TAMPA — Three hours before the 2013 state wrestling finals at Lakeland Center, Robinson coach Tommy Montero was in the parking lot putting on his black shirt, black tie and gray jacket — Robinson colors.
He straightened the tie. Checked his hair. Checked his watch. How much longer did he have to wait? Montero, 43, had already waited a few lifetimes — his lifetime and the lifetime of his wrestler competing in the Class 1A, 170-pound final, junior Luis Peguero.
More than 16 years earlier, Montero lived two houses from Peguero when he was born. Montero baby-sat Peguero. He even changed Peguero’s diapers. “And I don’t like changing diapers,” Montero said.
Montero did it partly because Peguero’s father, Luis Sr., was a man Montero looked up to like a big brother. He deeply respected the elder Peguero, and the Montero and Peguero families were the best of friends.
They also had wrestling for Robinson High in common. Though Montero, a 1988 graduate, and Peguero, a 1979 alum, never got close to a state title, they both loved wrestling and hoped little Luis would want to take up the sport.
That’s why they took Luis, at age 7, to the junior wrestling club at Brandon, home to the Eagles, who held a national dual-match winning streak of 34 years and currently have 24 state team titles, including 13 in a row. No doubt, it was the best place for little Luis to learn.
“I went to watch (Luis Jr.’s) matches and he was wearing his little singlet and he had this big belly hanging over his waist,” Montero said. “He didn’t know any moves and he didn’t know what was going on, but I went up to him and said, ‘Good job! Good job!’ Then I’d say, ‘Show me a move,’ and he’d take his thumb and jab me in the stomach. I’d say, ‘That’s not a move,’ and we’d just laugh.”
Little Luis? “I didn’t think much of wrestling when I was little,” he said. “It was just something I did. I was really fat and I wasn’t too good.”
Luis Peguero, now 17, looks back and chuckles because in eighth grade, after taking a few years off, he got back into it at the Caveman Wrestling Club, and a years after that he was a freshman at Robinson with Montero.
That’s when the spark turned into a fire and he became obsessed.
Peguero worked so hard that as a sophomore he became a state runner-up at 170 pounds. But he was angry. Unsatisfied. He immediately started working toward winning a state title as a junior.
And on Feb. 16, 2013, in the middle of Lakeland Center, there was Peguero battling in a state final match, with Montero coaching a few feet away, wringing his hands, tugging at his tie, mussing his hair. The Peguero and Montero families screamed from the stands.
The match against Tampa Prep’s Nick Mosco went back and forth and finished regulation tied at one point. In overtime, Peguero got a hold of Mosco’s leg and took him down inside the circle.
Finally, it was over: Luis Peguero had won the state title with a 3-1 victory, becoming only the second Knights state champion in history after Dewey Mitchell won the unlimited division in 1974.
Tears streamed down Montero’s face. He had coached 10 years at Robinson and had a couple of state runners-up, and now, he hugged his first state champion, his lifelong friend, Luis Peguero.
“I had envisioned what it would be like to have Luis win the state title,” Montero said. “We would jump in the air and hug and dance around. But when it happened, it wasn’t like that. It was a release, a relief. We had all waited so long. I had watched this kid grow up. I couldn’t talk right after he won. All I could do was just hug him and hold on.
“It was the greatest feeling in the world.”
And it could happen again on Feb. 15.
Luis Peguero is not only back at 182 pounds, but he is stronger, quicker and smarter. He also has the potential to go undefeated after improving to 34-0 at last weekend’s Ippolito Wrestling Tournament.
“I feel like I have more to accomplish,” Peguero said. “I want to win for me, but I also want to win for everybody else, for (Montero and his family) and the school. I don’t think I really understood it last year, but now I do. (Winning a state title) means a lot to a lot of people.”
Would Montero be as anxious as he was last year? He chuckled.
“I have total confidence in Luis,” Montero said. “He believes he will do it, and we all believe in him.”