‘I went out on my terms’: Former Iowa wrestling star Tony Ramos reflects on retirement decision
The phone call rings through to voicemail on the first try, but then a call back comes less than a minute later. Tony Ramos has always been good about responding quickly. This time, he opens with an apology.
“I had to pick my son up from pre-school,” the former Iowa wrestling star says.
Last weekend, Ramos stepped off the mat for the final time as a competitor. The 28-year-old officially retired after losing in the semifinals of the world team trials in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ramos opened his competition by defeating Cory Clark, a former Iowa teammate, but then fell to former Penn State wrestler Nico Megaludis. Afterward, he left his shoes in the center of Mat 1 inside NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum, a time-honored tradition for retiring wrestlers.
The crowd stood in applause, recognizing the end of one of the decade’s most memorable wrestling careers.
“When I made the decision to continue competing this year, it was, 'Hey, this is it,'” Ramos says now. “This is going to be the last run. I’m going to put everything I’ve got into it, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I knew that from the beginning of the season.
“As a family, we’ve known it’s been getting close to that time. I’m content. I don’t have any regrets. I went out on my terms. Not a lot of people can say that. I’m very grateful.”
Over the phone, Ramos dives into his new reality, or at least the one he’s transitioning toward: full-time coach, full-time dad. He and his wife, Megan, have three kids now — two boys, A.J. and Lincoln, and a girl, Calla. They’ve lived in Chapel Hill for the past three years as he’s served as an assistant at North Carolina.
A few days removed from the end of his career, he is still overwhelmed by the number of messages he’s received — from coaches, teammates, competitors, fans.
From former Ohio State star Logan Stieber, who beat Ramos in the 2013 NCAA finals: “Congrats to my guy on his retirement. One of the real ones in the sport! Big coaching future ahead.”
From former Cornell national champion Nahshon Garrett: “Strongest right hand collar tie I ever felt. Thanks for the battles, looking forward to seeing you grow in the area of coaching brotha.”
From Megaludis, who eliminated Ramos on Saturday: “I respect guys that go fight and battle every time out there and (Tony) was one of those guys. Made me a better wrestler by beating me before and placing ahead of me in tournaments. Congrats on a great career and my best to you!”
And those were just the ones made public.
“Pretty cool to see some of the guys you competed against, or some of the legends in the sport, reach out and say that you made them better,” Ramos says, “or how it was awesome to compete alongside you and go through the process with you.
“When you’re wrestling and competing and trying to beat these guys, all that matters are wins and losses. Now that it’s over, you start to think more about the journey and the experiences.”
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Ramos says he didn’t give any thought to one final Olympics run, a matter that’s become complicated for many wrestlers since the number of weights available shrinks from 10 to six. A spot on the Olympic team is perhaps the one thing missing from his sterling wrestling résumé.
Before wrestling at Iowa, Ramos won three Illinois state titles at Glenbard North. He was a true freshman when the Hawkeyes won the 2010 NCAA team championship. He won a Big Ten and NCAA title as a senior in 2014. He won 120 career matches and went 34-0 all-time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He won three U.S. Open titles and made consecutive Senior men’s freestyle world teams.
The big moments will stick out more than the big accomplishments — beating Jordan Oliver at Carver; pinning his Penn State opponent in back-to-back years; defeating Tyler Graff in overtime to win a national title in Oklahoma City; the staredown before every match. He demanded the stage and basked in the spotlight at every turn (he was a theater arts major, after all).
A story: When Ramos was young, he waited in line to get an autograph from Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher. When Urlacher snubbed him, Ramos' dad told him, “If you ever get to the point where people want your autograph, you sign every one of them.”
He spent hours after duals with a sharpie in his hand. Everybody who wanted a picture got one.
“The legacy you’ve left and the impression you’ve made in people’s hearts and minds and the memories you’ve created for them,” Ramos says, “that’s always a cool thing to see.”
Family has always been important Ramos. For all the success he’s experienced in his career, one of his favorite moments was winning a state title alongside his older brother Vince. Vince often beat up on Ramos in the practice room in high school, but Ramos’ heart broke each year Vince came up short. In 2008, Vince’s senior year, they both won crowns. Vince jumped into Ramos’ arms afterward.
Now that he’s no longer competing, Ramos will have more time to spend with his family. Top-level wrestling often involves sacrifices. He says he missed A.J.’s first Halloween one year, and a Thanksgiving the next. He’s excited to make up for some of that lost time, to pick them up from school and take them to soccer practice.
Before he left Raleigh, North Carolina coach Coleman Scott grabbed Ramos’ shoes so he could keep them. When he returned home, Ramos says Lincoln brought them to him and asked to put them on and wrestle. He hopes his kids will love wrestling the same way he did.
“I want my kids to love the sport,” Ramos says, “and if they do and ask for my help, I’ll help him. But I want him to be responsive and open to other coaches, too. Otherwise, I’m going to be a dad and a fan.
“Terry Brands was a great example for me, because I saw his relationship with (Iowa redshirt freshman) Nelson. He really never pushed Nelson. Nelson asked Terry for help, and that’s when Terry would help. It was awesome to see.”
One more story: When Ramos was a senior, he was constantly in Tom Brands’ ear about joining the coaching staff. Brands, Iowa’s head coach, was puzzled. Why? Ramos knew he would coach the moment he started wrestling. He believes he’ll be a better coach than he was a wrestler.
In his three years in Chapel Hill, Ramos has played an integral role in the Tar Heels’ steady rise. North Carolina finished 19th at the 2019 NCAA Championships in March with two All-Americans. They’ve brought in back-to-back top-20 recruiting classes. Incoming recruit Gabe Tagg recently made the Junior men’s freestyle world team.
The Tar Heels’ highest NCAA team finish is sixth, in 1986 and 1994. Their last national champion was T.J. Jaworsky, who won three from 1993-95. These are the benchmarks that Ramos is now chasing as a coach, and he can’t wait to run them down.
“We’ve already done some great things with the guys we already have here, and I’m excited to be able to tackle that full-time,” he says. “I have a special place for coaching in my heart. I love it.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.