Joao Neiva moved to Massachusetts four years ago from Brazil.
It was his first time in America, but more importantly, it was the first time in 11 years that he had seen his father.
“Seeing my dad after that long was something I had dreamed of,” Neiva said.
He then began to learn English and two years later took up wrestling at Milford High School. In Brazil, he competed in Jiu jitsu, Muay Thai and MMA, so he chose to try out wrestling once he settled in the states because it had similar styles.
After his first time grappling on the mat, Neiva considered quitting. He had only tried out the sport for a week and thought he would be unable to learn everything in the two years he had left in high school.
Wrestling is a sport where you have to depend upon yourself. There are no teammates that join you on the mat, but for Neiva, he had a few covering his back.
Fellow Milford wrestlers, Carlos Terrinha and Dylan Ortiz, convinced him to stay and try it out for another week. After taking the mat a few more times, he realized the sport was for him.
Two other major influences kept him in the sport: Milford wrestling coach P.J. Boccia and his girlfriend Cloe Cerqueira.
He learned English in school, but he also practiced the language with his girlfriend. She also came to every one of his wrestling meets.
“I have to say thank you for everything she does for me, she’s one of my biggest fans,” Neiva said. “She’s a really big support and didn’t let me give up when things were hard.”
Boccia first met Neiva when he signed up for wrestling his junior year. He was Neiva’s first wrestling coach and taught him the sport from scratch.
“From the first practice, it was evident that he had the skills to be a great wrestler,” Boccia said. “He was athletic, strong, quick, physical and able to compete with and beat many of the returning wrestlers in the upper weights.”
Neiva did compete and beat many of those wrestlers as he made history this past season for Milford High. After taking a 4-3 decision in triple-overtime for the 220-pound title match at All-States in Methuen, he became the school’s first-ever All-State champion.
Neiva had lost a close match to the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the State the week before he competed at Sectionals.
“For some wrestlers, that would get them down. But not Joao, it motivates him,” Boccia said. “He told me after the match, ‘Coach I can beat that kid,’ I told him, ‘let’s get to work.'”
He then had a solid week of practice and went on to win the Division 2 Central Sectionals against that very same opponent. The next week, he won the Division 2 State Title.
“He showed a confidence going into All-States that I had not seen in him before. After another great week of practice, he showed up at All-States with the goal of becoming Milford’s first All-State Champion, and he did,” Boccia said. “I was very excited for him, our team and MHS athletics. To see a student athlete that has been through a lot and only been in the US for a few years accomplish such a tough accomplishment was a great feeling and I am very proud of how far he has come.”
Neiva was named the Hockomock League MVP and later took sixth place at the New Englands meet to end his senior season with a 40-7 record. In only two years wrestling, he finished his career with a 72-20 record.
The man he thanks for it all? Coach Boccia.
“Everything that I know, he was the one who taught me and made me better,” Neiva said.
Two years before taking the mats, Neiva was suspended from Milford High School. Once he came back to the school in his junior year, he came with something on his mind.
“I’ll make Milford proud of me,” Neiva said.
Among many in Milford, the man who taught him wrestling from scratch is one of the proudest.
“I am extremely proud of Joao and the career that he has had,” Boccia said. “Joao was a blank slate and he absorbed as much as he could in two years, who knows how good he could have been if he wrestled all four years.”