Driven by Design – The Joe Iacono Story by Al Fontes (Q&A)

JOE IACONO featured on a television program, Rides on the Discovery Channel (Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo).


Al Fontes, TCW State Editor

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The sport of wrestling has been an integral part of my life for close to forty years now. This includes being a competitor, coach, historian, promoter, and writer. First taking to the mat in the late 1970s, I learned first hand on day one that wrestling was not for everyone. Unlike many other sports I had participated in, the rigor and intensity that goes with the day-to-day physical training, coupled with the mental fortitude required to set foot on the mat to do battle, is beyond comparison. As a coach for over twenty-five years, I have had the honor and privledge to coach hundreds of kids at all skill levels. Each and every one of them is a true warrior and a member of a small club of athletes in the world’s toughest and most demanding sport. Among the many life lessons and traits I had learned from my coaches and mentors, there is one in particular that resonates with me and has been my blue print for action for a greater part of my coaching tenure, which is being totally committed to those I coach and mentor throughout the duration of their mat career and beyond. At Livermore High School, we “Coaches” always emphasized the importance of being a family, an extended Cowboy wrestling family that goes beyond one’s mat career, which from my experience has established many strong bonds spanning several decades. One Cowboy wrestling family member in particular, I have had the honor and privilege to coach, as well as mentor beyond high school is 1996 alumni Joe Iacono, a true student-athlete motivated by sheer determination to follow and achieve his dreams. From day one, I saw something special in this kid. It wasn’t his words, but his actions that set him apart from many of his peers. It has been close to twenty-six years since I first met Joe, but the memory is crystal clear and etched in my psyche forever. So, let the story be told!

1996 – Coach Fontes running an intense session of calisthenics (Joe Iacono in front of Coach Fontes)

It was Monday, November 9, 1992, the first official day of wrestling practice, a day many of our coaching staff were more than eager to get started. We had just come off a banner season with the undefeated 1992 team, regarded as the most decorated in the school’s history. The 1992 team produced multiple EBAL Champions, seven NCS medalists, five state qualifiers, and two state medalists. Considering we had just graduated twelve seniors from this team, the 1993 team was not as experienced and consisted of several wrestlers coming from the JV ranks, as well as a good core group of incoming freshman. It was very well known that we had our work cut out for us to repeat as EBAL Champions. Much like any other start of a season, we began practice with a bang, making it known up front what our goals and expectations were for the season. The common denominator for all in the room was total commitment to the program and an expectation for each individual to work hard towards achieving their ultimate potential. I recall during our initial warm-up session many of the new incoming freshmen were staring at us coaches with slight fear and demons of doubt. At the time, our program had a reputation of being very tough and to just make the second team (JV) was a large undertaking, let alone earning a spot on the varsity team. Despite the anxiety among many of the new wrestlers in the room, one wrestler in particular caught my attention. An incoming freshman, this kid had fire in his eyes similar to several members of the 1992 team when they were incoming freshman. Approaching him with a commanding voice, I stated, “What’s your name and why are you here…are you motivated for the intense practice to come?” Without hesitation, he stated, “My name is Joe Iacono and I’m ready for whatever you throw at me, Coach.” Immediately, I blew my whistle and shouted to the team, “It’s time to get serious…” After two intense hours of practice, I approached Joe again and asked him, “What’s your thoughts…are you ready to be part of a championship team?” With a totally serious look on his face, Joe stated, “Heck yah, Coach.” It was at this moment a bond began to form, establishing a friendship that remains strong today.

Joe at the Oakland Coliseum – NCS

From the first day I met Joe in the practice room to his final match in high school, I can’t recall a day that he didn’t give 100% effort into all that he did. Even in the toughest of circumstances, he never gave up. It was his dedication and determination to achieve his goals that is his driving force in life. From the first year I coached him, I knew deep down that he would be successful at anything he set his mind to. Graduating with the class of 1996, Joe was a standout student-athlete at Livermore High School, earning a total of eight varsity letters in Wrestling, Football, Baseball and Track and Field. On the mat, he was a great competitor, always in the match from start to finish. A team captain during his Junior and Senior seasons, Joe was a three-time East Bay Athletic League (EBAL) medalist (2x finalist), earned All-EBAL honors, as well as qualifying to the CIF North Coast Section Championships three times. On the gridiron, Joe played tailback, earning two varsity letters and All-EBAL honors his senior season. Playing multiple position in Baseball, he earned two letters and had the unique opportunity to play at the Oakland A’s Coliseum for the North Coast Section playoffs. While competing in several events on the track and field team, Joe was part of the 4×100 relay team that won the East Bay Athletic League Championship and placed fourth at the CIF North Coast Section. As a result of his outstanding achievements at Livermore, Joe was awarded the honor of “Best All Around Athlete” and “Positive Role Model for Students” at graduation.


The coveted pair of White/Green Adidas Equipment wrestling shoes that motivated Joe Iacono to earn his first trip to the CIF North Coast Section Championships – 1994

Coveted White/Green Adidas Wrestling Shoes

In 1994, during a hard week of practice leading up to the East Bay Athletic League (EBAL) Championships, on several occasions Joe approached me about wearing my coveted White/Green Equipment Adidas wrestling shoes during the post season (Note – these shoes were a limited edition and difficult to purchase on the market). I initially said, “NO,” but with some thought realized it was a great opportunity to motivate him. At the completion of an extensive practice that day, I called Joe over to discuss his proposition. Before he had a chance to ask me again, I said, “You’ll have to earn it…and to earn it means making the championship finals.” Without hesitation and a smile, Joe said, “I’ll do it coach…I’ll make the finals.”

Joe wearing the Adidas shoes at the EBAL Championships

Entering the EBAL Championships seeded #4 in one of the most competitive weight groups in the league, the probability of Joe beating the # 1 seed were not very high, but possible. Despite the odds, we emphasized going hard against his opponent, regardless of his record or ranking. The match went as predicted, but not without a battle. Moments later after losing in the semis to the #1 seed and not meeting our agreement, Joe approached me again prior to his consolation finals for 3rd place about wearing these shoes. Initially I shook my head, but realizing that he had a previous loss to his next opponent, It was paramount to get him fired up and motivated since this kid had majored him only a few weeks prior. Very simple, the winner qualifies to NCS, while the loser goes home. So approximately 20 minutes prior to his match, I approached him and to his surprise I handed over the shoes, looked him in the eyes and stated one of my most common phrases, “It’s time to get serious…I expect you to go after this guy for six hard relentless minutes…leave it on the mat.

Coach Fontes used to say, “On the whistle, get up as fast as you can, nobody can hold you down.” Likewise, “If life takes you down, you gotta get back up…Wrestling is much the same”  Joe Iacono

Much to our satisfaction, Joe battled his opponent for six hard fought minutes with relentless non-stop pressure and by the waning seconds of the third period, Joe finally broke him and scored a match winning takedown to secure the victory after trailing the entire match. This match wasn’t the state finals or Olympic games; it was a moment in time where an athlete achieved his goal and was motivated by something as simple as wearing a pair of shoes. Several years later, I gave him these shoes. He had earned them! Life is about having goals and going after them. In wrestling, one often has to conquer the dreams of others to achieve their goals. On that day, Joe conquered the dream of his opponent.

Attending the graduation ceremony for all outgoing senior wrestlers was a common occurrence for our coaching staff. Being that we were a tight-knit wrestling family, sending off our seniors to their next journey was both a time of celebration and also a time of sadness knowing that the last four years had gone by too fast. Despite this reality, the coach/wrestler relationship didn’t necessarily end there. For some kids, it’s a handshake, a hug, a brief moment to encourage them to achieve their future endeavor, and a goodbye moment where we may or may not ever meet again. For Joe Iacono this was a new beginning, the next rung in the ladder of life that he and I would continue our mentor/protégé relationship from this point forward.

1996 Livermore High School Graduation (L to R): Coach Al Fontes, Joe, Coach Andy Koponen, and Coach Marc Kavanagh.

Receiving a partial football scholarship from Oregon State University, Joe entered his college experience with the intent of pursuing a degree in Dentistry. At the time, Oregon State offered one of the top Dental degree programs in the Western United States. Much like the sport of wrestling, circumstances can change when least expected. Despite starting off his freshman year with high hopes, the replacement of the Head football coach at the beginning of the first season combined with some academic challenges, Joe began to have second thoughts about his intentions. Ironically, as all this was taking place, Joe came upon an art gallery display at the university’s Fairbanks Hall and it was at this time he decided to change course and take the path towards earning a degree in Graphic Arts. Since his young childhood, Joe had a passion for mixed media art (i.e., pencil, oil painting, charcoal), but was not aware of career opportunities when he entered college. By his sophomore year, he realized that he could make a career in visual communications (e.g, packaging and branding a product or company). I recall this period in Joe’s life and during a holiday break from school, he and I had a long conversation about his academic situation and his intentions to change career paths. My advice was to follow his dreams and explore every option possible. The only failure would be to do nothing at all…the path to higher-level success is through the valley of failure. Following his instincts, he continued towards his new path forward and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design (BFA). In addition to earning his BFA, he was selected to display his senior project in the art show gallery for seniors, which only the top percent of the class were provided the opportunity to participate.

After graduating from Oregon State, Joe wasted no time integrating his ideas and concepts in the market place. In 2002, he opened his personal business Iacono Design Group; a California based marketing and branding freelance company that helped him continue his education into brand development. As he built his client base and accounts in packaging and branding, he began to receive increased requests for illustrations of concept art for the automotive industry. His hot rod sketches received national attention and started getting printed in all of the popular magazines at the time (to date, his artwork has been published in over 65 publications worldwide for all kinds of clients and mediums). Joe’s work built a reputation as a high profile automotive designer and stylist in the industry. As a result, he began receiving request to work for bigger brands such as General Motors and Ford Racing on prototype aftermarket concepts out of Detroit. In addition, highlights included working with Carroll Shelby and the Shelby of America Brand and getting hired to work with Bud Brutsman, a very successful independent film studio. Moreover, he developed concepts and designs for shows including Rides, Payback, Hot Rod TV, Battle of the Builders, and Living with Ed.

Having worked with builders and design companies all over the world, the ups and downs of industry politics made it difficult to do business at times. One company he built a strong bond and relationship with is Cartel Customs, a Torrance based company. Owned and operated by Jeremy Lookofsky, Joe worked with the team to develop concepts for Scion and Toyota. Many high profile prototypes were created over the years, but none bigger than the official production model Scion tC Series 9.0. Two thousand units were made and sold in dealerships across the United States.

In 2006, Joe started his second company, Kid Kustoms, LLC. a juvenile products brand. Kid Kustoms, LLC changed the industry with a product named “The Roddler.” The Roddler, a 3-wheeled art deco concept, took the industry by storm with styling. It was the world’s first stroller that transformed into a trike. The hand-built designs shipped all over the world, with clients including, Prince George, Romanian pop singer Corina, Nicole Richie, Kourtney Kardashian, and LeBron James to name a few. It was featured in publications worldwide, most notably, Wired Magazine, Pregnancy Magazine, Robb Report, and the LA Times. In addition, the Roddler was featured in TV and news shows Kourtney & Khloe take Miami, The Price is Right game show, ABC News, CNN, and the hit television show on ABC Family Baby Daddy where it was scripted into the entire show. Finally, it was an industry icon that sold in all of the most popular high-end boutiques. According to Joe, the Roddler sold five generations of the model for a span of 10 years and in 2016 he decided to sell the company.

One of Joe’s early paintings he gave me as an underclassman at Livermore High School

The foundation of Joe’s success in life is rooted in his strong family background. I recall how supportive and inspirational his parents, Carl and Jane, were for Joe, and his younger sister Georgia and brother John (who also wrestled for Livermore High School and won two East Bay Athletic League titles and placed 4th at the CIF North Coast Section in the late 1990s. Currently, John is an Executive Chef for Park Winters, which is a 5 Star restaurant). They were positive role models and led by example, which resonated with the Iacono brothers, especially in the mat room where each put out 100%, regardless how hard we coaches pushed them. Meeting his wife Stephanie at Oregon State (Stephanie earned a full ride scholarship in Gymnastics and was ranked #8 nationally), they were married in 2006 and had their first son Mathew in 2011 and second son Ryan in 2013. One of Joe’s proudest decisions in life was to stay home to help raise their boys, while still running his business from the home base.

In life we face obstacles, misfortunes, and unplanned events. Based on his philosophy that if life takes you down, you gotta get back up, Joe faced a major obstacle in his life in 2014. With a doctor’s visit, he received notice that he had heart problems that if not dealt with soon could result in less than desirable results. Being significantly overweight and having a family history of heart issues and diabetes, he needed a major change and something to challenge him to get back to a healthy lifestyle. Just going to the gym was not cutting it. Having to fall back on his wrestling roots, he made the decision to lose weight, practice a healthy life style, and document the journey. To his fortune, walking into the gym CrossFit Livermore altered his course and his life path had changed for the better.

CrossFit Livermore became my home away from home…A community support group to train with everyday and members that all ranged in fitness levels and age groups.

His training session volume has improved to 5 days a week with 3-4 double days. More importantly, he’s healthy and through hard work and commitment has significantly dropped his weight to an optimum and healthy level. This positive change has transformed Joe’s overall balance in family, work, and lifestyle choices. Now fast-forward to the present 2018 and Joe’s commitment and new fitness course in life has led him to earning a spot at the USAW American Open Series National Weight Lifting Championships in his age group, which is being held later this year. He will be competing in the clean & jerk and snatch.

In closing, life is what one makes of it. Nobody ever said it would be easy or that anything is owed to us. To earn one’s keep means that anything worth having in life is achieved through hard work, sacrifice, and commitment to continuous improvement. My good friend Joe is an example of someone who has earned is keep by having a vision and reinforcing it through hard work, dedication, and a never quit attitude, even in the midst of adversity. As I stated earlier, I knew from our first meeting in the wrestling room, he had a fire in his eyes that told me that he would be successful in any endeavor he chose to pursue in life. Although our long relationship was initially based on a mentor/protégé platform, we have been very close friends throughout our adult lives. In fact, parallel to our friendship, Joe likely does not know this, but he has been a mentor to me in many respects. His career in graphic design and the journey he has taken from the mat room to his present business has motivated me to take my craft of promoting wrestling to a higher level. His journey thus far is very inspiring. Joe is one of many stories I can tell from my experiences coaching wrestling at the kids to high school levels. On the other hand, his is very special because I have been fortunate to be an integral part of his entire journey from the start. I can say so much more about Joe, but will finalize it by stating that he has been a stellar athlete up to this point in his life, a dedicated family man, and a self-made entrepreneur that has accomplished a great deal. The sky is the limit with Joe’s potential and rest assured that if any obstacle were to knock him down, he would stand right back up and accomplish anything he sets his mind to because at the root of it all, he is Driven by Design.

Executive design review at General Motors in Detroit


Entrepreneur – Kid Kustoms, the Roddler (US Patent)

Graduated from Oregon State University with a BFA Degree in Graphic Design

Spark of the Realm Award (Senior year at Oregon State in 2000)

Earned 8 Varsity Letters at Livermore High School (Wrestling, Football, Baseball, and Track)

3x EBAL Championships Medalist/3x North Coast Section Qualifier

Varsity Wrestling Team Captain – 1995 & ’96

All East Bay Athletic League in Football (Tailback) and Wrestling

4×100 relay team – East Bay Athletic League Champions (Track & Field)

“Best All Around Athlete” Award (Class of ’96)

“Positive Role Model for Students” Award (Class of ’96)

Athlete, Entrepreneur, and Family Man


1996 EBAL Championship finals

How did you first get involved in the sport of wrestling?

Freshman year of High School, 1993. I was actually trying out for the basketball team after football season and Richard Diaz, Adam Orr, and Nick Jepsen came to practice one night…”No, no, no bro, you need to come join the wrestling team.” I actually walked out after just 2 practices. Once I met Coach Page, it was game over for basketball.

Who was your biggest influence in the sport?

Well, I had no early childhood references since the sport had no major exposure to masses. It had to be the wrestlers from the 1992 team that to date is the greatest in the school’s history. During my freshman year, I think we had close to 100 members and every team was good. It was very tuff just to even make the JV roster in those days. Outstanding wrestlers, such as Richard Naval, Ken Zanato, Marc Kavanagh, and Jerry Bohlander come to mind. Prior to that Varsity Team lots of guys talked about Livermore Hall-of-Fame wrestlers Scott Page, Chris Ornellas, and Pete Matheson.

What are your fondest memories of wrestling at Livermore High School?

Wow, So many to choose from since it was such a strong bond all four years. The smaller training room if you qualified to NCS, the dual meets with the single spotlight in the entire gym. Being team captain my senior year, the travel tournaments and breakfast after weigh-ins. So many laughs, we had a good group that knew how to win on the mat, but also knew how to stay loose. We had a Coach named Fontes, he would kick the door open at start of practice and yell “ Time to get serious” ha-ha.

What life lessons did you learn in the sport of wrestling that applies in your day-to-day life, both as a family man and entrepreneur?

Wrestling was a great team sport, but so much of being on the team was isolated individual work. The short rounds with a high level of intensity in close combat duals. You never had a lot of time to change momentum or rebound from adversity during a match. You had to just get it done, and you practiced the exact same way. I think many of the sports disciplines in order to be competitive were consistency combined with ambition. No other time in my life has helped define the discipline and consistency that I take into my own family and professional career.

Whom were your role models growing up? How did they inspire you to be the person you are today?

I collected anything Bo Jackson. I was a super fan. I was attracted to the idea you can play any sport and be great at them all.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in graphic design?

Oregon State University had an incredible visual communication department. The Liberal Arts Department staff was incredible theory based communication design leaders. Professor David Hardesty upper level classes were when it all turned into a new passion to pursue. The class presentations, studio critiques, creative problem solving studies, and long 24 hour sessions in the computer lab defined a career that I still love to practice everyday. I was lucky enough to be in his final two classes of his 30-year career at the University.  Seeing the students’ comeback to visit him from all 3 decades to celebrate his career because of how he changed lives as a teacher was powerful. Very inspiring. Many of his students went on to become some amazing industry leaders. I will always be in debt for his efforts to help build that part of my life.

Romanian POP Singer Corina with her “Roddler” by Iacono Design

It’s my understanding that the “Roddler” is among your early career graphic design creations. Please explain how you came up with the concept, as well as the process to market it both in the United State and internationally.

In 2002 I opened up Iacono Design Group. California based Branding and Marketing Company that helped me continue my education in brand development. While I built my client base and accounts in packaging and branding, I was getting requests for illustrations / concept art for the automotive industry. My Hot Rod sketches got national attention. My artwork has been published in over 65 publications world wide for all kinds of clients and mediums. The work built a reputation as a high profile transportation designer / stylist. I started getting request to work for bigger brands like General Motors and Ford Racing on Prototype Aftermarket Concepts out of Detroit.

Transportation design lead me in 2006 to start my second company, Kid Kustoms LLC. A juvenile products brand that would change the industry with a product named “The Roddler”. It was a 3-wheeled Art Deco concept that took the industry by storm with styling. A napkin sketch to full production model sold all over the world. It was the first Stroller that transformed into a trike. Clients included, LeBron James, Romanian POP Singer Corina, Nicole Richie, Kourtney Kardashian, Prince George, Adrienne Janic, Sabina Kelly, Wendy Burch, and many more. It was featured in publications world wide, and more notably, Wired Mag, Pregnancy Mag, Robb Report, and the LA Times. Featured in News and TV shows including Kourtney & Khloe take Miami, The Price is Right Game Show, ABC News, E Hollywood, CNN, and the hit television show on ABC Family Baby Daddy where its was scripted into the entire show.  Wired NYC, Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas, Bel Bambini West Hollywood, and Pinky Blue in Canada just to name a few of the popular high end boutiques. The Roddler went through five generations of chassis and safety development standards for 10 years. I sold the company and model five tooling in 2016.

The Roddler – first conceptual sketch (Kid Kustoms)

The Roddler concept was a world famous stroller identity in juvenile products. The Roddler started as a napkin sketch and quickly turned into a media and celebrity sensation. 10 years defined a grass roots brand that was home grown production that literally started in a garage. The highly stylized concept had 4 generations of prototypes and 2 Generations of production.

What is your greatest achievement thus far as a Graphic Designer? 

Developing small strategic design concept ideas that grow legs into brands have always been my early goal. So many projects over the last decade that are note worthy of my favorite work, however I think we are more proud that we have been in business since 2002. 15 years defining solutions in visual communication might be at the top of my list.

Scion tC Series 9.0.

I have worked with builders and design companies all over the world but as the years passed with the ups and downs of industry politics I stayed faithful to one Torrance based automotive company, Cartel Customs. Owned and Operated by Jeremy Lookofsky, I worked with the team to help develop many concepts in last 6 years for Scion and now Toyota. Many high profile prototypes over the years, but none bigger than the official production model Scion tC Series 9.0. 2000 units were made and sold in dealerships all across the US.

Based on what you have learned and experienced thus far in your career, what is your short and long-term goals?  

Our First Son Matthew was Born in 2011, and our second son Ryan was born in 2013. One of my proudest decisions was to stay at home to help raise our boys. Life, Kids, Career… maybe a combo of all of it, but in late 2014 a doctor visit that reviewed heart health problems that I was having. I have family history of heart issues and diabetes so I needed change.

I made a conscious decision I was going to document a journey of weight loss and healthy living. “Get back in the game” was my goal. As a father of two, I wanted to be healthy for my family. The new journey began when I walked into a Crossfit gym. Who knew 1 hour could literally save my life. The functional fitness community and lifestyle holds accountability by showing up and being happy to suffer together with daily notes on results. Sound familiar? Every month I would find new challenges and attack it. The small changes with small manageable goals started to add up.

The moment Joe qualified to the USAW American Open National Championships.

Crossfit Livermore became my home away from home. Members all ranged in fitness levels /age groups. CFL head coach Matt Souza has hands on team involved in fixing functional movement patterns and diet. The genius high intensity workouts feel a lot like wrestling. In fact the creator Greg Glassman often compares classic Crossfit workouts like capturing the feeling of a 2-minute men’s gymnastic rings routine. A time domain wrestlers also know very well. It’s a gritty fitness sport but very effective! As of today all my heart health numbers dropped to healthy levels and I have lost almost 70lbs. The most rewarding piece to training hard for the last 4 years has been the mobility and strength gains.

Recently I had been inspired to develop more of my Olympic weightlifting skills. Diet and recovery patterns have allowed me to continue to train 5-6 days a week with double days. During those extra sessions I was working late with the OLY Barbell club coach Albert Gonzales.  Could I get back into a singlet? Would I? Hell yeah I would… in late 2017 I signed up to become a USAW Masters competitor. In my second competition earned a qualifying total in the 105-kilo weight class to compete in the 2018 Nike American Open Finals powered by Rogue. I weighed 227 lbs. the lightest I have been since 2005. As of today I’m riding the wave and having fun with the community and family of friends that continue to inspire me to stay fit for my family. Top 5 in the world at age 40? 41? What not. LETS GO!!

Growing up in the city of Livermore for the past thirty plus years, how else are you involved in your community?

I have worked close with the City of Livermore and the Downtown Association. Last 5 years I got more involved with Livermore High School Athletics, and participate weekly in the Livermore School district activities. Iacono Design Group is a Livermore Business so I like to be a part of the downtown community.