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Fontes: Heartbeat of wrestling

Al Fontes is a California Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee. Chris Jackson / Staff Photo
Al Fontes is a California Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee. Chris Jackson / Staff Photo

Al Fontes rolled into practice sporting green and white Adidas shoes, and Joe Iacono knew he wanted to strap those on.

The shoes – emblematic of Livermore High School’s colors – were also emblematic of Fontes’ impact on the Livermore wrestling program and high school athletics as a whole. Iacono had a big match that weekend and asked if he could wear those shoes.

Fontes, a coach for Livermore, said he couldn’t. He had to earn the opportunity to wear those shoes, and if he advanced his way to a medal match, Iacono would be granted the chance to wear the slick shoes Fontes was rocking.

Win is just what Iacono did, getting to the medal rounds and winning the third-place match as a sophomore against a star wrestler who ended up going to North Coast Section.

“He was always the guy that before practice would start, (head) coach (Steve) Page would have us all be warming up and he would kick the door open and be like, ‘Alright, it’s time to get serious.’ The energy and the heartbeat just entered the room, and people thrived in that atmosphere that he created,” Iacono said.

Early Days

Those moments indicated just who Fontes is, but wrestling was not something Fontes loved at first.

As a middle schooler at Junction, wrestling was part of Physical Education class. They had to learn wrestling moves and techniques, but Fontes said he had no idea of what was going on.

He weighed around 145-150 pounds and was slotted against a student who had more experience in the sport.

“My first experience in front of all the kids was getting thrown in a headlock and put on my back,” Fontes said. “It was embarrassing, but I didn’t let it bother me. I didn’t think about going out for wrestling until my math teacher, Bob Vent, who I would say is the one who introduced it to me and encouraged me to come out for the wrestling team. I tried it from there on.”

Wrestling kept gravitating towards him, though. 

Despite losing that match in P.E., he won around 99% of his matches in his last two years of middle school to jumpstart his career in prep sports.

““He says, ‘If you fail at something, you don’t quit. You pick up the pieces. You work harder and you come back. If you fail again, you do it again. If you have a goal, you keep moving forward.’”

– Al Fontes on Bob Bronzan

He simply never gave up – an ode to a valuable lesson he taught throughout his career that he learned from Bob Bronzan.

““He says, ‘If you fail at something, you don’t quit. You pick up the pieces. You work harder and you come back. If you fail again, you do it again. If you have a goal, you keep moving forward.’”

Finding a passion

Fontes ended up facing some challenges again when he reached Livermore High School.

As a sophomore, he wanted to wrestle varsity and get his letter. He remembers a wrestle off when he beat a senior that was beating him the year prior.

That senior ended up finishing in the top three in the league championships. That could have been him.

Fast forward, and Al Fontes experienced similar trials. He made varsity and kept beating this one guy all year, but in the last match Fontes lost in a close one.

“Déjà vu again,” Fontes said. “Coming into the year I had beaten this guy all year, comes back, he beats me in a very tight match. I lose, once again I sucked it up and I didn’t quit. I went to the JV league championships and I won it pretty easily. Got guys in the finals, he beats a guy that I had beaten earlier in the year and I’m like what am I doing wrong? “

Insert Steve Page, the legendary Livermore wrestling coach, with a message that Fontes still carries.

Page told him he didn’t have enough goals. He wanted to make varsity, which he did. There was more to it, though, like setting higher aspirations and looking to win a championship.

Fontes put in a ton of time all summer and dominated upon return.

He won a championship.

In that moment, Fontes fell in love with wrestling.

“That’s when I really learned that ‘Hey, I’ve got a passion for this sport’ because the one thing about wrestling compared to other sports I’ve ever performed in – wrestling doesn’t lie to you,” Fontes said. “It tells you the truth. There’s no politics. There’s one out there to protect you. You have to put it in. 

“So I took that experience, and that’s when may passion really came and I wanted to give back as a coach and I wanted to realize that when I am coaching I want to ensure that I am working with those athletes or mentoring those athletes to make sure that I understand their goals and work with them through that course to achieve that.”

Giving back as a coach

After that, Fontes wanted to give back.

Today, Fontes can talk about the sport he loves dearly forever, showcasing his passion and why he decided to stick around as a coach for multiple decades and as a writer promoting the sport that gave him so much and what he would ultimately give a lot.

His coaching career included stints at two Livermore middle schools – Christensen and Junction – while also spending time in the high school ranks at Antioch, Liberty and his alma mater of Livermore.

“I think even while coaching, he came in to coach at Livermore wrestling,” said current Granada vice principal Clark Conover, who wrestled for Fontes. “ He was all in. He would come in, he worked at the lab, would come in at his lunch break and try to recruit kids to come out for the team. And then he would take a ton of kids to tournaments all the time. Never was asked about it. 

Those moments as a coach showed what Fontes was all about – the heartbeat of it all and a motivator to everyone, helping others achieve their dreams and helping student-athletes overcome adversity to reach their ultimate potential.

Iacono, who is now a successful businessman and runs his own company, Iacono Design, was someone who came back and told Fontes just how much of an impact he had on him. To this day, even if some time passes before they talk, it’s like they are just picking back up from seeing each other yesterday.

And others motivated Fontes as well, including one particular recent moment.

A couple of years ago, Anthony Barbalinardo, a standout wrestler for Livermore, had goals and was a phenomenal athlete for the Cowboys. His goal was to medal at NCS.

During the quarterfinals as a senior, Barbalinardo won, but as he went out of bounds, his knee popped. They carried him off the mat. His season was done. His hopes at coming out in first place of the mighty NCS were dashed.

Yet he was right there for his team a day later.

“In the midst of all this, the next day at the championship he walks in with a cast on, he comes in, he’s coaching the other kids, Fontes said. “He’s sitting with the coaches. To me, that inspired me and gave me an example saying, ‘Wow. You need to get back into coaching.’ It goes both ways, and those kinds of stories there is no monetary value to it. It’s priceless, and that’s what it’s about.”

Giving back as a writer

Those moments are why Fontes coached and why he kept track and promoted the sport, doing so through a number of mediums that are part of his legendary career.

Fontes became involved with The California Wrestler, which all started in a coincidental meeting at a coaches clinic in Monterey run by Bill Grant, the founder of The California Wrestler.

Al Fontes and his brother, Aaron Fontes, published a book about the history of Livermore Cowboys wrestling

He worked his way up to a co-editor position there, working alongside his brother, Aaron Fontes, and numerous others. There, he was a historian, statistician, webmaster and feature story writer, along with producing some work for other publications.

“Al has done so much for the promotion of California wrestling,” Conover said. “When I had gone with him to tournaments, people from other states are coming up to him and asking him about the information he’s put out there. Promotion of wrestling is second to none.”

And Al Fontes also worked to write a book with his brother about Livermore’s wrestling program: History of Livermore High School Wrestling. It goes through the history of the storied program from 1963-2020, highlighting all of the successes, the family tradition there and the proud past and present within the program.

That process took around 500-1,000 total hours of work, but Fontes said if it would have taken another 500 hours, he would have kept doing it.

Talk about passion.

“I was just talking to Tim Vargas,” Al Fontes said. “He’s the first three-time EBAL champion today. He’s like, ‘All this stuff has been lost and forgotten. You brought it back. Now I can show my grandchildren. I can show my family.’ That’s what it’s about.

“My brother and I wanted to leave a legacy with the program, so hopefully someday someone can take what we’ve done, and it’ll be on a shelf 30 years from now and someone can look at this and say, ‘Wow, okay. Dad, that’s you? I didn’t realize you wrestled.’ That’s what we want. We don’t want the history and the family tradition to go away.”

What’s next?

Al Fontes is leaving the Bay Area after a historic career in coaching and writing, which led him into a special honor that placed his name in the record books forever.

He was inducted into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016 for a Lifetime Service Award, commemorating his decades of service giving his all to mentoring young individuals and watching them excel on and off the mat. 

“It’s well deserved because he’s a scholar of the sport,” Iacono said. “He’s a hardworking guy, blue collar guy. His old man worked hard with his hands. Him and his brother were both great wrestlers, so they have passion for the sport, but more so than they had loved the community. They loved building up people in the community.”

His family just moved to Idaho, where Al Fontes plans to get back into coaching and impact even more lives.

“There’s a lot of great guys that came out of the program that he was helping coach,” Iacono said. “He’s raised his family in Livermore. His family is deeply rooted in the community, so he’s involved with lots of things in and around the community, but high school athletics he was passionate about wrestling.

“He really wanted to give student-athletes an opportunity to learn the sport and to feel how competitive it could be, how rewarding it could be if you work hard at it. And he was passionate about teaching the kids how to work hard.”

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