Inside a garage in mid-Missouri, the wrestling mat that built a dynasty
Mike Eierman’s backyard creation tells coming-of-age stories for Olympic medalist J’den Cox and current Missouri wrestlers Jaydin Eierman and Grant Leeth.
Feb. 21, 2018
J’den Cox remembers bounding through the woods with a wolfpack.
He was just 10, worn down by miles of running, coated in the shine of dirt and sweat, but never more liberated as he galloped on, surrounded by his young teammates. He was a part of something: his pack.
“We would run in the woods, and we’d run together, and in my mind, I imagined it like a pack of wolves going out there,” Cox said. “We weren’t going to leave anyone behind.”
Along a road off Interstate 70 in mid-Missouri, not far from the Millersburg exit just outside of Columbia, those woods cast a shadow over a quaint house and its inconspicuous, painted-gray backyard garage.
The short walkway up to the shed is imprinted with children’s footsteps and an accompanying phrase: “Follow me.” Through the door is an unknown temple to a sport considered to be dwindling in popularity.
Not at the University of Missouri. And certainly not at this place.
For within this garage at America’s heartland is a wrestling mat, simple and small, visibly aged today, but brought to life 13 years ago out of a vision. It has served as a stomping ground for hundreds of wrestlers, the likes of which include current nationally acclaimed Missouri standouts Jaydin Eierman and Grant Leeth, as well as legends such as undefeated MMA fighter Ben Askren. Not to mention Cox, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and the U.S.’s greatest contribution to the sport in years.
For Cox, it represents a beginning, a second home and a manifestation of the magic of memory.
For Eierman, it’s where he found the family he never had.
For Mike Eierman, it was a chance to build something sacred.
That’s what he set out to do in 2005. A local youth club wrestling coach, Mike aspired to find innovative ways to teach the sport to a new generation. That started with having a small addition constructed onto the back side of his garage. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to squeeze a regulation mat inside the extra space. Now he could coach from home.
“It was all a vision in my head,” Mike said with starry eyes as he looked around the room. “A lot of these coaches didn't understand it. In their world, they just teach the same, same things, and that's not what wrestling is. Wrestling is a continuous, evolving sport.
“We set out to change the way people look at wrestling.”
He knew it wouldn’t happen overnight. Starting with 10 or so kids from his “Eierman Elite” club in the confined space, the growth process began to run its course, ever so slowly. Along the way, one of those kids would change Mike’s life forever.
Jaydin Clayton, as he was then known, didn’t have a family bond in his early childhood. All he knew was that he loved wrestling. Today, he goes by Jaydin Eierman, and he’s the No. 3 141-pounder in the country with a 16-0 dual record in his sophomore year for Missouri. Mike is his father.
“[My birth father] wasn’t around much,” Jaydin said. “He walked out of my life when I was pretty young.”
That’s where Mike came in. Jaydin was already one of his wrestlers, just 7 years old and looking for the father figure he’d been missing in his life.
“I fell in love with Jaydin, and he fell in love with me,” Mike said. “I knew what I wanted to do.”
Mike has raised Jaydin since right around that time. The young competitor officially took the name of his coach and adoptive dad a few years later, and is now known only by it at Mizzou. His birth father died a couple of years ago.
“[Mike] took me in as his own son and has raised me,” Jaydin said. “I call him my dad. I took his last name because I think he’s my dad. He was there for everything.”
That meant the good and the bad — but most of all, the growth. Jaydin and Mike both recall one match at the small space in particular.
“I was winning but the kid was coming back, and I started to cry during the match,” Jaydin said. “[Mike] told the ref to stop the match and pulled me out and told me to sit down and watch for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I haven’t broke during a match. He helps so much with the mental aspect of the sport that nobody really has anywhere else.”
Growing up with Mike for a dad and a wrestling mat for a backyard, Jaydin had found a family and a life’s passion. On one of the garage walls, his name and updated accolades are scrawled in Sharpie between the signatures of countless other former Eierman Elite kids.
“I have them all sign the wall so I can remember,” Mike said, pointing at a few of the names and chuckling nostalgically. “All the time, I just walk around, read this and reminisce.”
One of the names he stops on is Grant Leeth. A redshirt junior at Missouri out of the Kansas City area, Leeth has given the word “resilient” a new meaning this season. After transferring from Duke back to his home state, he missed two years thanks to a pair of untimely and unforgiving knee injuries. Now he’s finally fulfilling a dream that tantalized him for two years — competing as a Mizzou Tiger — and he still hasn’t lost. He just finished an unexpected 16-0 regular season in duals that has him ranked No. 3 in the country at his weight class of 149 pounds.
He says he owes his success in part to Mike’s teachings.
“I was in fifth grade, and I had wrestled some Eierman Elite kid at a tournament in Colorado,” Leeth said. “Mike approached me, told me to come out to one of his camps, so I went that summer and just loved it.”
So for the next year, he made the 150-mile commute from Kearney to Millersburg three nights a week, all to learn how to wrestle in that garage.
“Grant was definitely one of those kids that just showed a lot of character in his wrestling, a lot of fight,” Mike said. “It was a no-brainer that he was going to have tremendous success.”
His hand moves next to a quote signed from “Ben.” It’s Ben Askren, a former student who went on to win a national championship at Missouri then go pro as an MMA fighter.
“He’s a freak,” Mike laughs. “He is unreal. That dude is a ninja.”
Finally, his hand comes across the prized centerpiece of the wall.
“J’den Cox is the best that our country has to offer,” Mike says. “When he does it right and is feeling it and does what he does, I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that can do what he can do.”
If anyone knows, it’s Mike; he traveled to Brazil with the eventual medalist in 2016, and remains his Olympic coach to this day.
Before any of that, he was coaching just another bright-eyed 9-year-old.
“I’d see J’den Cox crying, nervous, terrified to walk onto the mat,” Mike said. That would change over time. “When people ask me about him, did I see something physically … it was his mental aspect. The physical aspect is phenomenal, but the way he thinks is what separates him from everyone else.
“I used to tell him all the time when he was little: ‘You're going to change the world. You're not just going to change wrestling. Wrestling is going to be your platform, because you're going to be an Olympic champion, so that's going to be your door. You're going to change the world.’”
Cox became attached to the coach, to his teammates, to Jaydin. It all happened in that garage.
“One of the biggest things is not only [Mike’s] technique, which is out of this world, but his way to bring kids to believe in themselves, to be more than what they are,” Cox said. “That’s really what drives that place. You just feel the energy that’s within that place and the passion and the love behind what we’re doing.”
Part of that love originates from the very design of the room. The shed sits at the edge of the woods, not far from the shore of Little Dixie Lake. Mike likes to point out the view from several windows in the room, which extends to the water. He says he had that added for a reason.
“Usually a wrestling room is a dungeon,” he said. “I wanted to do it where these kids came in here and they looked and you could see outside, you could see the lake. They don’t feel they’re locked in here; they feel. It’s all part of the package.”
That package even included going outside to utilize the unique environment for conditioning. It’s what gave Cox some of his most distinct childhood memories from the place.
“Mike would get us all in the back and we would start running,” he said. “It was a hard run, especially when you get guys who were six, eight, nine. All the days that we just grinded and went at each other’s throats, and at the end of the day just being like, ‘Oh, we’re cool,’ … it was really awesome.”
No two guys were more like that than J’den and Jaydin. The pair of promising pre-teens were best friends and fiercest rivals.
“There were dogfights in here,” Mike said. “They would kill each other. They loved each other and they’re brothers, but they’re so competitive.”
Just as Jaydin had found a father in Mike, he now had a big brother in Cox.
“Me and him grew up, since we were little kids,” Jaydin said, his calm demeanor finally breaking as he cracked a grin. “Not many people know that, but that’s where everything started — in that garage in Millersburg.”
Cox didn’t live there like Jaydin, but it was rare to not find him on the mat that dominated the Eierman shed. Mike recalls the future Olympian practicing with 100 takedowns a night in the room, accomplishing challenges his coach thought were impossible.
“Everything was with a purpose, and it was always a mental challenge; show me something I've never seen before,” Mike said. “That's the crazy thing. These kids would do these things and blow me away. I’d test J’den and he would come back smiling at me. I’d be like, ‘You’re kidding me. You're not supposed to be able to do that,’ and he’d say, ‘I know; I had to get tough.’”
Cox agrees many of those things shouldn’t have been possible. They were for him though, he says, because of great coaching from Mike.
“He’s not someone who just looks to teach; he also looks to learn,” Cox said. “I think that’s something every teacher and every mentor should take into consideration. He’s always looking to get better and evolve. When you’re looking to better other people, shouldn’t you be looking to better yourself as well?”
He, Mike and Jaydin all believe the magic of the garage mat is just that: the way it has bettered all of them in multiple facets. It brought grassroots development together with a new generation, fun together with hard work, a forward-thinking coach together with a now historic place. It’s why Missouri has become a national hot spot for collegiate wrestling.
It’s why Mike still runs his Eierman Elite club through the garage today.
It’s why J’den and Jaydin still go back to help.
“J’den Cox comes out here, and we just have talks,” Mike said. “This place has changed my life. What these kids have done for me and wrestling, it's been amazing. This place is very sacred I think for all of us. It's been an amazing journey.”
That journey carried Mike and Cox all the way to Brazil. But even as J’den Cox took to the Olympic wrestling mats in Rio de Janeiro, he brought everything with him that he learned from that gritty wrestling barn in Missouri.
“At the Olympics when he goes out to wrestle, it’s almost like he doesn’t even walk,” Mike said. “He just kind of floats. I get goosebumps talking about it.”
Cox and Jaydin get those same goosebumps every time they go back to the garage that built a dynasty and gave new meaning to so many lives.
“I walk out in my backyard and there it is,” Jaydin said. “It was right where we could reach it.”
The walls all around the room are scuffed and dented, the paint chipped from years of children competing vigorously in the confined space. To its alumni, every scar is holy.
“There’s just something about it that’s just … I don’t know,” Cox said. For once, the eloquent athlete was at a loss for words. “It’s magical, and it’s something that only that place can provide. It’s like a home — it’s more than a home.”
Photos by Adam Cole
Edited by Joe Noser | firstname.lastname@example.org