Mack Rhoades officially started his job as University of Missouri athletic director a year ago Wednesday.
Weeks later, coach Gary Pinkel told Rhoades he had cancer, setting the tone for a miserable and turbulent year at MU.
From the protests of racism to the toppling of system President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, from Pinkel’s abrupt retirement to Kim Anderson’s struggle to yank the men’s basketball program out of a quagmire, strife and confusion and worry have dominated the news.
“Well,” wrestling coach Brian Smith said, smiling, “we haven’t had the best year, overall.”
So let’s say it’s the start of a new year now, and that you could concoct a character who might stand for better days ahead in MU athletics, but beyond just that, too.
If you started to create that composite picture of this healing force, he or she would have to be more than just an athlete. This person would have to be a well-regarded student with other obvious talents.
Like, say, being able to play something like five instruments and having such a musical aptitude as to be asked to compose and perform a song for the university’s $1.3 billion fundraising campaign — the galvanizing “One More.”
Someone like junior wrestler/psychology major J’den Cox, who on Wednesday served to remind of all the good that MU attracts and produces even as it’s been eclipsed over the last 12 months.
If he didn’t actually exist, it might be necessary to invent him.
One hundred days before the start of the Rio Olympics, Cox thought of what it will mean to represent his country after qualifying for the “holy grail of wrestling” this week by dominating a tournament in Mongolia.
“I represent (America) now when I walk down the street,” he said. “I represent America now when I go to class. I represent (it) in every way in my life.”
Just as he represents MU, where he is a two-time NCAA champion some 17 years after a relationship began being cultivated in what might be considered inauspicious circumstances.
Not long after Smith began working at MU, Smith said, “this little fat kid would come read in my office.”
He showed up there because that’s where mother Cathy brought him as his older brothers were attending wrestling camps.
About all Smith knew immediately was that Cox was bright because of how he responded to the books in his office, which Cox remembered largely as “Junie B.” (Jones) books.
“Yeah,” Cox said, smiling, “main character was a girl — so what?”
Soon enough, though, Cox was dabbling in the sport and promptly consumed with it.
He was 5 years old when he wrote that he wanted some day to be an Olympian.
Through the years, Smith would see Cox’s remarkable athleticism continue to flourish further and further.
By sixth grade, Smith knew to make Cox his first-round pick in the local junior football league draft.
And it was no surprise to him that after Cox won four state titles for Hickman High, the recruiting competition for Cox included the Olympic Training Center.
But Cox thought he’d be a better fit at MU, from where Smith knew he could make the Olympic team like past protégé Ben Askren.
“I just knew,” Cox said, “I was supposed to be here.”
As seamless as it all may look now, it wasn’t without trials.
Struggling with how to properly cut his weight right last year, Cox finished fifth in the NCAAs and had to reconsider his diet.
But that was more an opportunity than a setback, figured Cox, who has converted to soy milk, eliminated soda and consumes much more water and fruit now.
Which takes us to how he thinks.
The only time you fail, he said, is when you stop trying to move forward. That’s why he doesn’t even believe in the word “disappointment.”
“The problem with ‘disappointment’ is that people linger on it,” he said. “It digs away at your mind, and then it stays there and then you’re thinking about it. And then you get reminded of it, and then you get put into situations and you bring it up again.
“No, you don’t do that. You find ways to move forward.”
That explains something about how he approached competing in Mongolia after winning the U.S. Olympic Team Trials as a No. 9 seed.
Cox, who never had been outside the country before, found that the 13-hour flight to Beijing “crushed my spirits,” he joked.
To say nothing of having one of his bags stolen when he was sleeping between flights in Beijing.
He hopes whoever stole his gear is enjoying it, but …
“Don’t expect me to sign it, though,” he said, laughing.
But Cox was unfazed and went on to outscore his opponents 36-3 in a five-match sweep.
The fourth of those assured his spot in the Olympics, and the last of them preceded the U.S. flag being hoisted and the national anthem being played in his honor as he mouthed the words.
It was 5 a.m. back home when that happened, with Smith going bonkers as he watched and thought of witnessing in person U.S. champions at the last two Olympics.
“There’s nothing like it,” Smith said. “It’s an amazing feeling, and if I can watch one of my athletes do it, it will be off the charts.”
That could be a longshot for Cox. He faced a few Olympics-bound foes, but Smith said he wasn’t sure Cox had seen “too many” ranked in the top 20.
Whether or not he goes on to medal in what Smith believes is just the start of his Olympic career, Cox already has distinguished himself in many ways.
And no doubt he will continue to, via wrestling, music or other thought-provoking ways.
How many athletes who have just made the Olympic team, after all, feel guilty about not practicing with their college teammates for a spell?
“Without Mizzou and the guys in the room, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d do,” he said, adding, “Really, the team is what makes the individual.”
Among many moments Wednesday that left you impressed and thinking, Cox offered refreshing food for thought when it came to the often-divisive topic of religion, in this case his Christian faith.
“I have a certain belief about God and sport: I don’t believe that God does sports,” he said, laughing and adding, “He doesn’t dictate outcomes. He doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to smite him, so that he shall make it to the finals.’ ”
Now, there are any number of others MU could put forth who might stand for all the good you may have forgotten is going on here.
But if you had to choose just one face and voice after the chaos of the last year, well, he’s “a pretty darned good one,” Smith said.