I had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” Carmine Azzato recalls.
As a boy, he was obsessed with the idea of playing in the NFL. As a prep star in Brooklyn and Staten Island, he was well on his way. That is, until the last day of practice of his junior year.
“A kid on my team chop-blocked me when the play was over,” he recalls. “The whistle was blown, the play was over, and his decision caused me to have a compound fracture, and my career just ended that day.”
At 6’5” and 325 pounds, Carmine had pinned all of his hopes on a professional football career. “I didn’t think about being a contractor like my dad was, I didn’t think about being a chef or anything. I just thought, ‘My life is over.’”
Carmine had surgery to repair the fracture, but later sank into a depression. He turned to drugs and even considered suicide. Then, during a high school assembly, he was given the chance for a fresh start.
“The promoters for the WWF came to our high school,” he says. “One of the gentlemen that worked for the promoters came up to me and asked me if I ever thought about becoming a pro wrestler.”
For the next several years, Carmine studied pro wrestling, crafting a new identity for himself. “Creating a character was something I needed to do because I felt like ‘Carmine’ was lost. It was fun having this other personality,” he remembers.
Going by the stage names “The Annihilator,” and “Blast,” Carmine made his way to Puerto Rico and Europe, where he became one of the top wrestlers on the continent. He was finally earning several hundred thousand dollars a year, and enjoying the celebrity lifestyle that came with it.
“Being on the road as a wrestler, you get involved in a lot of extracurricular activities,” Carmine says. “Drinking is one of them, and drug use. I didn’t really know where I fit, so I was just following people.”
But the hand of misfortune would grip Carmine once again.
“A three-year-old kid threw a soda at me during one of the wrestling shows,” he says. “I was body slamming a guy and he was going over my head, and my leg slipped and the guy came straight down right onto my knee, and it hyperextended my knee. So he pretty much knocked me out of wrestling—this three year-old kid.”
Once again, Carmine’s hopes for a career died. And with nothing to fall back on, he became depressed. “I guess I felt like I was lost again,” he says. “And because I couldn’t work, I couldn’t make money and I couldn’t pay my bills.”
Later, an old acquaintance convinced Carmine to join him in a scheme to make easy money. “He said, ‘Look if you’ve never used your car insurance, they’re making money, so why shouldn’t you? And he came up with this idea about doing an accident, a bogus accident, and doing an insurance claim.”
Afterwards, Carmine couldn’t bring himself to collect on the claims. “I was embarrassed. I was ashamed that I even did it.”
But he already had been targeted in a massive federal sting operation. Carmine and over 60 others were arrested and charged for insurance fraud. “The moment that the FBI put the cuffs on me, everything in my life changed. I knew that I needed something really big to help me get out of this mess. That was the first time in my life that I really prayed,” he says.
When Carmine was arraigned, he was the only one who pled guilty. “Even the lawyer they gave me wanted me to plea innocent, and I refused. I said ‘I am not doing that.’ He said ‘Well, Then you are going to jail.’ I said ‘I don’t care. I am not going to lie to this judge.’”
While awaiting sentencing, Carmine took a construction job, where a co-worker talked to him about Jesus and invited him to a church called The Upper Room. When he went a week later, the pastor shared his testimony.
“He starts sharing all these things he used to be into, and all the bad decisions he made,” Carmine recalls. “And now I feel the presence of God, something I had never felt before. Then he said, ‘If your life is so out of control and you feel lost, and you feel like you’re broken, come now,’ and I hit that altar so fast. And I said, ‘I will never walk away from you. This isn’t temporary. I don’t care if I have to go to jail.’ I just wanted what he had. And I said ‘I’ll live for you every day, and I’ll be more passionate for you than any football or wrestling.’ And I just felt God’s love.
Two months later, Carmine was standing before the judge to receive his sentence. “She said, ‘Mr. Azzato, are you ready for your sentence?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘OK, but I have something to say first. That day you pled guilty, out of sixty people who stood before me and said they were innocent, and you said you were guilty, I knew you had a conscience. And for your sentence, I’m just going to give you two years’ probation.’”
Carmine adds, “I believe that is a picture of God. You don’t have to tell Him everything you’ve done; He knows. But He sees your heart, and I think she saw my heart that day.
Carmine and his wife, singer Jennifer Azzato, have a ministry near Indianapolis. He shares his story in his book, Wounded Healers. Today, he knows the real Carmine does not have to hide under a football helmet or behind a wrestling mask. “I’m very identity driven, because that’s where I failed in my life,” he says. “My identity today is someone who will give his life, like Christ gave his life, and someone who is passionate. I feel like I can never be as passionate for God as He is for me, but I’m going to try every single day.“