PLEASANT HILL -- Adam Buscemi was admittedly on the wrong path. His grades were near failing. He was suspended a few times for fighting, lacked focus and a peer influence was taking him in a wrong direction.

Then, the sixth-grader at Valley View Middle School met Coach Cory Salmon, who encouraged the young Martinez resident to sign up for the wrestling club, and Adam's life soon changed for the better.

"He sees kids with no direction and take them under his wing," says Adam's mom, Claudia Buscemi.

Adam, now in eighth grade, credits his coach for his improved focus, athleticism, grade-point average, and being college-bound.

Adam opted to nominate Salmon for a national LifeChanger award. Salmon is among 400 school district employees across the country who have made a positive impact on students' lives. He is among 12 nominated in the greater Bay Area and the only one in Contra Costa County.

Salmon, who founded the Pleasant Hill Wrestling Club, has coached for 31 years, and is a longtime physical education teacher in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District.

The nomination could have come from almost any number of youth whose lives might have turned out quite different.

Salmon's influence and the gymnasium, where at-risk, young athletes come to learn the sport, have long-provided constancy in the midst of daily dysfunctions. Salmon cites such instances of their grappling with homelessness, moving around a lot with Section 8 housing, a father's incarceration, or another parent's addiction.


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"There are issues with defiance, anger management. This sport seems to help them release that energy," he says.

Nobody is turned away. Instead, Salmon provides a place where they feel a sense of belonging and meet a coach who cares.

On a recent afternoon, two dozen youth practice their moves and several takedowns; a handful are clad in standard-issue Valley View physical education attire.

Always encouraging, Salmon calls out "sit out, turn in, sit in, turn out," demonstrating a simple hip heist, and moving from duo to duo, coaching positively as he goes. A quick whistle, he calls "time, switch" and reminds the students to shake hands.

Seventh-grade triplet boys are part of Salmon's club, and they credit their coach for his patience and "treating everybody the same, no matter how good you are," says Eric Karas, 13.

Twin, seventh-grade girls Ysa and Lexi Sittser-Ketron concur.

The wrestling club is where Salmon has devoted thousands of volunteer hours, going way beyond teaching the many scenarios students may encounter in a tournament, as well as those they may face in life.

The young wrestlers are well-versed in wrestling terminology -- bow and arrow, "hip and roll" and inside cradle -- which are punctuated with lessons about ingredients for success, be it treating others with respect or fostering self-confidence.

"I hold kids accountable for getting in shape, working hard and learning the moves," Salmon says.

"Success is based solely on your willingness to commit and make a sacrifice."

Salmon gets kids to redeem recyclables to help offset entry fees for weekly tournaments, picking up the tab for those who can't afford to participate.

Along the way, there have been the club's baseball games and countless rides home.

Trips to a summer tournament in Idaho include stops at Yellowstone, laser tag and bowling.

"The main thing is I'm there for them," Salmon says. "It's about camaraderie, about connecting. It's more than just wrestling."

Jim Keck, a state champion who wrestled for Salmon and now teaches physical education at College Park High School, is assisting his mentor during practice.

Keck notes how participation in athletics correlates with better academic performance, and cites that among the 43 percent of graduating students who went on to a four-year college in 2012, some 62 percent played a sport.

"(Coach Salmon) ... is not just going through the motions. He honestly cares," Keck adds.

Pleasant Hill resident Casey Strand is a former world medalist, and also assists Salmon at practice, crediting his former coach for leading by example.

"He makes you want to be a better person," Strand says.

"When he's coaching, everybody's listening."

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For more information, visit www.LifeChangeroftheYear.com.