Favorite athlete: Connor McGregor
Favorite team: Connor McGregor’s gym is Straight Blast MMA
Favorite memory competing in sports: Taking third in PA state tournament
Funniest/most embarrassing thing that has happened while competing in sports: The most embarrassing moment was when I had my singlet on backwards at a tournament.
Music on mobile device: Country (Big Green Tractor)
Future plans: Attend U.S. Naval Academy
Words to live by: “Once you have wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
One goal before turning 30: To serve on the USS Ronald Reagan in the Navy.
One thing people don’t know about me: I like to study military history.
By Ed Morrone
For a kid who won 90 percent of his high school wrestling matches, AJ Tamburrino has had his resolve tested on more than one occasion.
Through the adversity, the future member of the United States Navy has kept a level head and a clear mind, never letting the sudden potholes along the way to derail his path to excellence in and out of the William Tennent and Hatboro-Horsham wrestling rooms.
Like many decorated high school wrestlers, Tamburrino donned his first singlet around the age of five. His father, Anthony, was his coach for most of his upbringing and had his own wrestling club in Warminster, teaching Tamburrino everything he knows.
“I fell in love with it, of course,” Tamburrino recalled. “I tried baseball for about a month. Then I moved on to soccer, which did not interest me. Wrestling just took hold of me, and it became the one thing I thought about every single day. From those earliest memories up through high school, it’s been quite the journey.”
In his four years as a varsity wrestler, Tamburrino compiled an off-the-charts 126-14 overall record, with the first three of those coming at Tennent, where Anthony was the head coach through Tamburrino’s junior year.
Tamburrino started his high school career with a bang, posting a 29-4 record his freshman campaign; however, he was eliminated at regionals one win shy of a berth in the state tournament. This setback was internally crushing for Tamburrino, who was not accustomed to being on the losing side.
“It was the first tournament I was ever eliminated in in my life, so it was an eye opener,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it, and I fully thought I would be wrestling in Hershey. I did well freshman year, but in the end, it was still a bummer.”
With defeat still stinging, Tamburrino attacked the offseason like he never had before. Over the summer, he trained with collegiate wrestlers from Drexel and Penn at the Pennsylvania Olympic Regional Training Center (PRTC) on South 33rd Street in Philadelphia’s University City. It was here where Tamburrino began to acclimate himself more to the pace of the sport, becoming more patient and technically savvy in hopes of outsmarting and outlasting future opponents on the mat. It’s where, in Tamburrino’s words, “I grew up a bit more in the sport. I wanted to be more like those college wrestlers.”
He got off to a flawless 19-0 start as a sophomore and was well on his way to Hershey before coming down with a nasty case of the flu, stopping Tamburrino’s stellar season in its tracks. Instead of being at states with his Tennent teammates, Tamburrino watched the event on television from his couch, an even more gutting scenario than coming up a match short one year earlier.
“I was dehydrated, came down with bronchitis and even had to go to the emergency room,” he said. “I’m watching on TV just thinking about how I should be there. I felt like I was at my peak and I was going to place. It was very tough, but on the brighter side, it fueled me for my junior and senior seasons.”
Luckily, the third time turned out to be the charm for Tamburrino, who went back to PRTC for another grueling summer of training. He posted a 38-5 mark as a junior and finally made it to Hershey, where he ultimately placed third and came back home with a bronze medal around his neck.
“It was a heck of a time,” Tamburrino recalled. “Tennent never had someone place that high in wrestling, so I had a lot of alumni looking at me. A couple minutes before I went out to wrestle in the third-place match, I thought about what an honor it was.
“The year before, I was sitting at home, so I’m very lucky to have done that. Not a lot of wrestlers can achieve that, placing in states, and the disappointment from sophomore year fueled me to get there. I was stronger and smarter in my wrestling, and everything fell into place.”
Then, a sudden change came about, as Anthony Tamburrino landed a new job, necessitating the family pick up and move. This meant AJ would have to switch schools heading into his senior year, leaving Tennent behind and enrolling at Hatboro-Horsham.
The first couple days of school were admittedly difficult as Tamburrino was a stranger in a strange land, finding himself amongst hundreds of students who had already known each other most of their lives. Luckily, this was only temporary, and soon wrestling coach Trent Mongillo and the Hatters’ wrestling team were welcoming their new addition with open arms.
“That first week, I felt like an outsider,” Tamburrino said. “These kids had been together since kindergarten, so it was definitely a struggle. Eventually I started talking to people, and Coach Mongillo and the rest of the team all made me feel as though I’d been there all my life. A lot of things in life could have been bad, but this wasn’t one of them. I was actually happy I got to meet people in a whole other environment. Hatboro-Horsham has been very good to me.”
But then, another curveball Tamburrino didn’t necessarily see coming buckled his knees. Because he transferred to another high school in the district, Tamburrino was initially ruled ineligible for the postseason, which meant another trip to Hershey was in serious doubt. He began to mentally prepare for the nationally prestigious Escape the Rock Tournament to serve as his postseason; however, Tamburrino and his parents appealed the decision at the state level with the PIAA, and the initial ruling was overturned.
Tamburrino would be able to wrestle his senior year completely unencumbered.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” he said. “I didn’t want to place at states and then be denied another chance based on a rule. I was very concerned, because I wanted to prove myself in Hershey again. It made me think of sophomore year when I was sitting in the house, and I didn’t want that to happen again without a satisfying reason. I worked my tail off and states was something I thought about every day. I couldn’t sleep without knowing the answer.”
It meant that Mongillo would get a full season to work with Tamburrino, and the head coach marveled at how grounded his new wrestler stayed throughout the uncertain process.
“AJ has a great ability to adapt no matter the situation,” Mongillo said. “Throughout the process, he never brought it up. He rolls with the punches and doesn’t let change affect him. He just concentrated on his training and becoming a better wrestler and person. AJ was a pleasure to have on our team in our room. His work ethic speaks for itself.”
Tamburrino went 40-5 in his lone season with the Hatters, wrestling at 152 pounds and qualifying for states for a second consecutive year. When he got to Hershey, another unexpected event unfolded: Tamburrino lost his first match, sending him directly into the consolation bracket.
Instead of sulking and letting the dejection consume him, Tamburrino rebounded as he normally does in adverse conditions. He ripped off four straight wins and five of his final six over a three-day period, good enough for a fifth-place medal.
“First off, I’m happy states went on before everything got canceled,” Tamburrino said. “I’m very satisfied and couldn’t have asked for a better senior year. I hadn’t lost my first match in awhile, or ever, really, but I said to myself after it happened that I wasn’t leaving without a medal. My mom, dad and coaches worked so hard to get me to this tournament, and I wasn’t going out like that. Just suck it up and leave it all out there on the mat.”
“AJ reassessed and made a new goal for himself,” Mongillo added. “It’s just a credit to his overall character. For anyone to medal at states is a tremendous accomplishment, whether it’s fifth, first, third or eighth. He did a great job.”
The fact that Tamburrino had committed to Navy months ago certainly alleviated some pressure, so he could just go out there and do what he does best. However, it wasn’t some kind of preordained vision that Tamburrino would end up at a military academy for college. In fact, he just assumed he would end up at Drexel or Penn, where he had spent summers training, especially given the fact that both schools were interested.
Then, an unofficial visit to the United States Military Academy in West Point completely changed Tamburrino’s priority list. He fell in love with the structure and discipline that service academies offer, and it eventually became a choice between Army or Navy. In the end, Tamburrino steered his ship toward Annapolis, saying he simply felt Navy was a better personal fit.
“I realized I wanted to do more with my life, to serve a greater purpose by serving my country,” he said. “The official visit there was one of the best times of my entire life. The whole lifestyle intrigued me, how organized and structured it was. It just really sparked my interest. I’m meant for more and want to do something noteworthy with my life beyond being a good wrestler and student. This way, I can see the world and protect my country at the same time. To do something bigger than myself was really important to me. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the rest of my life.”
Tamburrino hopes to ultimately become a commissioned officer and make serving in the navy his career and purpose. A member of National Honor Society and Hatboro-Horsham’s Link Crew — a club that blends seniors and freshmen to make the latter’s transition to high school a little easier — Tamburrino is so much more than a one-dimensional wrestler. He devours military history books and documentaries, and always makes it a point to incorporate social time into his life so that he doesn’t work too hard and burn himself out.
Life is all about balance, and every Friday night, Tamburrino reconnects with some old Tennent buddies to play video games together for hours. His interests are multiple and varied, and having so much success on the wrestling mat has allowed Tamburrino the appropriate perspective to understand that life isn’t all about wrestling, even if it is the vehicle that dropped him off on the doorstep of his personal goals.
“A quote that I’ve carried with me since seventh grade is ‘Once you have wrestled, everything else in life is easy,’” he said. “When you’re out on a mat, it’s just you and another guy and your physical skills and mental capabilities. That’s what life is. With the matches I’ve won, I feel like I have a decent grasp on how to approach life because of this sport.
“Those nerve-wracking matches are what I’ll miss the most about the experience. Those were the times where I found out what I was made of. I still have so much more to do, and I want to take it as high as I can.”