By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
As a high school sophomore at Douglas Byrd in Fayetteville, N.C., Ceron Francisco stood 5-foot-4. He had never wrestled before, had never been to the state of Nebraska and sometimes felt intimidated by opponents he lined up against on the football field.
Just a couple years later Francisco was noticed by Concordia head wrestling coach Dana Vote at a national wrestling event in Virginia Beach that showcased high school seniors with collegiate wrestling aspirations.
Said Vote, “The first thing I thought was that’s the biggest high school kid I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Like those who have encountered Francisco at Concordia, Vote could see something special in the soft-spoken Tar Heel State native, who possesses a voice with enough depth to rival Barry White. He also appeared to have the physical traits necessary to develop into a solid heavyweight.
“I watched him wrestle a match and just seeing his physical abilities was the first attraction,” Vote said. “Then I got to talking to him a little bit and realized he was just a beginner in wrestling and the potential he had. I thought he would be a great fit here.”
Vote made a big impression upon Francisco, who quickly developed a desire to wear the Bulldog singlet. Although raw in his technical wrestling skills coming out of Douglas Byrd, Francisco has put past an inconsistent freshman season and has morphed into a nationally-ranked performer, now in his sophomore campaign.
With tree trunks for biceps, Francisco’s impressive muscle-bound physique now offers the intimidation. He carries a 20-10 overall record and is perhaps the most improved wrestler on the team.
“The biggest thing in the college transition was having seven-minute matches instead of six,” Francisco said. “You had to get in shape. Vote trains us hard. We have to take care of our bodies so I got in good shape. Riding time was also a big factor for me. In high school you could lay on bottom and you were OK. In college you have to get out and get that point.
“I struggled with that my freshman year. I did all the extra stuff to get those techniques down and explode.”
In some ways, Francisco is still a work-in-progress in the midst of only his fourth year as a wrestler. After growing roughly nine inches between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Francisco’s stock as a collegiate football prospect skyrocketed. His football coaches at Douglas Byrd expected him to carry his talents to the gridiron of a school such as North Carolina A&T or maybe even walk on at an NCAA Division I school like North Carolina State.
But Francisco fell in love with something else. The high school offensive line coach at Douglas Byrd, also the head wrestling coach, asked Francisco to give wrestling a try. The team needed a heavyweight and there was no doubt Francisco had the raw ability to fill the void.
However, he was far from a natural in his first taste of wrestling.
“I really didn’t take it serious,” Francisco said. “I thought it was like TNA (Total Nonstop Action) and all that. I got in the wrestling room and it was so hard. I was in practice crying and didn’t know what was going on. I was just trying to use my size on everybody. I started training with (God brother) Deven (Riles) and we had a lot of sit downs. He mentally prepared me for the sport. My body was changing and I was getting stronger. I wanted more. I’m still getting better to this day.”
An all-conference and all-region football player, Francisco’s appetite for wrestling only grew. He wanted to soak up everything he could about the sport. He won only three matches as a junior, but it hardly deterred Francisco. He was determined. As a senior he went 23-4 and earned All-America status at the 2013 Disney Duals.
Football was then out of the equation.
“I just felt like I wanted to wrestle,” Francisco said. “I fell in love with it. I got into it more and started going to some offseason tournaments. I met Coach Vote in Virginia Beach nationals. I met a lot of other coaches, but Vote really showed a lot of interest in me. I didn’t know much. He just kept telling me that he believed in me and saw something in me. I just chased that and now I’m here.”
Francisco, who was raised in North Carolina throughout his childhood by his mother Cedrika as well as his grandmother, had always been encouraged to participate in sports. Although no one in his family had wrestled, Francisco adapted many of his positive traits and work habits from Cedrika, who helped establish a foundation for her son’s future success.
Mature beyond his years, Ceron understands the crucial role his mother has played in helping him arrive at this point.
“It was just my mom and my two younger brothers,” Ceron said. “We never went without anything. My mom always pushed me no matter what it was. I tried playing basketball. I used to shoot it in the wrong hoop. She was always that mom screaming. She was on me and making sure I did my homework and my chores. My mom played a big part in who I am today. She always pushed me.”
Now he’s also getting pushed by Vote, who has helped Francisco rise to the 11th-ranked wrestler among all NAIA heavyweights. After missing the national tournament as a freshman, the heavyweight with the tireless work ethic has set his sights on extending his sophomore season onto the national stage in March.
“He’s done a great job,” Vote said. “From a coaching standpoint, you’re always wanting more. I think he wants more too. He’s done an outstanding job. I don’t think he’s even close to reaching his potential but he’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Part of Ceron’s success has also been exemplified in his ability to adapt to an environment much different than what North Carolina provided. The gentle giant has garnered respect for his genuine kindness while endearing himself to his fellow students and teammates – and he’s noted for his prowess for winning ping pong matches in the Janzow Campus Center.
“People are real friendly,” Francisco said. “They treat you like family as soon as they meet you. I was like, ‘wow, these people are real nice.’ They always want to know more about you.”
Francisco signed with Concordia and found his way to Seward in July of 2013 having never visited the campus before. In some ways, both Vote and Francisco were rolling the dice. Francisco, a special education major who simply wants to help others, has come a long way from the undersized high school sophomore who had never donned a singlet.
Said Francisco, “Coach Vote saw something in me. I’m glad I’m here now.”