Music, faith and family: Who is J’den Cox off the wrestling mat?

Cox: “I am who I am because I have a heart to do what’s right and to do good and be the best that I can be.”
Courtesy of Shane Epping

While Cathy Cox was pregnant with her third child, she turned on the television to watch an episode of Star Trek.

As she watched, one character stood out: a pale man with dark hair, dressed in a red shirt with buttons, who had arrived on planet Barkon IV. His name was Jayden.

Cathy Cox liked the name.

On March 3, 1995, in Columbia, she gave birth to a baby boy: J’den Michael Tbory Cox.

In Star Trek, Jayden — more commonly known as Data — was a robot. His attempts at humor were often unsuccessful, and he was unable to feel emotion at the beginning of his life. He seldom discussed religion. Data was fact-based, not faith-based.

J’den lives his life a little differently than his namesake. The Missouri wrestler is candid and makes people around him laugh. He feeds off of emotion, and he is not afraid to show his feelings. After winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he sobbed tears of joy.

Students at Missouri associate J’den with athletic dominance. He’s known for his Olympic medal and NCAA Championships — his abilities on the wrestling mat.

But there is more to J’den Cox than meets the eye. He is a Renaissance man living in the modern day. He wrestles with his faith as much as he wrestles with his competitors. He loves his family and he loves his school.

J’den Cox is a hometown kid who made it big. J’den Cox is unapologetically who he is.

Missouri senior J'den Cox represents the United States at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.COURTESY OF USA WRESTLING/TONY ROTUNDO, WRESTLERSAREWARRIORS.COM

Living to his own rhythm

When he was in seventh grade, Nathan Briner approached his friend J’den Cox at a youth group trip in Fayette, Missouri. There was a talent show at the end of the trip, and Briner had just learned how to play “Dust in the Wind” on the guitar.

“I was really shy and didn’t think I could sing at all,” Briner remembers.

He asked J’den, an eighth grader at the time, to perform with him. Briner’s friend didn’t hesitate. Thanks to Cathy Cox’s love of music, singing had always been a part of J’den’s life.

The two friends stayed up all night practicing, adding in their own twists to the song.

“He was very encouraging,” Briner said. “He kept trying to get me to sing it.”

The morning after they performed, the two boys sat in front of the church passing a guitar back and forth. They took turns strumming and belting out songs.

Briner remembers feeling a connection.

“When you’re kids growing up, you’re not quite into things like music yet,” he said. “You’re just kind of running around and not committing to anything. But we were getting to the age where we realized I had a specific interest in music, and he was realizing he had an interest in wanting to do that as well.”

While competing for Hickman High School a year later, J’den won his first of four state wrestling titles. After losing just three matches as a freshman, he went undefeated the rest of his high school career to finish with a career record of 205-3.

Although he was dedicating significant time to athletics — he was also an All-State linebacker for the Hickman Kewpies — J’den made time for music.

“It gives him an outlet and something else to look forward to,” Cathy said. “He’s not just stuck with one vein or one avenue that he has to go down, he has other things that he can do to unwind at the end of the day.”

Briner said J’den has natural musical abilities. Whenever the two hang out, they often sing or bounce musical ideas off of each other.

“In some ways, I think if he really pursued music, he would be just as big in music as he is on the wrestling stage,” Briner said. “He’s very talented, and I just always appreciated his lyrical and melodic approach to songwriting. It’s very simple and to the point.”

Although his musical skills aren’t as well-known as his athletic abilities, he has gained attention for his work. There are two YouTube videos of J’den singing that both have over 10,000 views: a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and an original song about MU titled “One More.”

Last October, he performed “One More” at a university fundraising event.

Midway through his performance, J’den stopped singing. He strummed his guitar and spoke directly to the audience.

“[The university is about] the people on your right, the people on your left, that have come from hundreds of thousands of miles away, or even just down the street like me, to follow a dream, to create something for themselves,” he said to the rhythm. “And it’s not always going to be easy. Sometimes you’ve got to give everything you have to get everything you want. And I know what that feels like.” J’den knows what it is like to give his all. The senior pursued his dreams to Rio and back, and he still has goals he is working toward. For the music-loving J’den, it’s only fitting that he put these thoughts into a song. ####“Wrestling with his faith” J’den Cox’s Twitter bio is short, simple and to the point. “Listen within yourself and you might hear God. 2016 Olympian,” it read as of his return from the Rio Olympics. It’s fitting that he put the paraphrased Maya Angelou quote in front of his own accomplishments. For Cox, faith comes first. “More than anything, J’den will tell you that he’s a Christian,” Cathy Cox said. “He’s proud of Jesus Christ, and that’s how he wants to be defined first and foremost above everything else.” J’den feels his faith has shaped him as a man. “I am who I am because I’m loved by my family, I’m loved in my religion, and I love my religion and I follow,” he said at a press conference Aug. 31. “I am who I am because I have a heart to do what’s right and to do good and be the best that I can be.” J’den does not hesitate to share his faith. He’ll talk about it at press conferences, he’ll talk about it with fellow students, and he’ll talk about it with the people he’s closest to. Kelsey Dossey, a sophomore goalie on the Missouri soccer team and J’den’s girlfriend, is also deeply religious. She feels that winning the bronze medal has been a humbling experience for her boyfriend. “He’s humbled himself through all of it, and it’s really cool to see how big of a platform he’s on but still give the glory to God and give so much attention to so many other people, when he was the one who won a bronze medal,” she said. Dossey said J’den “hasn’t changed a bit” since coming home from Rio. J’den is still J’den. As a freshman at Mizzou, J’den won the 2014 NCAA Championships in his weight class, but he faltered the next season. He was unable to defend his title, taking fifth place at NCAAs. It was a turning point for J’den. Cathy said J’den realized he was not aligning his life with God and the Missouri style of wrestling. “It became a process of putting God first and living ‘Tiger Style’ that made him realize that he wanted it more than he thought he did,” she said. “And once he put everything in order, it kind of fell into place.” The joy of wrestling came back, and J’den went on to have a dominant junior season. He won the 2016 NCAA Championship, leading the Tigers to a sixth-place team finish. He qualified for the Olympics in April and took the world by storm in Rio. “He was able to focus on everything he needed to focus on because he prioritized the rest of his life,” Cathy said. J’den’s childhood friend Briner grew up attending church and going to youth group events with J’den. Briner feels J’den’s Christianity shows in the way he treats those around him. “He’s constantly wrestling with his faith in hopes to strengthen himself and bring understanding to others,” Briner said. ####“He wants to help people” On Aug. 28, J’den Cox was on crutches. He had just had surgery on a torn meniscus — he battled through problems with the injury all summer — and was driving with a friend in Columbia. While near Burr Oak Road, Cox witnessed a motorcycle slip off the road and into the grass. He pulled over, told his friend to call 9-1-1, dropped his crutches and ran to the man. “When I first see him, all I see is his eyes are open, and there’s blood coming down his face,” he said. “At that point I think he’s dead.” Cox was wearing a brand-new Team USA shirt. He took it off and wrapped it around the man’s head. An ambulance arrived, and the experts took over. The Missouri wrestler does not know the status — or even the name — of the man, but he was breathing when Cox left the scene. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that in person,” Cox said. “Definitely needed to help, I knew that much.” It’s stories like this that make Cox an icon in the university community. Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith describes Cox as a driven, good person. Since Cox is from Columbia, Smith knows that many people feel connected to him. “So many people from the community, so many people from the state, have watched him grow up and his success,” he said. “So that story just continues to grow.” Cathy Cox said J’den enjoys being around other people, despite the fact that he is naturally shy. “He wants to help people,” she said. “But part of what he wants to do when he leaves college and is finished with wrestling is be a motivational speaker.” J’den, who has trouble hearing in his left ear, may also take up an acting role in the near future. Briner, J’den’s childhood friend, is studying visual storytelling at Missouri, and he and J’den have talked about producing a movie in sign language. Briner said that even if his friend does not end up acting in the film, J’den has been helpful in pushing the storyline along. At the Olympics, J’den always made sure to shake the hand of his opponent after each of his matches. These were the moments that made Cathy proudest of her son. “To me, bronze feels like gold,” she said. “And it’s not just in the medal, it’s in how he carried himself throughout the whole process. That’s what has made me more proud than anything.”

Junior J’den Cox jumps up in celebration after beating Cornell’s Jeramy Sweany 24-9 on Jan. 10, 2016. Photo by Katherine Knott/Staff Photographer

####“Everybody is embracing this kid” J’den Cox has quickly emerged as one of the most recognized faces on campus. Since July, he has thrown out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game, held a meet-and-greet session in the Student Center, signed autographs and talked to classes. Cathy Cox sees her son as a unifying presence on a campus with racial tensions. “Especially being an African American in Columbia with the things that have gone on at the university and with some of the issues we even have with race in Columbia … what he has done really has brought an entire city together, a whole community together,” she said. “It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with gender. Everybody is embracing this kid and everything that he’s trying to accomplish.” J’den still has goals he wants to achieve. He has high expectations for this coming wrestling season, still works on music and says he wants to play for the football team in 2017. J’den realizes he is more of a public figure, but it has not changed who he is as a person. He still goes home to practice piano with his mom; he still sits in the stands for Dossey’s soccer games. He still loves Chips Ahoy cookies with milk, and he still prays. “I believe that the stage I was on before was, yes, a big one … but I believe the one I’m on now is even greater,” J’den said. “And it’s not just a state or nationwide thing, but a worldwide thing as well. And I plan to use that stage to uphold the honor of my family, and uphold the honor of my school, of my state and my city and of my country.” _Edited by Nancy Coleman | ncoleman@themaneater.com_

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