Elvis Vasquez could not hold back his smile.
The Walt Whitman soon-to-be senior grappler surveyed the outside of his high school which had been transformed into a wrestling festival that included food, music, a pull-up station run by the U.S. Army, and of course, wrestling.
Five mats were stretched out side-by-side on the Whitman football field on a surprisingly comfortable late Saturday afternoon in July.
“We’re going to be wrestling under the stars, and it’s going to be a beautiful sight,” said Vasquez, who wrestled in the 143-pound weight class. “I’m so happy that our team is out here.”
Approximately 175 wrestlers from high schools and middle schools throughout Long Island, New York City, upstate New York, New Jersey and even South Carolina came out for the 2018 Vin Altebrando Outdoor Festival at Whitman High School.
Altebrando, a longtime wrestling coach and physical education teacher at Whitman, died on April 20 of HLH — a rare autoimmune disease — at the age of 51. He coached for 24 years and earned 213 dual-meet wins and three league titles with the Wildcats. Altebrando left behind his wife, Kristie, and four girls: Anjelia (17 years old), Gionna (15), Natalia (13) and Mirabella (11). All five were in attendance for an event that Altebrando had wanted to do for years.
“It’s something that we weren’t going to miss,” Kristie said. “I have girls, I don’t have boys, even though each of these boys I feel is my own.
“It warms my heart. This is something that came to fruition, unfortunately after his passing, and not for him to take on,” Kristie added. “But the fact that it’s happening, I know that he’d be happy, because it’s for the kids, and that’s the kind of guy he was.”
No matter where one looked or turned Saturday, an individual that Altebrando had positively influenced was there. Altebrando’s assistant coach, Chris Cardella, spearheaded the idea of finally putting on an outdoor wrestling festival.
“As I was paying my respects [at the wake], I said, ‘We’re doing this for him,’ ” said Cardella, who wrestled for Altebrando, and had been Altebrando’s assistant for five years. “It’s something he always wanted to do. He always talked about it and I was in the position where I could make this happen.”
Cardella said local families and businesses donated food and funds, and that all proceeds for the event would be split between the Altebrando family and the Whitman wrestling program. He added that referees volunteered their time for free, as well.
“Vin was one of the first coaches I ever met,” said referee Derek Wasiak. “He was my kind of guy. He was a gentleman and a good coach.”
A good coach with an even bigger heart.
Vasquez remembers Altebrando making the drive from his home in Miller Place to Huntington to pick him up and take him to Vougar’s Honors Wrestling Club in Syosset for extra training.
“Then he watched me practice for an hour-and-a-half before driving me home,” Vasquez recalled.
“Because he never said no,” Kristie said. “He was a glass half-full kind of guy, and if something was going to happen, he was going to make it happen.”
But it was Cardella, members of Whitman High School, and the South Huntington community that made Altebrando’s dream become a reality.
“This is really important to me, because we finally get to do something for him,” Vasquez said. “I really want our team to progress, and I want to remember coach — that he’s always with us — and always in our hearts.”
Cardella added: “I know this is how he wanted this to be: For kids, families and wrestlers to be enjoying themselves. This is perfect.”