January 2022 ~
Football was Dan Mello’s (Roosevelt, 1970) first sport at Roosevelt High.
Let’s just say a future with the Green Bay Packers did not seem likely.
Weighing around 94 pounds, Mello played safety for the freshman team in 1967. Uh, played very little, though.
“I got in for about five or six snaps the whole season,” Mello said.
Freshman football coach Jack Taylor (who is in the PIL Hall of Fame) suggested he turn out for wrestling.
“Coach, I’m going out for gymnastics,” Mello told him.
“Tell you what,” Taylor said. “Come out for three days, and if you don’t like it, you can go back to gymnastics.”
“That’s fair,” Mello said.
The 94-pound safety never made it to gymnastics.
“I knew right away. Wrestling was my sport,” Mello said.
He was good at wrestling from the start, became better over the course of his high school days, and went on to be really, really, really good.
Like national champion 14 times good.
Like Olympic team good (denied the opportunity to compete due to the 1980 U.S. boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
And, like Hall of Fame good – Mello was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame in 2009, joined the Portland State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016 and went into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2017.
Wrestling fit his personality as well as his physique.
“I liked to win and pin,” he said.
His family moved around until settling in North Portland in time for him to finish the last couple of grades at Peninsula, then attend Roosevelt.
He worked hard on that freshman football team.
“I’d do everything in practice and stay after practice,” he said.
Still, the coaches stuck him “as far away from people as they could, mostly,” deep in the defensive backfield.
In those days, with the big shoulder pads, he was small enough that “people told me all they could see was a helmet and the pads.”
He had played Babe Ruth baseball, and was an all-star second baseman, but he didn’t play baseball in high school or do any other sports.
“I couldn’t run fast,” he said.
It seems remarkable that someone could not take up wrestling till high school and go on to such success. It wasn’t even until his junior year that he realized it was possible to wrestle year-round and began to do that.
“But back then, you had football, baseball and probably basketball, and with the other sports, the interest or knowledge level wasn’t so prevalent,” Mello said.
Mello was the oldest in what turned out to be a family of wrestlers. Brothers Gino, Wally and Frankie, who all attended Milwaukie High, were multiple state placers.
Dan’s vision of what he might be able to do in wrestling grew larger when Roosevelt coach Chuck Kearney hosted a clinic and brought in two standouts from Portland State’s strong program – Rick Sanders and Junior Johnson. Sanders, a Lincoln High grad (and eventual PIL Hall of Famer), had won the 1968 Olympic silver medal in Mello’s weight class.
“I had my letterman’s sweater on, with two stripes. I was intrigued. He looked similar to me,” Mello said. “I talked to him after the clinic in the locker room, and I could picture myself doing this.”
Mello was beginning to flourish in Greco-Roman wrestling. He went to a tournament in Eugene and placed third in the nation for his age group, wrestling one Olympian along the way.
His bio as a Roosevelt wrestler was good, but not great. Starting with no experience, he wrestled at 98 pounds as a freshman, at 106 the next three years and at 115 as a senior. He took third in the PIL his sophomore year – behind a duo that went on to go 1-2 at state (Mike Downer of Benson and Ron Castles of Wilson).
Junior year, he was 29-0 and seeded No. 1, but got upset in the city quarterfinals.
“It was devastating, and my family didn’t make it any better. There were a lot of pressures from family,” he said.
He won state in Greco-Roman that year, though.
He then went undefeated through the PIL tournament as a senior, only to lose his first match at state. More huge disappointment.
But, in April 1971, he became a national champion in a tournament at Bakersfield, California, earning a spot on the world team and then going to Tokyo and placing second in the world high school championships.
“After that, they couldn’t deny me the athlete of the year award at Roosevelt,” he said.
Mello was being recruited by college wrestling programs all over the country, and he was planning to go to Oregon to wrestle for coach Ron Finley, who was noted for his Greco-Roman abilities.
But Sanders came to see him and said, “Mello, give me one good reason why you’re not going to Portland State.”
“Because Finley knows Greco,” Mello said.
“Yeah, but I’m at Portland State,” Sanders said.
Meaning that Mello could learn under and battle with Sanders, by then a world champion, on a daily basis.
Mello chose Portland State.
Sanders, however, was killed in a car accident while traveling in Greece after winning another silver medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Mello never got to work closely with him.
Mello helped PSU win two NCAA West Regional team titles, winning twice individually and going 45-9-2. He didn’t graduate and lost almost all of his senior season to a knee injury, after starting 14-0. “I still don’t understand how I didn’t get a redshirt year,” he said.
But he moved to Bakersfield and began to launch his international wrestling career.
In 1979, he was working construction and janitorial jobs and trying to make ends meet enough to keep wrestling. Someone told him that in the Marine Corps you could get paid for being a wrestler. He joined the Corps, went to boot camp, then won the Olympic Trials.
He trained as a Marine supply administrator and served six years of active duty, wrestling all the time and winning five national championships “and a bunch of stuff.”
Having the 1980 Olympics taken away from him was a blow that to this day is hard to describe.
“Of course I didn’t like it. None of the athletes liked it,” he said. “I’m 27, and I’ve spent my life trying to get to the Olympic Games. I went into the Marines because that was the best way to become as good a wrestler as I could. But I couldn’t speak loudly about the boycott, because I was a Marine and the President (Jimmy Carter) was my commander-in-chief.
“It was always political, plain and simple, and it was never going to do any good. Boycotts are an immature way to deal with things.
“The Russians invaded Afghanistan. Twenty years later, we invaded Afghanistan. And look at Afghanistan today.
“That boycott did a hell of a lot of good, didn’t it?”
Mello dealt with the boycott pragmatically.
“I just took it like I had lost a big tournament,” he said. “I’m a realist. I did everything in my power to get to the Olympics, and then all of a sudden, it’s gone.
“That’s when I learned the most valuable lesson of my life – that life is not always fair. It’s just not always fair.
“It was totally unfair, but other people have been dealt those kinds of cards or worse. It happens to everybody at some point in their life. The company hires a guy, and you’re more qualified, that’s unfair, too.”
By age 31, Mello was out of wrestling, as a competitor. He coached for another 14 years, though, including for six years in charge of the Marines team, three years on staff at Cal State Bakersfield and as an assistant with the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
He also coached top club wrestlers in Portland, and in his coaching career he worked with nine wrestlers who made the Olympics.
College coaching wasn’t for him, maybe partly because of his no-nonsense approach.
“I’m a rebel type,” he said. “I don’t tell people what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear.”
He started selling Cadillacs in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“In 10 months, I went to No. 2 in sales, and I don’t know anything about cars,” he said. “But I know people.”
He settled in Bakersfield – he likes the weather – and for the last 20 years has been selling solar and air conditioning/heating systems and roofing. With – you guessed it – much success.
He’s well-known in the Bakersfield area as “Dan the Solar Man.”
“I tell everyone, ‘I’m going to treat you the same way I treated my athletes – you are now my Olympic athletes,’ and I truly believe that.”
~ Profile written by Steve Brandon (Cleveland, 1972)