By Carlos Toro
On March 20, 2015, then-freshman B.J. Clagon of the wrestling team achieved something no other Rider freshman has done: become an All-American. Clagon did this by defeating Charles Cobb 5-3 in the fourth consolation round of the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
It was a moment nearly two decades in the making. At that point, Rider had 13 All-Americans in its history, but none of them received this honor their first year in college.
Although he made it look easy, going 30-11 during the season, the path to reaching that achievement was riddled with heavy road blocks, including a physically-debilitating condition that could have prevented him from walking properly.
No one could have predicted he would have become a 149-pound wrestler. It was an incredible moment to compete at the top of the national collegiate wrestling level.
“Nationals is nerve-wracking,” Clagon said. “You see the best wrestlers in the country there, and my matches were not going to be easy. This is something you train hard for all season long. When I got into the match that got me All-American status, I was so prepared to win that I just felt like I dominated.”
When Clagon and his coaches saw that there was not much time left in the match with a 5-3 lead, all Clagon needed to do was run around in the mat and chew the clock out.
“When I saw the time expire, I looked at my coaches and they looked at me and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” Clagon said. “I wrestled in state finals, big tournaments, but nothing compared to this. I felt like a little kid in a candy store.”
It was the biggest feat in a long list that includes Clagon winning the Eastern Wrestling League title and defeating the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the nation at 149 lbs.
Rider Assistant Coach John Hangey said that what the 2014-2015 Rider Athlete of the Year has been able to do for the program is invaluable.
“Ultimately, you can’t place a value on what B.J. has done for our program in his first year of eligibility,” Hangey said. “Becoming the first freshman All-American for the university and the wrestling program is very special. We look for him to bring even more notoriety during his next three years.”
By now, Clagon’s story has spread throughout the Rider wrestling and athletics community. He was born with clubfoot, a condition that, according to the Mayo Clinic, describes a range of foot abnormalities usually present at birth in which the baby’s foot is twisted out of shape or position. It is a condition that is present in one in every 1,000 births. After multiple surgeries to try to fix his feet, he was thankfully able to walk normally.
For a lot of people, this seems like a story written for a Hollywood movie: a great wrestler overcomes physical adversity as a young child and achieves great success. But that’s not what the sophomore wants people to remember him for.
Clagon wants to be viewed by everyone as an equal and not have the disability be something that defines him.
“It was obviously different. But I consider myself just like everyone else and I don’t want people to look at me differently just because I was born with clubfoot,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t want this to be a sob story. I grow past these types of things. Yeah, I had this condition and probably wasn’t supposed to walk, but now I am a Division I athlete, an All-American. I can’t really complain. It sucks being born with clubfoot, but I overcame a lot and just like Drake said, ‘I started from the bottom and now I’m here.’”
Despite him getting teased when he was younger, Clagon made the most out of it and even found a nice comparison between himself and a Looney Tunes cartoon character.
“I had this Daffy Duck kind of Achilles tendon when I was younger because for surgery, they had to extend my Achilles tendon, and I love Daffy Duck so I thought it was really cool.”
Fast forward a few years after Clagon overcame his clubfoot, he started to take interest in a sport that would soon be a big part of his life: wrestling.
A few of his family members had already reached success in their careers, so Clagon was eager to try the sport himself. He officially started when he was nine years old, and at the time, he wasn’t sure if he was going to be good at it.
“I started practicing when I was younger, but I didn’t compete in my first real tournament until I was nine,” Clagon said. “I was playing football and my dad was a wrestler and my cousin wrestled as well. They just got me into starting to get that feeling and then thought that maybe I should give this a shot. First time I stepped in, I was horrible, probably one of the worst wrestlers in the world.”
After spending the following years training, his skills improved dramatically and he was competing in tournament finals by the time he entered middle school.
Clagon often recalls a memory when he wrestled his current teammate, sophomore Chad Walsh, at a tournament when he was younger. Looking back, he notes how much their friendship has grown since then.
“Two years after I started competing, I wrestled Chad in the sixth grade state finals,” Clagon said. “He actually beat me on a takedown in overtime and every time I go to his house, I look at the plaque and I’m reminded, ‘Hey, look! Second place.’ Now you look at us now, Chad is like a brother to me, one of my best friends here.”
Once Clagon reached high school, a lot of universities were on the recruiting trail trying to get him to commit to their school. It is easy to figure out why. He won four NHSCA National Championships, one of only three wrestlers to ever achieve that, and two NJSIAA State Championships at Toms River South.
By then, he was getting recruited not just by Rider but by other big wrestling programs across the country, according to Hangey.
“Recruiting B.J. out of high school was a challenge in the sense that he was very highly recruited by big time programs like Iowa St. and Nebraska,” Hangey said. “We focused on providing him a total package of academics and wrestling at Rider. B.J. is very much a family person, and I think wanting to be close to home so his parents could watch him wrestle ultimately helped get him come to Rider.”
Clagon cited the coaching staff and the teammates as major reasons as to why he decided to pick Rider.
“I get asked this question a lot,” Clagon said. “People ask, ‘Why did you choose such a small school? Why did you pick Rider?’ I love my coaches. I love my teammates, even before they were my teammates. I committed to Rider about a week after my recruiting trip.”
On the technical side, Clagon was already doing well, but making the jump to college athletics is a challenge, especially on the mental side. Assistant Coach Nic Bedelyon saw a lot of mental improvement from him as did the entire team. The coaches applaud his improvement and don’t think there is much that he needs to dramatically improve to be ready to challenge for the national title.
“During that whole first year, from working out with him personally, I could tell that he had gotten mentally stronger,” Bedelyon, who recruited Clagon to come to Rider, said. With the 2015-16 season fast approaching, Clagon’s sights are set on the national title. His season started on the right note when he won his match on the NWCA All Star wrestling classic on Nov. 1. The event, which was broadcasted on ESPNU, was a showcase of the best wrestlers in the country at each weight division.
Clagon, being the first Rider underclassman and fifth Rider wrestler overall to be invited to compete at the event, thought it was a huge honor to get the invitation. He said that this invitation is validation of his status as a great collegiate wrestler and knows that he has to work hard to keep improving
But as much as people are already impressed by what he has been able to achieve in one year, Clagon is nowhere near content with where he is right now. Clagon says he wants to get better, win a national title and give back to the school that has already done so much for him.
“I didn’t get to the finals last year but this year I will,” Clagon said. “I’m going to keep progressing and become the national champion. God can take anything away from anyone and that’s why I’m so appreciative of what I have accomplished, getting to college and competing at a Division I level. Rider is a small school and to bring that recognition to the school is the greatest feeling in the world.”