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July 26, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The faint buzz of a nearby highway hangs in the air, and a small wooden cross stands tall amid a garden done in by the summer heat. Behind it a hand-painted sign emblazoned with a purple-and-gold “Cox #48 Kewpies” leans like an afterthought against the house. It’s the type of sign displayed proudly on front lawns of thousands who worship the pursuit of athletic excellence under fall’s Friday night lights, but this isn’t a football-first family. A smiling hulk opens the front door and offers his giant vice-like hand in greeting.Related Articles
Meet J’den Cox. He’s going to be the best there ever was.
That’s the plan, anyway. J’den, 17, is heading into his senior year at Hickman High School. At times, he lives the life of a normal teenager by going to movies with friends or dabbling in music, but mostly, J’den wrestles. In February he won his third state title, and this winter he’s aiming for a fourth. Few, if any, have had J’den’s talent or shared his vision. From the day he began wrestling when he was 5 years old, his goals were simple: to go undefeated, to win a state championship and to be the best wrestler who ever lived.
That dream got off to a rough start. “His very first wrestling meet, he ended up losing twice,” his father, Mike Cox, says. J’den asked when his next match would be, without knowing the tournament used a double-elimination format. There were no more matches. “He cried because he couldn’t wrestle again,” Mike says.
That early passion soon paid off, and his goals soon seemed more attainable. “Once he figured out that the more he won the more he got to wrestle, he just didn’t lose very often,” J’den’s mother, Cathy Cox, says. Since that first meet, J’den has lost only 46 matches, fewer than four per year. His most recent loss came just more than a week ago in Fargo, N.D., at the ASICS/Vaughan Junior & Cadet Nationals. J’den took third in the Greco-Roman tournament after losing to Kyle Snyder of Maryland in the quarterfinals. He got his revenge a few days later, though, when he took down Kyle on his way to winning the national freestyle competition. J’den and Kyle split the two titles last year, as well, and J’den won the Greco-Roman in 2011.
He hasn’t lost a state title match since he was 7 years old.
J’den’s introduction to wrestling wasn’t entirely a choice. It’s in his blood. His uncle, Phil Arnold, won back-to-back state titles for Hickman in ’90 and ’91, and his older brothers both wrestled. J’den attended his first wrestling meet before he was a week old.
But J’den doesn’t do this out of a familial obligation. His passion is sincere. “I’ve never not loved watching this or doing this,” he says. “I love every aspect of this sport. I love preparing for it. I love doing it. I love afterward feeling like you accomplished something.”
He says he already dreads the day when he will no longer be able to compete. He got a small taste of that last summer when his mom made him sit out a week of practice to recuperate. The constant tournaments and summer football practices had taken a toll on his body, and he needed time to let himself heal. J’den calls it the worst week of his life. “The day I have to say I can’t wrestle anymore, even though my heart and my mind and my soul say I can but my body says no, that’s the day that I will probably be crushed,” he says. So he tries to keep his focus on the present and enjoy all of it, both the good and the occasional bad.
J’den says he can’t explain what exactly keeps him going. Whatever its origin, his relentless drive is what he credits for his success. When he’s on the mat, he says, there’s nothing that can hold him back.
No one in the Cox family is sure of how many titles J’den has won. “They tried to make a wall of fame once, but it didn’t really work out,” J’den says. “We ran out of pins.” They keep only a few of his medals on display. Most are stored in boxes, and sometimes J’den doesn’t even keep them.
“He’s started giving his medals away,” Cathy says. “The last medal that he won, he came home and gave it to his nephew David. It’s not that they don’t mean anything; it’s just that J’den doesn’t do it for the hardware. He really does it for the heart.”
J’den has other goals, too. He’d like to graduate from college, get married and grow old. He sets personal GPA goals to keep himself motivated in school, a tactic that doesn’t always work; he says he just missed his mark this past spring. He plays the piano, bass, violin, viola and guitar, and he’d like to perform on stage for a big crowd at least once. But aside from that, he says he doesn’t give much thought to the future.
“Tomorrow’s not guaranteed,” he says. “I’m only going to be 17 once in my life.” It’s easy to forget, but J’den Cox is still just a kid.
He does have some semblance of a social life. He’s had girlfriends. He has a job pumping gas — petroleum dispensary technician specialist, he calls himself — at Sinclair, and he enjoys talking to customers, especially the veterans who frequent the station, as he fills their tanks. He also attends church, likes working with kids and volunteers with the Special Olympics. His parents say they’re proud of the well-rounded son they’ve raised.
“There’s still a lot of innocence in J’den,” Cathy says. “We see a different kid than that monster or that beast that other people see on the mat.”
His parents make sure he doesn’t lose too much of that innocence. Cathy says he has a gift. Mike makes sure his son keeps that gift in mind and never gloats after a match. You never know what the other guy is doing to get better, Mike says. It’s fine to have fun but not at the expense of another competitor’s pride.
J’den doesn’t struggle to have fun with his sport. He has so much, in fact, that he works with his teammates and even his opponents as an extra coach. He shares his knowledge with anyone who wants it and doesn’t worry that others might learn his secrets. J’den likes to joke around at meets, and he and the other wrestlers invent games to stay busy. Cathy says her son has a charisma about him; he’s the guy everyone wants to be around.
J’den’s love for the sport has been the foundation for his success, but his belief in himself is among his strongest assets. His unwavering self-confidence keeps him moving toward that ultimate goal. He says he’s capable of anything he puts his mind to, and anyone with a dream and the willingness to put in the work can achieve it.
He admits he doesn’t exactly know what it’s going to take to fulfill the goal of being the best ever. “But whatever that work is, I’m going to find it, and I’m going to do it,” he says. “Everyone gets there some way different.”
It might sound like he speaks in clichés, but from the look in his eye and his knowing smile, it’s clear these aren’t platitudes. This is what he truly believes. And you see it again when he takes the mat, his mom says. He never looks at the bracket. He just walks out believing he’ll win regardless of the opponent. Others might let doubt creep in or worry about what the other guys are doing. J’den just doesn’t care. “If I’m on this mat, I should win,” he says. And he means it.
His success led to an invitation to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs after his final year of high school. It was an opportunity to pursue wrestling full-time, a chance to bring that best-that-ever-lived dream closer to a reality. After discussing the option with other wrestlers, talking to his brother about his own college experiences and praying about the decision, J’den tried to objectively decide with a pros vs. cons list for each. MU offered an education and insurance in case he got hurt, but he still wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t until he pictured himself wearing a black MU singlet that he made a choice, Cathy says. He got a warm feeling and felt at peace, he told her. That’s when he knew he was supposed to be a Tiger. He says the ability to just wrestle and go to class with no other responsibilities appealed to him, a reminder that he is, after all, still a kid.
The dream hasn’t changed, though. He says he still plans on taking a year to train at the OTC in the future. And not just to make the team. He says it would mean a lot to him to represent the U.S. in 2020, but he wouldn’t be satisfied with just showing up. “Getting there, that’s nice,” J’den says. “But I want to win it.”
That’s one medal Mom wouldn’t let him give away.