Cuffaro to Receive Medal of Courage
WHEELING — Pete Cuffaro was in the prime of his life at 24 years of age. The Wheeling resident had recently graduated from West Virginia University and seemed to have a promising lifetime ahead of him.
However, on June 25, 1983, his life changed forever. While at a private party, in which he strongly stressed drugs and alcohol were not present, he dove into a swimming pool thinking it was 8-foot deep. It was only half that depth and Cuffaro broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Instead of letting that derail him from his life’s goals, Cuffaro went through extensive rehabilitation. He is confined to a wheelchair but that hasn’t stopped him from following one of his true passions — high school wrestling. He has been instrumental in supporting and promoting the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference for nearly 50 years. Half of that time has been spent volunteering at the OVAC Ron Mauck Tournament held annually in mid-January.
For his dedication to the sport, Cuffaro and four others will be enshrined into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame W.Va. Chapter during a banquet on Sunday at the Embassy Suites in Charleston. Appropriately, he will receive the “Medal of Courage” award.
“I’m very humbled. When I had my diving accident I almost died,” he explained. “This is amazing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a lot of good people around me. This isn’t about Pete Cuffaro. I’ve had a lot of help and encouragement along the way.
“When they lifeflighted me out of Wheeling to Pittsburgh. They misread the x-rays and I walked out of the hospital. It was later that evening when the paralysis started to set in and I had all the symptoms I returned to the hospital.
“I told people that I made a deal with God. I told him to just let me get back to Wheeling one more time. I just wanted to see Wheeling one more time. As a young man I took things for granted. I didn’t appreciate the trees around me, the wildlife, the different things … your in the fast lane.
“Once I got back to the valley all my friends started coming around. Some of them helped me build my body back up, but like I said, I wanted to put something back in the community that had been so good to me. There was one way I thought I could do it and Sam Mumley approached me. He was a great mentor of mine, and so was Rudy (Mumley). They didn’t want me to sit at home and dwell on things. They got me involved.
“I started out doing some OVAC football stuff and the next thing you know they’ve got me down here keeping the clock. Another thing was to motivate young people. Another group of guys that were good to me was some coaches at Bridge Street where I went to school. Fred Hare, Gene Monteleone, Phil Pest and Ron Gill. They used to bring me over and just let me watch practice … just to be around the team. I still stay in touch with a lot of those guys.”
Another way Cuffaro has given back to the community is through a scholarship he has been involved in since just after his accident.
“A dear friend of mine, Bob Burke and his wife Delores, had a son Danny who was killed in a car accident west of the Wheeling Tunnel on I-70. Not sure what happened.”
Danny was a wrestler at Wheeling Park.
“I was at WVU as a student when I got a phone call telling me to get home as soon as possible because of what had happened,” he recalled. “I didn’t even have a car at that time, but a friend of mine lent me his. I was sort of a mentor to Danny because all kids are kind of ornery. I was friends with all the kids in the family. Danny was one of those kids that looked up to me because I pushed him a little harder than the other kids. I told him he needed to get involved, stay active and stay out of trouble.”
According to Cuffaro, the Burke’s started a scholarship fund but instead of sitting on that scholarship, investing in it and letting it grow without taking the principle out, right of the top they started taking money out for the scholarships. So, eventually, the fund dried up.
“My wife, Erin, and I took the scholarship over at that point. We put our own money in it and then another friend by the name of Andy Hogan came along and helped us out with some foundation money,” Cuffaro continued. “We were able to build that back up and set a trust up. We did everything right. I have a good friend who is a lawyer and he helped us get it setup. It’s a perpetual-type of thing, so the money is guaranteed. We have a good investment strategy.”
Cuffaro has presented the Daniel Burke Memorial Scholarship each year since 1984.
“We started giving $1,000 a year to an individual, but if we met a certain plateau, we might give out $2,000 or $2,500,” he said. “Every kid in the OVAC that is involved in a sport, I give them credit. Our scholarship is geared toward wrestling, but there are so many other scholarships out there.”
One thing he stressed was having the respective high school coaches urge the kids to apply for the scholarships.
“Some kids feel they’re not going to be eligible but there are a lot of things that are taken into consideration, such as a kid’s grades, their wrestling record and their service to their community and school,” he noted.
He also said the scholarship is setup where the awardee doesn’t have to go to college.
“College isn’t for everyone,” he said. “If someone wants to go to a trade school or whatever, we’re going to give them that scholarship to help them out.”
Cuffaro started wrestling in 7th grade. His first coach was Larry “Babe” Schmitt at Bridge Street Middle School.
“You’re not always going to win, and when you do have a setback, you have to look back and see what you did, what you can improve on and build strength from that. I was 175 pounds and we didn’t have a heavyweight. I couldn’t beat the freshman in front of me, so I went to coach and said ‘hey, we don’t have a heavyweight. What do you think about me wrestling heavyweight? Coach said, “that’ll be a tough road to go,’ but I said I didn’t care. I just wanted to wrestle and it would help us fill out the team.
“Some of those matches were really tough because we had some pretty big kids back then. I’ll never forget my first match. Coaches are always screaming at you to shoot, shoot because they don’t want you dancing around on the mat. I shot in on this guy that weighed about 230 and he just flattened me. I sprawled and fought like heck.
“We are challenged every day in life and that helped me through my ordeal. I had an opportunity to go to Linsly on an athletic scholarship after my 8th grade year. My biggest mistake my freshman year was not wrestling. I played basketball where I rode the oak. It was a poor decision on my part, but we learn from our mistakes.
“I was very blessed with great educators and great coaches. They always pushed you towards perfection. When you’ve done your best, you know you’ve done your best. If you only give 50 percent, you’re going to get what you put into whatever you do. But, if you go full tilt and still come up a little bit short, you know you gave it your best, but you’re still evaluating yourself. Even if you meet the goal you’ve set for yourself, you’re still setting another goal. That’s what competition is all about.
“That taught me a lot, especially when I was going through rehabilitation.
“I’d be remissed if I didn’t thank my mother and father, my aunt and my godmother. When I got hurt I weighed 215 pounds and I went down to 140. They weened me back to health. My religious faith I received when I was in parochial school for three years really helped me, as well.
“The three good ‘F’ words in our society today are faith, friends and family. A triangle is the strongest thing there is structurally, but if one of those corners are missing, the thing collapses.”
Cuffaro is also a motivational speaker around the Ohio Valley. He said the youth of today don’t need catered to.
“When you enable youth today, you really disable them. They have to learn from their successes and failures. They need to know how to come back from adversity because athletics and academics prepare you for the bigger picture in life.”