When he was growing up in Mission, Texas, Merced Solis's school year didn't last long. From first through eighth grade he would attend only from October through April, at which point he and his three older siblings would pack into the canvas-covered flatbed of his father's truck and head north for six months to pick asparagus in Illinois, strawberries in Wisconsin and tomatoes in Indiana. He longed to escape migrant work. "I knew education was the way out," says Solis, now 62. "I used to think to myself, One way or another, I have to go to college."
When he was in ninth grade, Solis and his 16-year-old brother, Roberto, stayed in Mission to complete the school year. That fall, a teacher named Mr. Sanchez suggested Merced take up football—a conversation that would propel him not only to college but also to steel-cage matches, sold-out arenas and national stardom under the nom de guerre Tito Santana.
Solis received a full scholarship to play tight end at West Texas State (now West Texas A&M). There he got a degree in physical education and befriended the quarterback, fellow future WWE Hall of Famer Tully Blanchard, whose father ran a pro wrestling promotion in San Antonio. When Solis's football career fizzled after stints with the Chiefs and the CFL's B.C. Lions, he took the Blanchards' advice and began training as a pro wrestler, in 1977. Proving a quick study, he excelled across the South until an impressed Andre the Giant brought a tape of Solis's matches to show to WWF promoter Vince McMahon Sr. At just 26, with less than three years of experience, "Santana" had his big break.
Thus began a 17-year career that coincided with the WWE's explosion from regional power to national sensation under McMahon's son, Vince Jr. A fiery athlete and dependable performer, Santana twice won the company's Intercontinental Championship, and he competed in the first match in WrestleMania history, defeating the Executioner in 1985. Santana and Hulk Hogan are the only two wrestlers to perform at the first nine WrestleMania events, but Solis remained a mid-level performer. In '93, he realized that being repackaged as the more cartoonish El Matador—which included a week of bullfighting lessons in Mexico—hadn't led to the marquee status he'd hoped for. "I said, 'Vince, I think it's time for me to go,'" Solis says. "Vince said, 'I think you're right.'"
After a few years wrestling for various independent promotions, Solis became a substitute teacher in 1997. For the last 14 years he has been a part-time salon owner and full-time Spanish teacher at Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury Township, N.J., where he and his wife, Leah, have lived since '83 and raised their three sons. He still performs a dozen weekends a year, typically at fund-raisers, but the only time Solis watches wrestling is when his students cajole him into projecting one of his old matches on the classroom Smart Board. For autographs, however, students must stop by Santana's hair salon, a business the Solis family has owned since '96; Solis signs for free every Tuesday afternoon.
Last winter he coached Eisenhower's boys' basketball team to an undefeated season. But he pours most of his energy into at-risk students, inspired by what Mr. Sanchez did for him five decades ago. "Even if I only make a difference with one kid," says Solis, "[it's] worth it."