No Experience Required for Santana and Fuentes
By SETH SCHWARTZ
In the 1970s, it was common for coaches to grab any kid who had any athletic makeup and put him in the practice room.
No experience required.
Two of those Gordon Tech coach Dennis McCann got started were Frank Santana and Henry Fuentes.
A knee injury in spring football ended Santana’s gridiron future. As a sophomore, they needed someone to fill in at 185 pounds.
“I knew absolutely nothing; [assistant coach] Dan Zajac found me, they showed me two moves and sent me out [against Schurz],” said Santana, who graduated in 1973.
“We worked in practice on the standup and double-leg. It was 1-1 in the third period; I was exhausted and the guy kept head butting me. I hit him with a right hand and decked him.”
Santana proceeded to go undefeated not losing until the finals against Mt. Carmel’s Ron Zuccarelli.
“It was an unbelievable environment,” he said. “The camaraderie, enthusiasm and support with the students and all the coaches was incredible.”
Following his father’s passing at age seven, Santana had emigrated from Cuba with his mother and brother to Chicago.
“Coach McCann was a father figure to me,” he said. “I worshiped the ground they walked on; I lived on every word they said. When I think of the greatness of America, Gordon Tech epitomized it. The guys like McCann, Dick Versace and Tom Winiecki, Dave and Jim Profit, Bill Bodle, Bill Enis, Ralph Sesso, Dan Zajac are the type of people that make this country great. It was a different era.”
Watching Dan Gable dominate in the 1972 Olympics, Santana patterned his training after the legend and went undefeated his last two years.
“We had some great guys like heavyweight Jim McAvoy, Stan Siemionko, Tom Stritzel, Dave Rotkaski, Steve Otis and Mike Lazaro,” said Santana. “They pushed you and made you better.
“I was a very determined young man. We lifted a lot and that helped me when I got to college.”
Just after Christmas of his senior year, Santana was summoned from practice with the directive that Gable [an assistant at Iowa] was at Northwestern [for the Midlands Championships] and wanted to workout with him.
“I got to the wrestling room and I was shaking in my boots,” said Santana. “I didn’t wrestle well; I was so scared. Gable said I wasn’t good enough to wrestle at Iowa and I was crushed.”
Two months later, Iowa State Harold Nickols called.
“He took me to dinner and offered a scholarship,” said Santana. “I asked, ‘Do you wrestle Iowa?’
“He said, ‘Twice a year.’ I said, ‘Where do I sign?’
“Every time we wrestled Iowa I would beat the hell out of their guy and point my finger at Gable. We’re close friends now. He said I was the only recruiting mistake he made.”
A combination of athletic ability and incredible strength propelled Santana’s career at Iowa State where he became a three-time finalist and national champion his junior year (190) in 1977 beating Minnesota’s Evan Johnson as the Cyclones won the national title. A two-time captain, whose success didn’t end on the mat, Santana graduated as academic All-American with a business degree. A successful stock broker, he retired at 35. Seven years ago he moved to a 200 acre spread outside of Des Moines at Winterset, Iowa where he’s raising 100 head of Angus cattle and three horses: Cash, Dash and Flash.
“If there’s one thing I can point to in my lifetime that made me, it was those days at Gordon Tech,” he said. “Coach McCann instilled in me the qualities that enable me to fulfill the dream I am living. I could never repay the debt I have for what coaches and teachers did there. They emphasized doing well in all facets.”
As a teen, Fuentes took a job as an orderly at Edgewater hospital and got the notion of becoming a doctor.
Fuentes, whose family emigrated from Columbia, is now an orthopedic surgeon at Parkview Hospital in Palos Heights.
“Coach got me to try out and instilled a lot of confidence in me,” said Fuentes, who finished third in the sectional at 132 his senior year in 1975.
“He was a great motivator and that’s what drew me to him. We have a special relationship.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but the things I learned from wrestling have carried me my whole life. My teammates were a big part of me; they pushed me. My parents and I were immigrants [from Columbia]; I am living the American dream.”
An uplifting family atmosphere fostered lasting relationships.
“Coach McCann molded us,” said Fuentes, who job as an orderly at Edgewater Hospital gave him the impetus to dream of a career as a surgeon. He’s worked the state tournament since 1991.
“The guys on the wrestling team get together twice a year and it’s a wonderful time. So many guys came from nothing and became successful.”
Related: The Dennis McCann Story