Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith and his staff were slumped in the corner of Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City on Friday night.
Junior captain Drake Houdashelt had just lost in the NCAA national semifinals and the mood wasn't exactly light.
Suddenly, freshman J’den Cox came walking down the hallway searching for his MU crew. At the sight of Cox, Smith jumped up, stashed away his heartbreak and turned to his staff.
“Guys, we gotta get our composure,” he told his assistants. “This kid’s gonna win a national title. We’ve got to get him through his semifinal match. We can’t show any emotion here. We’ve got to show positive energy right now.”
Thing is, Cox was on the verge of breaking down, too. His teammates mean just as much to him as winning a gold. But nobody knew he was troubled. All anyone saw was his signature, broad smile.
Hours later, Cox defeated Virginia Tech senior Chris Penny 4-1 and advanced to the 197-pound finals.
On Saturday night, Cox fulfilled Smith’s prophecy by beating top-seeded senior Nick Heflin of Ohio State 2-1, becoming the first freshman and youngest national champion in Missouri wrestling history.
Smith said he has known Cox since he was 4 years old and knew even then that he was special. Cox said he has dreamed of winning gold since then, too.
“I didn't just imagine it,” Cox said. “I dreamed it. This is a dream of mine ...
“I see it this way: There’s no point to do something if you’re not going to push yourself to try to do it to the best of your ability.”
Cox finished the season with a 38-2 record and All-American honors. And as a true freshman, he’s already setting a precedent for his team and other young wrestlers across Missouri.
Houdashelt and Cox both return next season, along with senior Alan Waters, who’ll be coming back from a redshirt.
Smith laughed with excitement at the thought.
“Winning the national championship, it motivates a lot of people in your room,” Smith said. “It motivated a lot of young kids in that state of Missouri that are in middle school or elementary school and high school that want to be the next J'den Cox, because he’s a Missouri boy. Exciting.”
For now, Cox and Smith are going to relish the moment. Smith said he plans to go home and sleep for two days after the emotional roller coaster the Tigers experienced in Oklahoma City.
Then next season will begin, and Cox will take the next step toward fulfilling his ultimate goal.
“My goal is to be a four-time national champion,” Cox said. “This is the beginning. And I think this was probably going to be one of the hardest ones just because it was trying to get the train started, trying to get the motion going towards that.
“I proved something to myself today. And I’m very proud of myself.”
Mizzou finished 14th as a team with 40.5 points.
Penn State had 109.5 points and won its fourth consecutive championschip.