The Conti choir
Senior Chris Conti seeks music career after wrestling
Chris Conti, a senior environmental studies major and former wrestler, is becoming better known for his singing prowess. Courtesy of NCAA Photos
Chris Conti, a senior environmental studies major, is getting used to his job as student-assistant coach of the wrestling team.
His current job has him lending emotional support to members of the team. Whether it's freshman homesickness or personal issues, the wrestlers can go to Chris if they need to talk. The senior takes pride in giving his peers motivation.
This position is a bittersweet one, though. While Chris enjoys helping his teammates, there's a place he loves to be even more - in the wrestling ring. Last semester, he was planning on spending his senior year trying to end his wrestling career on a high note. Those dreams vanished when the doctors advised him not to wrestle because of his chronic neck injury.
He still sighs as he talks about the disappointment.
And, yet, he still finds reason to sing. His Jason Mraz and Rascal Flatts vocal covers don't sound like the voice of a man who's weighed down by misfortune or the tenuous amount of dedication wrestling requires. His voice is clean, crisp and almost angelic.
These are performances powered solely by his family and faith.
Chris has made a name for himself in the UB wrestling program with his commitment and technical prowess on the mat. At the same time, he's known as an undoubtedly talented singer. The former wrestler has performed the national anthem for numerous UB sporting events since his freshman year and had the chance to sing at the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships in front of 20,000 in attendance.
The neck injury didn't only end his wrestling career; it steered him further into his dream of becoming a contemporary Christian artist. While Conti knows about the hardships that path may entail, he feels confident with his faith and family by his side.
There are a lot of adjectives friends and family have used to describe Conti: laidback, hardworking, disciplined. Chris isn't the only one in the Conti family to be associated with these traits.
The Contis are a well-respected family within the Fredonia, N.Y. community. It's a community Alex Conti, Chris' father, grew up in. Alex recalled he and his family grew up in a farm house until he was about 5, when a few of them moved to another house down the street. The Contis still populate that same road and now, 24 of Chris' cousins live there.
The road had a family that was filled with a diverse range of musical and athletic talents - from soccer to wrestling and from singing to instrumentals. It was also known for its closeness.
"I probably never met a group of people who can multitask more than Coach Conti [he was assistant coach of the women's 2012 Olympic national wrestling team and national junior team], Chris Conti and his family," said head coach Jim Beichner, Alex's lifelong friend. "This is the family that does a lot. There's coaches, there's teachers, there's musicians, there's singers ... It's a compliment to them they could manage so well and be so tight together as a family through all of it."
There is a Conti legacy at Fredonia High School. Alex is a physical education teacher, and his wife Stacy teaches there as well.
Also, Alex said 19 of Chris' 24 cousins went to the small school. Todd Crandall, principal of Fredonia High School, said the family carried itself respectfully as Fredonia High representatives. Chris upheld his reputation and made a huge impression on the school.
High school life
During his time in high school, Chris was a three-time Section VI champion, a three-time place finisher in the New York State Championships. He won the state championship once and earned the prestigious Illio DiPaolo Scholarship Award in 2008 - which is awarded to those who excel in academics and athletics.
But just a few years back, he was too small to even make weight. He couldn't wrestle competitively in junior high because of his size and still struggled to make weight going into his freshman year of high school.
While Chris said he has been singing for as long as he can remember, wrestling is something he had to work on. He lacked power, but he later learned to make up for it with his technical skill. It's a skill he inherited from his father, who was an established wrestler and Chris' coach throughout high school.
"I didn't ever think he was ever going to be a wrestler," Alex said. "He had his mom's disposition: a very kind-hearted child. He had a demeanor which was probably better suited for golf, which is why I say whatever he accomplished, he accomplished through extremely good discipline and simple hard work. He did above and beyond whatever I asked and whatever I expected."
Chris started racking in the achievements during his sophomore year. That year, he won the state championship over Kyle Dake in the 96-pound weight class. Dake went on to become the first wrestler ever to win three NCAA championships in three different weight classes.
When he wasn't wrestling, he was lettering in golf, tennis and track and field. Other times, he was singing. Chris took part in numerous high school musicals, ranging from Brigadoon to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He also was part of the Fredonia High School voluntary chorus, The Magicals, and sang in nursing homes and went caroling during the holiday season.
He still loved singing, but during his high school years, he looked well on his way to be a star wrestler. He was pushed further down that path.
"I definitely knew this was something I wanted to do in college because not only did I love it, but it was a chance to pay for college," Chris said. "A lot of people don't have that chance. It was something I was very fortunate and blessed to have."
Finding a voice in college
A lot of seniors look at their freshman years with fond memories.
Chris hated it. He spent a lot of that year in a neck brace.
There were about 30 seconds left in one of Chris' first practices as a UB wrestler. He was training with one of the coaches when the accident happened.
"He just twisted my neck the wrong way," Chris said. "I heard a popping noise and I was on the ground. Next thing you know, I was getting rushed to the hospital."
Chris left that practice with a fractured neck - an injury that would hamper him throughout his college career. He wore a neck brace for five months and had to spend the year watching from the sidelines as his peers wrestled.
Even though it was heartbreaking, the injury was a wake-up call for the Fredonia native.
"I think after my injury, I think I understood that maybe I wasn't going to go anywhere with this as far as wrestling in college," Chris said. "I needed to start focusing on other things. I really started growing within myself with my singing voice."
So he practiced on his own. Rather than seeking out vocal lessons (Chris claims he's only had three real ones in his life), he practiced everywhere he went: at home or at while practice. While driving his Pontiac G6, Chris sings with the music in order to practice.
Chris gets extra practice performing with the Holy Genes, a quartet that consists of him and his friends in Fredonia. The group sings at various chapels around Chautauqua, N.Y. and records material on its own.
It wasn't long before Chris got to showcase his singing talents in the Buffalo area.
Beichner knew of Chris' singing capabilities since he was a child, so it was easy for him to vouch for his talent. The coach was the one who helped him get his first UB performance.
Chris performed his rendition of the national anthem during a men's basketball home game in 2009 through Beichner's recommendation. It was the first of many UB performances, as his crisp, earnest rendition of the song constantly drew praise.
Chris said it isn't "his rendition" per se, however. The singer models his national anthem performances after his favorite musical act, the Gaither Vocal Band - a Southern-bred gospel group.
"If there's one thing I've always wanted to do - and you could've asked me this my freshman year of high school until now - it would've been the same thing," Chris said. "I always wanted to be part of the Gaither Vocal Band ... I've always respected quartet music. I was always into contemporary Christian music but was never really that into barbershop [quartets]."
Last year, he saw his musical ambitions come into further fruition. That was the year he had a chance to perform at the NCAA Championships.
According to Chris, Paul Vecchio, the former senior associate athletic director at UB, gave a sample of him performing the national anthem to the NCAA committee. The group was impressed and in March, Chris was on his way to Philadelphia, Penn. to perform the anthem.
The UB representative had no mic check prior to the performance, which is a procedure typically used to ensure audio quality and for the performer to find his comfort zone. Chris had forgone a mic check a while before the championship in his performance at a soccer match at UB Stadium, leading to a national anthem rendition severely hampered by echo.
But on this day in March, there was little echo and all eyes were on Chris. He took that moment and shined. Many said his appearance was one of the best national anthem performances they've ever heard, according to Beichner.
"I kind of put my head down, closed my eyes and just did it," Chris said. "As I'm on my way through it, I looked up at the flag and just sang to the flag as if I was singing to someone."
Not too long after, Chris got a chance to meet one of his heroes - Mark Lowry, a baritone singer in the Gaither Vocal Band. The Holy Genes traveled to the Chapel at CrossPoint - where Chris frequently goes - when they heard Lowry was set to do a performance. Chris sent an email to the lead singer to ask if they could personally meet up with him, and Lowry agreed.
"He's like, 'Can I hear you sing?' And I sang for him and he thought I was great," Chris said. "He said, 'Can you sing on stage with me?' He invited us on stage and we sang."
It was the Holy Genes' only performance in Western New York thus far.
End of a career
Chris' record (24-37) as a UB wrestler doesn't say much about his contributions to the team. He doesn't have the accolades senior John-Martin Cannon has and he hasn't attracted the amount of attention former superstar Desi Green had. Beichner said the 141-pounder was a reliable, hard-working athlete who was determined to have an impact on the program.
"He always does his job well," Beichner said. "I've always been told a job not worth doing right is a job not worth doing. Chris does his jobs right."
Chris was set to have many more highlights this year, but he reinjured his neck at the Virginia Duals last semester. After struggling with the injury throughout his college career, the doctors could not clear him to wrestle.
Then came the heartbreak.
"I remembered him in the office with tears in his eyes. He really cared," Beichner said. "He wanted to compete but sometimes in life you got to move on, and he understood that after the last examination, that it was time to move on from the competition side of the sport."
Chris said he was able to overcome the disappointment with the support of his family and his girlfriend of two years, Marci Tirone. Beichner also offered Chris a position as a student assistant so he'd still be able to contribute to the program.
Chris said a good thing about his retirement is that it allows him to focus more on his music career. The former wrestler is taking steps to realize his dream to become a contemporary Christian artist even though he's trying to complete his degree and balancing jobs at the Niagara Aquarium, Buffalo Zoo and Rapture enclosure.
Chris constantly records material in his friend and Fredonia music teacher Stephen Raghunath's studio. He's also recently found time to join the Chapel at CrossPoint's choir, which is something he wanted to do as a freshman but couldn't find time to because of his busy schedule.
Chris is gradually improving his singing ability in order to succeed in the professional music world. He remains realistic, though, as he's well aware of the long hours and the hard work the career path requires.
However, Chris believes wrestling experience will come in handy in his pursuit.
"Overall, the sport is the best life trainer you can possibly get," Chris said. "I totally believe that 1,000 percent because you learn every basic need you need to survive. You learn discipline, you learn how to how to deal with adversity. You're gonna get hurt, just like life. You're gonna get knocked down. It's life ... The sport tells if you get hurt, it's how well you bounce back."
With a determination guided by faith, it looks like Chris is well on his way.
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