COLUMBIA — Four-year-old J'den Cox sat in coach Brian Smith's office at the Missouri wrestling practice facility, reading books, as his older brothers, Drae Cox and Zach Arnold, wrestled for Columbia Youth Wrestling Club.
Fourteen years later, Cox can call Smith his wrestling coach.
"When J’den finally signed with us, I could finally return a text to Cathy Cox (J'den's mother) because she’d always text me, 'J’den’s doing this or that,' and I could never return a text (because of NCAA rules)," Smith said. "So finally, on the day he signed, I could text the family and go, ‘Hey’ I could finally text to her, ‘I have nothing to say, but I just wanted to text you.’”
Nearly a year after Smith's text message to Cox's mother, Cox is an 18-year-old, 197-pound freshman at Missouri — No. 5 in the country at his weight class. He sports a 26-2 individual record and has toppled five ranked opponents so far this season.
Cox picked up right where he left off at Hickman High School. He won four individual state titles for the Kewpies, one of which came as a 207-pound senior wrestling up in the 285-pound weight class.
“He’s a special athlete,” Smith said. “You look back at what he accomplished in high school, he’s pretty amazing, but he also was an amazing football player. I remember being approached by the Missouri football staff when he was a freshman, being asked, ‘Do you think he’s gonna play football or wrestle?'"
"And of course, I said, ‘No, he’s gonna wrestle. Stay away from him.'"
Actually, Smith had nothing to worry about. The Division I universities recruiting Cox to play football never had a chance.
None of those coaches knew him like Smith did. Besides, Cox said he never really wanted to play football.
Wrestling was in his blood.
"It was great to know that the opportunity was there, but I love to wrestle," Cox said. "I had fun and everything doing football, but I love to wrestle.”
Cox's uncle, Phil Arnold, won back-to-back state titles for Hickman in 1970-71. Cox's 24-year-old brother, Drae Cox, wrestled all four years at Hickman and then went on to wrestle in college.
“Hickman has been in my family since before I was born," J'den Cox said. "It’s also kinda like, to be honest, people thought that going to Hickman was going to put a little pressure on me, but it was very cool to be a part of it. Hickman’s a big part of my family life story.
"It was a great ride. It was fun. It was fun to follow in my brother's and my uncle’s footsteps and be a part of something they were a part of.”
J'den Cox hopes to add an accolade that neither Arnold nor Cox has, though. He wants an NCAA Championship, and from there, an Olympic gold medal.
“I think that his record speaks for itself," Drae Cox said. "He is by far the best out of all of us. I think I can say that now.”
J'den Cox was six years younger than Drae Cox, but the younger brother's work ethic went beyond his years. Drae Cox used to come home from high school practice and take on his kid-brother in the garage at a local youth wrestling club.
The matches felt like high school level competitions. When he returned from Lindenwood University during breaks and took on J'den Cox in high school, it remained the same.
Now, as Drae Cox watches his brother excel at the college level, the graduate assistant at Lindenwood brags to his colleagues.
"Everyone that I work with knows that my little brother wrestles because I talk about him all the time," Drae Cox said. "I’m always pulling up videos of him. Just extreme pride. At this point, it’s just, with the amount of work that he’s put into the sport and into himself, it’s really cool now that we just get to sit back and watch him continue to grow."
Neither Smith nor J'den Cox remembers what he used to read in that office 14 years ago. They've forged plenty of new memories since.
It's impossible for the freshman standout to distinguish between his biological family and his wrestling family.
They are one.
“You feel a bond between you and them," J'den Cox said. "I cant even put words to it. It was an awesome experience. It was so much fun. I have so many memories."
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.