Catching up with Tito Santana

Merced Solis, back in his heyday as his wrestling persona, Tito Santana. Courtesy WWE

The journey of Merced Solis has been an interesting one. He started out as a football player with NFL aspirations in Texas as a tight end. He found wrestling and became a superstar known as Tito Santana. Now, he lives his life as Señor Solis, a middle-school Spanish teacher. ESPN caught up with Santana recently to discuss his journey through life.

Q: What was it like for you in the Kansas City Chiefs training camp? Take me through how that happened in 1975.

Tito Santana: The promoter in South Texas was Joe Blanchard. Tully Blanchard was also playing football, he was the quarterback at West Texas State. They had been talking to me about becoming a professional wrestler, but I had been getting letters from the different NFL teams before the draft. I did not get drafted. I was a free agent.

So when I went to camp, I got hurt two weeks before. I twisted my Achilles tendon so I didn't run for two weeks and then I ran the 40 and turned in a real bad time. I think I ran like a 5.1 because I had them taped, my ankles, because I didn't want to show that I was injured. But my catching skills and blocking skills were good enough and I pretty much started every preseason game. But then, when they released me, they said, "You're a heck of an athlete, but you're too slow."

I should have asked them to re-time me in the 40 once my ankle started feeling better, but I didn't. I think that cost me. I ended up going back to college and my coach got me a tryout with the BC Lions and I ended up hooking up with them for a year and a half.

But I was like a kid in the candy store, playing with Len Dawson and Ed Podolak and some of the great guys that I used to watch on television. I was a kid from South Texas from a small college, West Texas State University. It was an experience that I will never forget. I didn't make it in the NFL. They tried to get me to come back the following year to tryout again, but I already had a signed letter in Canada and I was happy playing in the Canadian league. So I never tried it again.

I knew that not too many football players had an opportunity to even suit up with an NFL team and I had done it. So, from that aspect, I was satisfied.

Q: Have you ever thought about what would have happened had you gone back to the Chiefs the next year, or not hurt your ankle and stuck with the NFL? Does wrestling happen?

Santana: I don't know. I don't know how good I could have been. I just know that football players' careers weren't very long. Now that I look back, I'm pretty much a Christian believer and believe that everything that happened to me happened for a purpose. I would have never made the kind of money in football that I did in wrestling -- and my career wouldn't have been as long as it was in wrestling. I have no regrets. I was happy that I was there and it was just part of my life.

Q: Looking back, is there one wrestling moment that stands out to you?

Santana: It was probably when I wrestled Greg "The Hammer" Valentine in Baltimore. I had been chasing him for the Intercontinental Championship, and finally I beat him in a cage match and there were maybe only 18,000 people at capacity, but it was sold out. The "pop" that we got when I won the match was just unbelievable.

Q: What are you doing now? I think people always wonder what happens after retirement.

Santana: I'm a schoolteacher. I've been teaching school, this is my 21st year. I'm a Spanish teacher in the middle school here in the town that I live, in Roxbury, New Jersey. Then, a couple of weekends a month, I go and I make appearances and once in a while, believe it or not, I still get in the ring. I don't do much in the ring, but I still like to lace up the boots and get out there. It doesn't get old to hear the response from the wrestling fans because they appreciate the work that you did. That's what you know, with the applause and the cheers for you. It never gets old to hear the applause. In the small shows, you get to meet the wrestling fans and they always bring up moments that they remember.

Q: When did you decide to become a Spanish teacher?

Santana: I had a degree. When I went to college, I graduated with a physical education major and Spanish minor, and I hadn't used it because I was involved in sports. My eighth-grade gym teacher, Luis Sanchez, got me involved in sports. He got me starting to play football my freshman year, and he was a big, positive role model for me and put me on the right road. If it wasn't for him, I probably would have not. I was a quiet guy. I never would have gotten involved in sports.

So, he made a big difference in my life, and when I got to college I decided I was going to be a coach and hopefully that I would do the same thing for somebody like [how] he helped me out. That's the main reason. And, it was my wife who kept telling me, "Why don't you try teaching? Why don't you try teaching?"

Teachers didn't make a lot of money and I just said, "I don't know how we can afford to live on a teacher's salary." But it all worked out.

Q: Were you teaching toward the end of wrestling? Did you semi-retire or did it happen after wrestling was done?

Santana: I retired from the WWF in 1993 and I tried, me and Sgt. Slaughter tried, to run a league out of Chicago for a year and then it folded. Then I was doing independent shows. In the independent market you could wrestle Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and still make a pretty good living on those three days, so I liked that routine.

I started subbing because I didn't have anything else to do in the middle of the week. So, I started subbing for two years and in my town, they offered me a gym position. One thing led to another and I kind of didn't -- I used to come home exhausted being a gym teacher and I had my Spanish degree, so I talked to the guy hiring in town and he said, "Well, we have four openings."

So I came into the classroom and I really enjoy what I'm doing now. I've been doing it for 16 years, Spanish.

Q: Do your students know your past? Do you just bring it up?

Santana: They know. Their parents were wrestling fans, so I can't tell you how many times kids come up and say, "My mother used to be in love with you. She was about 5, 6, 7 years old."

When I have some downtime, I'll let them put a match on the smartboard or the computer and we watch it. For them, my last name is Solis, they call me Señor Solis. I don't talk about wrestling that much.