'The Stare' still hungry

BY CODY GOODWIN | MARCH 14, 2014 5:00 AM

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Long before Tony Ramos became an Iowa fan favorite — before the 115 victories, the 36 pins, the All-American honors and, more recently, a Big Ten title — he was a 4-year-old running across the street to grab a now-forgotten toy.

His family was in Chicago for a weekend, visiting grandma with plans to go to the zoo. While the family congregated in a parking lot across the street from his grandmother’s apartment, Ramos was playing with a toy. His grandmother had bought him that toy the night before, and he coaxed her into buying one for older brother Vince, too.

After Vince saw the toy, Ramos ran back over the crosswalk to get his brother’s. There was a stop sign. “The guy in the car was looking back at his baby,” he says, “and he just smoked me.”

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Ramos took the front bumper to the stomach and disappeared under the car. The driver slammed on the brakes. Only Vince, who was just a year and a half older, saw the incident; the rest of the family turned to look after hearing the screeching tires.

If it was in God’s plan, that would’ve been the end of it. There wouldn’t have been the 115 victories or the Big Ten title. There wouldn’t have been the story of a boisterous kid from Carol Stream, Ill., who achieved those highs after first experiencing lows. There wouldn’t have been the tale of a 5-foot-4 senior looking to stand tall above the rest of the country after redeeming himself and capitalizing on opportunities given.

But God had a different plan for Tony Ramos, which began on that day in Chicago when he, miraculously, crawled out from underneath the car.

• • •

Right now, at 23, near the end of his senior wrestling season, Ramos is reading Mike Tyson’s book. When he was younger, he watched a documentary on Iron Mike and picked up on the little things that made him great. That’s where his signature stare came from. In Ramos’ “Iowa Way” video, he said Tyson stared his opponents in the eye before each match, and if they looked away, he could see fear.

Ramos identifies a lot with the Tyson that once stood atop the boxing world, and the similarities between the two are striking. There’s the confident mindset, the belief in the coaching, and the dedication to training.

“He was so afraid to lose and upset the people around him that it made him such a competitor,” he said. “It made him work that much harder, because he didn’t want that feeling of defeat or upset the people who got him to go down the right path.”

Even more, there’s a part of Tyson’s story in which he moves in with his coach, Cus D’Amato, in order to better his boxing and have more opportunities to succeed. That’s when his career really took off.

Ramos also moved in with his coach and oldest brother, Frankie Defilippis, before his freshman year at Glenbard North High School so that he, too, could better his wrestling and take advantage of more opportunities.

• • •

Ramos and brother Vince spent their high school years living with Defilippis, who bought a house not far from Glenbard North after graduating from Eastern Illinois. The living situation allowed them to get a better wrestling experience than if they had lived with their parents in Johnsburg, Ill.

Defilippis worked 12-hour days so he could support both his younger siblings, which meant Ramos learned a lot on the fly. He learned how to grill chicken and cook noodles, how to separate laundry, that he had to wake up for school on time and do his homework each night. He equated it to a college atmosphere while still in high school.

There were a couple of ground rules set for Ramos since Defilippis wasn’t always home to keep an eye on him. Generally speaking, he could do whatever he wanted so long as he wrestled tough, trained hard, and didn’t get in trouble with the cops.

Defilippis, now 33, knew how to bring out Ramos’s best wrestling. In order to tap that potential, Defilippis used an incentive system. The bets ranged anywhere from golf clubs to a brand-new Hummer. More recently, Defilippis and a family friend bought Ramos a shotgun after he pinned Jimmy Gulibon — which explains why he pointed toward Frankie as he walked off the mat afterward.

“Everything about him, from Day One, was to be the best,” Defilippis says. “He wants to win every sprint, every long run — everything.”

The incentives added fire to someone who hated losing. Ramos once took a video-game controller and bashed it over Vince’s head after losing some now-forgotten game when they were younger.

During wrestling practices in high school, when Vince continually beat Ramos, he threw punches to try to get even. Even now, during games of Uno with the wrestling team, if he loses, he’ll throw his cards and walk out of whichever house they’re playing in.

So with Ramos succeeding on the mat, and staying clear of the cops, he and his friends ran wild. They never drank or smoked, but they were rambunctious in every sense of the word. Ramos once poured a bucket of cold water on Vince while he was sleeping, causing Vince to chase him down and put a hole in Ramos’ bedroom door. Another time, he and his friends took a shopping cart through the Wendy’s drive-through.

“They said we needed wheels,” Ramos says now, grinning.

It was the kind of freedom that most high-school kids would certainly enjoy, but that lifestyle came to an abrupt halt once Ramos set foot in Iowa City. That unruly, carefree behavior nearly undid Ramos before he wrestled his first varsity match.

• • •

He’s sitting in the Iowa wrestling film room the Monday after winning his 133-pound Big Ten title. The day is packed: After an interview, Ramos is set for a light workout before a night class. He has just two weeks left in his college wrestling career. It’s something he has trouble believing, something he doesn’t want to admit just yet.

But on this Monday, he’s in the mood for admissions. He talks about his redshirt freshman year, when, he says, he did some “stupid stuff.” Ramos produces a half smile, deciding just how far to go with this story.

“We — [Ryan] Morningstar, [Joe] Slaton, and Rick Loera all got in trouble,” he begins. “They were all throwing a party my freshman year, and I ordered a stripper for it. They all had to do community service. Morningstar had to sit out of the All-Star meet. He had to sit out of a couple [regular-season] meets for it, and it wasn’t even his fault. I really felt bad about that.”

The guilt wore on Ramos and was inflicted further on the first day of practice when he injured his knee. The team doctor said he’d have to sit for four to five months. Instead of basking under Tom and Terry Brands’ tutelage, he dug himself into a canyon of trouble. It didn’t help that he started skipping class — “I don’t think I went to class from Thanksgiving Break until the day I had my first final,” Ramos says — to the point where he was ineligible at that first semester’s end.

Tom Brands drove out to Illinois and met with Defilippis to talk about Ramos. “He said he’d never had a kid who doesn’t drink and doesn’t party cause as much trouble as Tony,” Defilippis remembers.

The first step in the maturation process came when Brands called Ramos into his office before the spring semester. He remembers Brands saying he’s on his way out, that he’s causing too much trouble and that he can go upstairs and talk to Associate Athletics Director Fred Mims. Ramos said he wanted to stay and that he knew he needed to get on the right track.

“Guys struggle in this sport, probably more than other sports, I would say,” Brands says. “But he dug himself out of the hole. He was accountable. There were some very hard-hitting conversations between the coach and the athlete, and a lot of them were one-sided, and he owned up to it.”

Ramos started going to class with a purpose that spring, pulling a 3.5 — the second step, he says, in his maturation. He’s since held a grade-point average well above what’s needed to compete. He started training harder and paid closer attention to his diet. As Brands said in Ramos’ “Iowa Way” video: “He came in, he shut his mouth, he opened his ears, and he went to work.”

“It was a moment where I had to change, and I had to change fast,” Ramos said. “And a lot of that had to do with all the freedom I had in high school, being able to do crazy things. And I felt like I could do things like that here, too, but it’s different, because everyone is watching everything you do.

“It puts a bad image on the university. You’re a student-athlete. You can’t do things like that.”

In that moment, everything clicked for Ramos. His mental toughness and perseverance overtook the unruly kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and started to sculpt the man he is today. He knew he only had four years to wrestle at the University of Iowa and he shouldn’t waste any of that time.

Of course, that was the second time Ramos learned the value of time. The first time was back in a hospital in Chicago after disappearing underneath a car on a crosswalk when he was 4.

• • •

Ramos doesn’t remember riding in the police car to the hospital. The first thing he recalls is lying on the hospital bed, his foot crushed and suffering third-degree burns, the damage to his insides unknown. The doctor had him drink a dye that allowed physicians to see his insides during a CT scan to check for internal bleeding.

“They told me it was apple juice,” he said. “Worst apple juice I’ve ever had in my life.”

The last thing he remembers is his father entering the hospital room, slamming cabinets and punching walls. When Ramos came to, he had been transferred to the Children’s Memorial Hospital. He had stitches in his head. The doctors couldn’t cast his foot. But he was alive, and to his mother, that meant something.

“At that point in his life,” mother Deb said, her eyes tearing up, “I told him, God has other plans for you, so take advantage of this and do what you have to do.”

Deb’s orthopedic surgeon didn’t know when Ramos would walk again, so she rented a wheelchair for him. About a week after he returned home, he sat outside in that wheelchair and watched the neighborhood kids play T-ball in the cul-de-sac. Then, Deb noticed movement outside the window.

“That little [kid], he was dragging his foot behind, but he was walking,” she remembered, smiling, the memory fresh in her mind. “And I called my orthopedic, and he said, ‘That’s unheard of, especially at that age, to have that kind of mentality.’ ”

It was a huge moment in Ramos’s life, if only because that was the first time he learned how quickly four years could pass. The lesson is more relevant today than ever, during his final college wrestling season.

“I could’ve been dead at 4 years,” he said. “It really puts it into perspective how quick something can go. I guess that’s what made this college experience …”

He paused for a moment, perhaps not wanting to realize that his Hawkeye career has just one tournament left.

“It’s not going to last forever,” he continued. “It teaches you that time is precious and to not waste it.”

Coming into the 2013-14 wrestling season, Ramos had just a couple of things he wanted to accomplish: win a Big Ten championship, and win an NCAA championship. The two would put a golden stamp on an otherwise successful Iowa wrestling career.

The latter is, admittedly, the more important of the two — which is why, after he secured the former a week ago in Madison, Wis., the celebration included a trip to Longhorn Steakhouse, and then he went home and went to bed.

• • •

After this year’s Senior Night in February, when the Iowa wrestling team pounded Michigan, 26-6, Ramos stuck around afterward and signed autographs. He stood on the floor and took pictures, then moved to an aisle of stairs leading up to the concourse and signed more memorabilia.

Each kid — boys and girls, ages 4 to 14, wearing anything from over-sized singlets to simple Iowa T-shirts — beamed with joy, knowing they’d get their turn.

Through it all, Ramos remembered years ago when he waited and asked for Brian Urlacher’s autograph after a Chicago Bear football game. Urlacher walked right by him, upsetting Ramos. His father told him then: “If you ever get to the point where people want your autograph, you sign every one of them.”

And so he does, “until they throw him out,” his mother said and laughed. Ramos loves his fans. He takes countless pictures with them during tournaments. When he was in Colorado last summer, a security guard recognized Ramos and his Iowa wrestling gear and brought him to meet Peyton Manning. On Twitter, Ramos is constantly retweeting every picture of a younger wrestler impersonating his stare.

He has spent the last four years becoming the Iowa wrestler whom everybody wants to watch, if only because he puts on a show each time he steps on the mat. It’s something he prides himself on.

Former Iowa student and famous actor Ashton Kutcher made an appearance at the Iowa-Penn State dual meet in December, in which Ramos pinned Jimmy Gulibon. Kutcher met Ramos afterward, and they traded compliments on how great they were at their respective jobs.

Here, another similarity between Ramos and Iron Mike surfaces. Tyson’s performance in the ring helped sell tickets and put prospective fans in the seats of whatever venue he fought in. He commanded the attention of casual boxing fans because they knew he’d put on a show. He was the athlete everybody wanted to watch.

At the prime of his career, Tyson held all three major boxing titles in the heavyweight division. He was aptly named “The Baddest Man on the Planet.”

Ramos is on a similar path, working to win both the Big Ten and NCAA titles in the same year, labeling him the best He has just a week left to prepare for the second part of that journey that’s involved both divine luck and capitalizing on opportunities. He’ll likely need a little bit of both in order to finish his career on top of the podium, and he’s not wasting a minute.

No plans are set for if he finishes first — “Have to focus on the task at hand first,” Ramos says, smiling — but it’s safe to assume that, should he end his season with a national championship, the celebration will include more than just a trip to Longhorn Steakhouse.

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