Years before Roman Rozell became a Green Beret and the oldest man to compete in an NCAA wrestling match, he was an overweight and troubled kid at Apache Junction High School.
Mr. Rozell’s upbringing was, in a word, horrific. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old. His mother, who raised him, got into drugs and the family sunk into poverty. Mr. Rozell was homeless and hungry, a meal at times consisting of sprinkled cheese and sauce packets from Taco Bell.
He drifted from school to school, never finding roots or any modicum of self confidence. As a freshman at AJHS in 2000 he was picked on and bullied.
“I was an overweight kid and I had a history with broken homes and stuff,” Mr. Rozell said. “So when I came here I just wanted people to see something in me.”
Mr. Rozell is standing under a shade tree on a lawn just outside the main office at Apache Junction High School. Minutes earlier, principal Dr. Chris Lineberry had inducted Mr. Rozell, 36, into the Apache Junction High School Wall of Fame.
To come back here, to be honored in such a way, nearly brought Mr. Rozell to tears.
“This means probably more to me than anything,” he said. “I am so happy to be one of those guys that came out of this place. We need people to inspire. I went to ASU and became a Green Beret, but this is my hometown and I always wanted to make it better.
“I’m very grateful to be here and be looked up as somebody great from this city. It means a lot. It does. That’s all I ever wanted to do, be that hometown hero.”
Hero is a word that’s thrown around far too often, but in Mr. Rozell’s case it’s not an empty compliment. After graduating from Apache Junction and wrestling at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, Mr. Rozell enlisted in the Army. He suffered six concussions and a traumatic brain injury from several IED explosions but the injuries didn’t deter him. He qualified for the U.S. Army Special Forces and eventually became a Green Beret.
Mr. Rozell spent 14 years in the Army and then used his GI Bill to enroll at ASU. While pursuing his degree he began to wrestle again and eventually became, at 33, the oldest wrester to compete in an NCAA wrestling match.
None of that happens, Mr. Rozell said, without the positive reinforcement he received from AJHS teachers and his high school wrestling coach, Rob McMinn.
“When you have good people around you building you up you kind of start to believe in yourself when nobody else does and you carry that on,” Mr. Rozell said.
“I knew he had a lot of challenges outside school,” Mr. McMinn said. “That’s the thing about public schools. They can be a refuge with teachers and coaches influencing kids in a positive way. We’re seeing the fruit of that.”
These days, Mr. Rozell is pursuing a new career: That of a pro wrestler. He and Derek Pisaturo form a tag team called Grunt Style Stable. They’re sponsored by the clothing company Grunt Style and they could get their big break in May when they’re scheduled to wrestle a dark match for AEW, one of the biggest companies in pro wrestling.
“In my baby book it says, “17 months old, loves to sit on his dad’s lap to watch wrestling and beats up his pillow,’” Mr. Rozell said. “Here I am, at 36 years old, making it happen.”
It’s a dream that began to take shape in the classrooms at Apache Junction High School.
“To see a kid like him make it and then come back 20 years later?” Mr. McMinn said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Editor’s note: Scott Bordow is the director of communications and community engagement for Apache Junction Unified School District.