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Wrestling against the odds

Both his parents died before he was 10, and his caretaker grandmother died when he was a junior in high school, but wrestling helped Raymond Jordan persevere.
Sunday, November 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:20 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Raymond Jordan was 5 years old, the father he never met died in prison. His mother died later that year.

For Jordan, a redshirt freshman wrestler for Missouri, life didn’t exactly start off the way he wanted it to. And things didn’t improve quickly.

After the death of his mother, Jordan moved from his home in New Jersey to New Bern, N.C., to live with his grandmother.

At school Jordan struggled to make new friends. Because of the tragedy he experienced as a young child, he tended to shy away from other people, including classmates. Jordan remembers school recesses on the playground when he would sit out by himself and watch other kids have fun.

“I think I was very antisocial after my parents died,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t very talkative, and I didn’t like to communicate with other kids. I put myself in the corner, and I just kept to myself for a long time.”

Jordan soon found himself hanging out with the wrong crowd in what he called a rough neighborhood. Before he knew it, he was stealing from stores and from other people, as well as getting into fights on a regular basis.

“I got dragged into it,” Jordan said. “There were quite a few instances where I got into trouble.”

But it took a friend’s mistake to make Jordan realize where his life was headed.

One evening, when Jordan was making the five-mile walk back home from the movies, a friend of his drove by and offered to pick him up and drive him home. Jordan took his friend up on the offer.

“When he dropped me off, people were outside the car and yelling at him,” Jordan said. “I didn’t know what was going on, but he had stolen the car. I decided right there to change my friends and to change my life.”

Many kids in Jordan’s situation might have used their parents’ deaths as an excuse for their situation, but he didn’t.

“A lot of people would have blamed their situation on things going on around them,” Jordan said. “I didn’t look at it that way. I didn’t feel I was different. I felt like I had the same opportunities to achieve my goals as everyone else.”

Jordan said part of the problem was he had so much free time. He desperately wanted to play sports to take up some of that time, but due to asthma problems, doctors advised him to sit out.

“They told me to play video games and to watch TV,” Jordan said. “It was hard just watching other kids.

“So I decided to just take chances with it. I’d have to keep my asthma pump nearby. I was determined to play.”

It wasn’t until he was 12 years old that doctors gave Jordan the OK to participate in sports. He began by joining a football team, but shortly after was introduced to wrestling.

“I always wanted to start playing sports,” Jordan said, “and when I started wrestling, my asthma really didn’t bother me that much. (Football) helped me out with my asthma, but I loved wrestling more than football, so that’s what I did.

Jordan quickly excelled in the sport, but he was limited to local tournaments because he didn’t have the money to travel to tournaments away from his home in North Carolina. Regardless, he still spent a lot of time wrestling.

“Wrestling helped me a lot,” Jordan said. “It helped with my asthma, and it kept me out of trouble. I didn’t have a lot of idle time. Practice kept me from hanging out with people who were always getting into trouble.”

When his freshman year rolled around, Jordan decided to try out for his high school wrestling team, just two years after he took up the sport. After a strong regular season, he finished the year third in the state.

“I didn’t really think I was that good,” Jordan said, “until my coach told me I was the best freshman he’d ever had.”

In the next high school season, he won the North Carolina state championship.

But then tragedy struck again in Jordan’s life with the death of his grandmother, the only adult figure for much of his childhood, during his junior year.

“My grandma always supported me,” Jordan said. “She always wanted me to do good for myself. She was always there for me.”

Jordan said his grandmother always eased the pain for him. When his mother died, his grandmother became his new mother in his life. She made him feel like he had a home when he moved in with her in North Carolina.

Although slowly, Jordan moved on from his grandmother’s death. He had experienced tragedy before.

“I didn’t really look at everything and say I had a hard life,” Jordan said. “That’s not how I thought of it. I mean, yes, I think those are some tough times, but they all prepared me for my life up ahead and to deal with problems in the future.

“I stayed strong during all of it. I stayed focused on doing something for myself.”

Jordan also stayed focused on wrestling. He added two more state championships during his junior and senior seasons. He also started to break out of his shyness during high school.

“Probably my sophomore year, I started breaking out of it a little,” Jordan said. “I grew up and was around people a lot more, and I was in positions where I was forced to interact with people more.”

Jordan also qualified for the national tournament in Cleveland his senior season, but couldn’t afford to go. But he had the support of his community. Many people learned of Jordan’s situation, and after hearing his story, they started raising funds for the trip. They hosted a golf tournament, with the funds going to Jordan’s trip to the national wrestling tournament.

“It was real big for me,” Jordan said. “I had never been to a national event, so it was really special.”

During Jordan’s high school career, Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith started to take notice. Smith had an uncle living in the same town as Jordan, and he would often tell him about Jordan’s wrestling. So Smith sent former MU assistant coach Lee Pritts to watch Jordan.

“He told me, ‘Hey, this kid is for real,’” Smith said. “I just kept hearing about this Raymond Jordan kid, and I had heard he wanted to wrestle in the Big Ten or Big 12.”

Until Jordan started wrestling, he said he didn’t even think college was an option. After all, neither of his parents went to college. His grandparents never attended college either.

“College is a big accomplishment,” Jordan said. “Nobody in my family except my cousin and my uncle ever went to college. So college is a big thing.”

Jordan knew it would take more than good wrestling skills to get into college. So he was always good about getting his schoolwork done.

“He’s a good kid,” Smith said. “He knew he had to do his schoolwork to get into college. And wrestling was the way that helped him go to college. Those two are tied together.”

Once Jordan got to MU, Smith said he quickly became a favorite among his teammates. He went from the kid who never wanted to interact with other kids in school to the college wrestler who never stops smiling.

“He’s one of the most popular kids on the team,” Smith said. “He’s always smiling. He’s just someone that enjoys life. He’s excited to be here. He’s not a very vocal leader, but he’s a great person to be around because he always seems to be enjoying things.”

Now Jordan has a varsity spot in his redshirt freshman season for the Tigers. He earned his first career victory with a pin against Stanford Nov. 11. Last weekend at the Missouri Open at Hearnes Center, he won the 184-pound tournament. He upset top-seeded Alex Clemsen of Edinboro in the finals to claim the title.

“I consider myself successful,” Jordan said. “A lot of kids from my neighborhood didn’t finish high school. Some are in jail even. People in my situation aren’t as fortunate to get out of it like I was. They don’t have people supporting them like I did.”

Jordan’s situation this season is much different than it was a year ago, mainly because of the weight class in which he wrestles. Last year, he wrestled in the 165-pound weight class, so he spent most of his time concentrating on making weight and following a strict diet. Now he says he is much closer to his natural body weight.

“I’m a lot more comfortable now,” Jordan said. “Last year I had to worry about my weight. This year, I get to focus on my wrestling style and technique.”

The coaching staff has been working this year to force Jordan to use his explosiveness to help him win matches. Smith said he’s always been explosive, but now he’s using that to his advantage.

“He’s already tough to beat,” Smith said. “He’s committed to what he’s doing. So by the end of the season, he’s going to be even tougher to beat.”

Finally Jordan is right where he wants to be. However, he will never forget how he got to where he is today.

“The past is what makes you who you are,” Jordan said. “My past has made me a lot stronger and more independent. A lot of people don’t know what they’d do if they lost their parents. I’ve gone through that stage already. And it made me a lot stronger of a person.”

During Christmastime, he goes back to North Carolina to see people who helped him along the way.

But he doesn’t need to go back home to see his mother and grandmother. A pillow with a picture of his mother lies on his bed. A banner hangs on his wall with a poem on it, and there is also a picture of his grandmother. Jordan said he looks at them every day.

“I know they’re watching over me with everything I do,” Jordan said. “I know what they want for me. They give me motivation every day.”

PHOTOS

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Jordan has worked his way onto a varsity spot this season in the 184-pound weight class for Missouri’s wrestling team after spending last year focusing most of his time on a making weight at the 164-pound division.

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Despite doctors telling him not to participate in sports when he a was a child because of an asthma condition, Jordan found that wrestling was a sport he could handle and soon grew to love it.


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