean, the two words we probably say the most are ‘what if’ — and anytime he and I get in a ‘what if’ mode, it gets a little crazy.”

While watching the then-No. 9 Fighting Irish make a rain-soaked comeback to defeat the Navy Midshipmen 24-17, Tortorello and Hamilton kept thinking. Hamilton said his thoughts shifted to the comedy troupe Tortorello started back in their college days to raise money for Marian.

Warrior Wrestling was conceptualized as another performance-based opportunity Tortorello could use to provide additional resources, money and positive attention to Catholic education.

“The only person more Catholic than Steve Tortorello is the Pope,” Hamilton said. “He really could do whatever he wants to do, but he doesn’t do anything half-assed. He has really found his passion in Catholic education – and that’s where he’s dedicated all of his time and energy to. So, I said, ‘Why don’t you think about doing it at Marian? We can donate all the proceeds.’”

Tortorello asked Marian’s president if he would hear him out on a crazy idea.

Marian President Vince Krydynski is not WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, but he does have the power to veto or approve a fundraising plan.

Only four slides into a 25-minute presentation, Krydynski told Tortorello he could stop: Marian would front the capital for all show-related expenses.

If a show costs $100 to produce, all of its revenue streams fall into one pot. Once the $100 threshold is crossed, the show has paid for itself. All remaining income goes to scholarships.

Beginning in early 2018, Tortorello began contacting talent on behalf of Warrior Wrestling, the newest addition to Chicago’s bustling wrestling scene.

“We went from zero to 60, and I credit Vince for that,” Tortorello said. “Vince believed in me to spend some money to make some money.”


11a
Britt Baker, D.M.D. (top) ponders an unsuccessful pinning attempt on Kylie Rae during a professional wrestling match at MCHS during “Warrior Wrestling IV” on March 15, 2019.

It’s the day before a Warrior Wrestling show, and Tortorello and Hamilton are still scheming. They have already exchanged ideas more times than they could ever count. Texts, phone calls and emails flow at all hours of the night. Notebooks are filled. Google Docs are shared.

Weeks of planning are about to end inside a high school gym — the arena where fans will finally get to see the duo’s storylines play out.

At 24-hours beforehand, an estimated 50 people are hard at work. Tortorello is in high gear, doing 10 things at once. He spreads himself thin so the show can go off without a hitch.

The newest of two gymnasiums on Marian’s campus, which usually plays host to events like Advanced Placement exams or volleyball practices, is cleaned and covered in tarps before the ring is built, chairs are set up and stadium bleachers are pulled out to seat fans.

Once the arena is finished, a wrestling ring sits at what would be center court on the hardwood and is surrounded by seating on all four sides. Underneath a basketball rim, a small stage with a ramp extends down the lane for entrances. Lights, sound and a brand-new video board above the entranceway complete Warrior’s state-of-the-art setup.

While some may balk at the idea of having high-profile wrestling cards in this space, Tortorello cites Pro Wrestling Guerilla, a successful project that was run out of an American Legion Hall in Reseda, California, for over a decade. It’s proof five-star matches can take place anywhere.

“There’s this stigma that a high school gym is somehow a failure or low-rate or low-rent or whatever, but, you know, we’ve turned our high school gym into a pretty darn cool little arena, and this is a high school gym you want to be in,” Tortorello said.

The principal’s promoter’s instincts are spot-on. Attendance figures show the promotion has consistently drawn crowds of more than 850 people.

“That makes them immediately some of the biggest indie wrestling shows in the country in the last many, many years,” Tortorello said. “Really, as far as size and drawing power goes, it puts us on par with Northeast Wrestling out in New England or a couple of giant Lucha Libre shows. But as far as pure indie American shows — we’re some of the biggest, which is incredible.”

Chicago is filled with ravenous consumers of pro wrestling, but Tortorello has distanced Warrior Wrestling from the typical offerings by increasing production value and booking star-studded match cards that include female wrestlers, luchadores and stars either currently or formerly associated with major-league companies like WWE, Impact Wrestling or Ring of Honor.

The performers’ generosity has impressed Tortorello, but a few stood out as potential building blocks immediately after Warrior’s first show. One character was Sam Polinsky, 30, a 6-foot-4 Pittsburgh native better known by his arrogant wrestling persona — Sam Adonis.

Polinsky, trained by older brother and WWE commentator Corey Graves, has appeared at every Warrior Wrestling show. Though he primarily wrestles abroad in Japan and Mexico, Polinsky said he’s loyal to Tortorello and wants to help the promotion thrive.

“I always offer my input and advice, and Steve’s always been very accepting to it,” Polinsky said. “Because of that we opened up a rapport and we just became friends. I like to think that I’ve been able to influence him some in a positive direction to help Warrior become what it’s become.”

Despite all of his wrestling company’s financial success, Tortorello has never pocketed a single dime for all of the hours he’s poured into every aspect of the company since the day it began.

Warrior Wrestling remains a volunteer operation, and Tortorello wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m the volunteer booker, president, travel agent, production guy — you name it,” Tortorello said. “It all kind of comes down to me, but given the mission of it, it’s meant to help the school.”

Serving as a high school principal wasn’t exactly a prerequisite for becoming an independent wrestling promoter, but the administrative work helped Tortorello in his side hustle.

“My day job is nothing but putting out fires and dealing with headaches,” Tortorello said. “And so, my fun side job — I can absorb all those headaches and fires, because I’m used to that.”

Hamilton says Tortorello has the skill set to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company if he wanted. Catholic education simply got lucky to count him among its ranks.

“The guy’s mind is just one in a million,” Hamilton said. “I mean, somebody who has the world on their fingertips and chooses to use that knowledge and ability and power and blessing to help others instead of themselves — it’s the kind of people we need more of in the world today.”

Tortorello acknowledges he’s been on a “crazy journey,” but he does not plan on stopping as principal or wrestling promoter for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve been doing fundraising in one form or another for well over a decade, and I think this is just the latest iteration,” Tortorello said. “I’ll continue to wear both of those hats and try to do as much as I can to merge my crazy passion outside of my day job — as well as my passion for my day job — and let each one make the other one stronger.”

Warrior Wrestling, he shares, is “Christmas” for Marian’s young wrestling fans.

“There are some kids who know that we do these shows, and it doesn’t mean absolutely anything to them other than, like, their volleyball practice has to be moved out of the gym, and that’s a pain in the butt,” Tortorello said. “But then there are other kids who know that we do these shows and think it’s the coolest thing in the world. They’re beside themselves if they can help me out.”

Warrior Wrestling takes “Herculean” work to put on, but Tortorello said it’s worth every minute to create an environment where people “of all different shapes and sizes” are welcomed — the same environment he’s strived to create in the halls of his school.

Data from the National Catholic Educational Association shows that 99% of students who attend Catholic high schools graduate, and 86% of those graduates attend four-year colleges. Compared with similar benchmarks from traditional education, achievement is something Catholic schools do well, and particularly for students who are poor and minorities.

Failure is not an option in academics, so Tortorello will not let it be an option for kids in life.

Instead, he’s creating achievers, bringing them into a school house where expectation is everything, including a pathway to build their dreams.

“Just this past Friday night, after Kairos [a retreat for juniors and seniors], a mom stopped me in the hallway with tears in her eyes and just hugged me and thanked me for all that the school had done for her son,” Tortorello shared in an email. “To be clear, it’s nothing I’ve done personally — the institution itself is an incredible haven for our kids.”

Tortorello said all children deserve to have an equal opportunity to get an education. All that matters to him is getting kids into Marian, which was awarded an “A” overall grade by Niche, and ranked No. 18 on its list of “Best College Prep Private High Schools in Illinois.”


3a
Sam Adonis works the crowd at MCHS during “Warrior Wrestling Six” on Sept. 1, 2019.

When a Warrior Wrestling event ends and fans start filing out of the gymnasium in a rhythmic pattern, Tortorello can’t help but sit back and smile. A raucous crowd enjoyed itself as a result of his meticulous planning and storyboarding.

But more importantly, a new generation of students get a chance to better themselves and narrow the gaps that might otherwise keep college and a good life out of reach.

Tortorello knows the difference Marian makes in the lives of so many children, a fact he said is verified by the “heartwarming” stories he regularly hears from his students and their families.

“For one kid in particular, he looked back on where all the guys from his neighborhood ended up in life,” Tortorello wrote in an email. “And he came back to visit from college one day and said the only reason he ended up in college instead of on the street was the support and structure he got at Marian.”

In those moments, the excellence Tortorello aspires to inside the school walls is realized. His fight to give students the futures they deserve is validated, and his passion burns ever brighter.

He has taken purpose to the mat — creating opportunity for kids who are more than worthy.

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