Ken DeStefanis – National Wrestling HoF Induction Narrative
by Kathleen Pulek, April, 2013
When Ken DeStefanis asked me to write the narrative for the introductory video for his induction into the Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, I was honored. When I saw the video and heard Richard Wiszniak’s voice give life to the words I wrote, I was humbled.
I’ve known Ken a long time and I’ve been able to be a part of some of the many successes he has had within the sport of wrestling, on the youth, high school and college levels and at camps and clinics. I have seen his tireless work on behalf of a sport he holds so dear. Congratulations, Ken, on a very well deserved honor.
The love affair Ken DeStefanis has with the sport of wrestling began in high school. Following the lead of his older brother, Ron, who started the DeStefanis family tradition of wrestling excellence, Ken began a highly successful career that took him from standout wrestler on the Locust Valley High School and Central Connecticut State University mats, to the sidelines where he has had an equally impressive and successful career as a coach at the scholastic, collegiate, club and youth levels.
Ken immediately embraced the competition, the coaches, being part of a successful team and the ability to wrestle with his brothers throughout his high school career. His large family grew in leaps and bounds as Locust Valley head coach Matt Sanzone, a member of the Hall of Fame whom Ken is humbled to be joining with this evening’s induction, and the wrestling team became part of the extended family he continues to hold dear.
In 1973, Ron DeStefanis scored the first of many championship victories for the sons of Dr. Al and Angela DeStefanis as the family embarked on domination of the sport of wrestling in Nassau County, New York and beyond.
The brothers DeStefanis – Ron, Ken, Al, Rob and Carl – have won over 125 tournaments, a jaw-dropping 44 individual titles including six New York State High School titles, eight Nassau County championships and 30 league, invitational and conference crowns. They also hold an incredible collective record of 406-48.
Ken has won six New England Freestyle Championships and was runner-up in the Nassau (NY) County High School Championships.
It was only fitting that the staggering successes and deep-rooted and lasting commitments to the sport demonstrated by the nationally-known DeStefanis family were recognized in 2012 when they were honored as Long Island’s “First Family of Wrestling.”
“Ken and the DeStefanis family embody the best qualities and characteristics of the sport of wrestling – loyalty, camaraderie, mutual support, respect, hard work and determination,” according to Matt Sanzone.
Ken’s work ethic and talent resulted in his authoring one of the most successful wrestling careers in the history of the Central Connecticut wrestling program, where he posted a 66-9 career record. Ken won numerous tournaments as well as three New England Freestyle Championships. He was twice selected to the All New England Wrestling Team and qualified for the Division II National Championship.
After receiving his degree in education, Ken accepted a teaching job in Madison, CT and was offered the opportunity to coach at Daniel Hand High School as an assistant to Jim Flanigan. He immediately made his mark on the Hand program, with the 1978 Tigers winning a state championship and Ken coaching his first state champion, Carmel Delvecchio, who has gone on to become a respected wrestling official.
Ken left Daniel Hand and the scholastic ranks to get his feet wet as a collegiate coach at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, CT, where the Cardinal wrestling team took second place at the New England Championships, their highest finish at the time. Ken coached current Wesleyan head football coach and athletic director Mike Whalen to a New England Championship.
Central Connecticut wrestling coach George Redman was instrumental in bringing Ken back to the New Britain campus where he served two years as an assistant before taking the reins from Redman for the 1984-85 season.
Ken was the ideal choice to take the Central Connecticut wrestling program from the Division II ranks to Division I and make the Blue Devils the most exciting and fastest growing Division I collegiate program in the country.
Few coaches can claim the success Ken has had. Under his tutelage and recruiting savvy, the Blue Devils developed into one of the top Division I wrestling programs in New England and the northeast while earning national respect and recognition.
Central Connecticut took Division I by storm during the 1986-87 season, finishing with a 17-1 dual meet record and dethroning five-time New England champion Boston University. The Blue Devils earned their first of three-straight New England Championship titles by winning five out of 10 weight classes and sending five wrestlers to the Division I National Championships.
The Blue Devils’ recruiting class was ranked 20th behind such powerhouses as Arizona State, Nebraska and Iowa State in 1988, recognizing Ken’s recruiting efforts, routinely performed with a negligible budget but relentless drive and determination and an honest sales pitch.
In 1991-92, Ken’s eighth year as the Blue Devils’ head coach, Central Connecticut ranked 35th nationally in a preseason poll, ahead of Army, Navy, Virginia and Maryland. Four of his wrestlers were ranked in the top 28 of their respective weight classes and the squad captured the East Coast Wrestling Association Championship as a second-year member of the conference.
Ken never had a losing season at Central Connecticut. He compiled an overall record of 153-58-2 and winning percentage of .723 that ranked him among the top-20 active wrestling coaches of four-year institutions in the nation for dual-meet winning percentage during his 12-year tenure with the Blue Devils, which ended after the 1995-96 season.
He has coached 16 Division I New England Champions and 10 East Coast Conference Wrestling Champions. Ken has had 10 wrestlers named as “National Freshman All Stars” by Amateur Wrestling News during his career – a tribute to his ability to land some of the most talented freshmen in the country. Over 30 Central Connecticut wrestlers competed in the Division I NCAA National Championships, where Ken had the opportunity to coach against the legendary Dan Gable.
Ken’s coaching prowess and the Blue Devils’ success earned him 1987 and 1988 New England Coach of the Year honors and designation as the 1991East Coast Wrestling Association Coach of the Year. In 1992, Wrestling U.S.A. named him Connecticut’s Wrestling Man of the Year.
While coaching, Ken founded The Competitive Edge Wrestling Camp. He partnered with Matt Sanzone and Doug Axman, Locust Valley coaches who impacted Ken’s development as a wrestler and coach. Four years later, he continued the camp on his own, surrounding himself with well-respected wrestling coaches like Sanzone, who started the Locust Valley program and Axman, Sanzone’s long-time assistant before succeeding him as head coach.
Known as a leader for helping high school wrestlers move on to the collegiate level, his Competitive Edge Wrestling Camp was recognized as one of the top camps in the nation. The sport of wrestling has given much to Ken, and in turn, Ken has given much back to the sport he loves, awarding more than 500 scholarships to deserving elementary, junior high and high school wrestlers to attend Competitive Edge camps and clinics.
Ken’s illustrious wrestling career has given him many opportunities including serving as a coach for the Connecticut Freestyle and Greco-Roman National Team, which competed in the Junior Nationals. He achieved bronze level certification from USA Wrestling. The last two years he has worked with Hall of Fame coach Dave Knute and the Southington Youth Wrestling Program.
Wrestling has been a big part of Ken’s life. His passion for the sport has never wavered during the 45 years he’s been involved in wrestling. Though his accolades are many, he diffuses talk of his successes and achievements by pointing out that he has benefited from working with outstanding coaches and dedicated, hard-working wrestlers.
When Ken leaves his house, most time he ends up going to his other family to be involved with wrestling or wrestlers. He continues to enjoy the competition and the camaraderie that wrestling brings.
Ken holds firm to the belief that wrestling teaches you to do the right thing and is quick to tell people that when your wrestling career is over, people won’t remember you by the championships you’ve won. They will remember the type of competitor you were, what type of person you were and what kind of character and integrity you have had.
Ken DeStefanis will be remembered as a consummate competitor. He has worked tirelessly to build a reputation based on principles, his methods of coaching, his tireless work ethic and his dedication to the sport of wrestling, a testament to the regard in which Ken is held.
View the published feature HERE.