Marvin Lopez finally can say he's a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestler, after he endured some hard times to get into the team's preseason workouts that started last week.
A redshirt freshman now, the former Cleveland High School standout didn't make it past the NCAA clearinghouse last year. He was forced to enroll in school without financial aid and prove he could handle college courses.
"He had signed the letter of intent, but his options were to go to junior college or pay his own way -- tuition, books, meals," UTC coach Heath Eslinger said. "He decided to come here although he got no money for tuition or books."
Lopez felt he had only one option, even though it posed a major challenge.
"I was nervous because I didn't know how everything would work out," he said.
Then his mother died.
"She passed away from heart failure. We didn't even know she had a heart problem," he said. "She was probably the only thing we had in life other than the coaches."
Lopez carried on, determined to fulfill a family dream despite a lack of support.
"He overcame odds that would cause most people to buckle," the Eslinger said.
A two-time state champion, Lopez wrestled a couple of years for Eslinger at Cleveland before the coach took the UTC job. The two developed a strong personal relationship.
"As a freshman in high school, he was getting dropped off at my house at 3 a.m. so his mom could go to work. He has become close with my family," Eslinger said. "That's why I coach. You get the opportunity to make a difference in a kid's life -- at least kids that are looking for someone to make that difference."
From the moment Lopez stepped into Cleveland's wrestling room, he was tough.
"Sometimes he was too tough. He was mean," Eslinger said. "With maturity he has learned that there is a time for tough and a time for kindness."
Yet Lopez's personal philosophy hinges on fighting and scrapping.
"Work hard. If you work hard, you can get through anything," he said. "When life throws something hard or tough at you, you have to hurdle it."
He wasn't allowed to work out with the UTC team last year. He was by himself.
"I have gotten through a lot of challenges, and I'm happy about that because I relied on what my mom taught me," Lopez said. "We're a tough family, and if she was here now she'd be proud of us."
When asked how quickly Lopez might crack the starting lineup, Eslinger quickly replied, "He's not worried about cracking the starting lineup. He's worried about being an All-American.
"Marvin did a good job [last year], and now he's getting an opportunity. He's doing what everybody says can't be done -- being successful without somebody holding your hand. He'll be successful on the mat because he has learned to fight his way through life."