Remember those photos of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps with seven medals around his neck? Well, the young man from Belleville pictured here is wearing 11. And he’s only just begun to compete in his sport of choice: wrestling.
Rocco Negron, age 9, garnered his latest award in March when he took third place in the USANJ Kids’ Scholastic State Championship matches, which drew several thousand competitors to Trenton. There were 14 wrestlers in Rocco’s age/ weight group. (Bantam weight; 75 lbs.)
We met with Rocco and his parents, Nicole and Cesar Negron, at their home last month to talk about both the third-grader’s achievements and about Autism Awareness Month. Rocco, you see, has Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which he refers to as “his little dark enemy.”
From our time with the boy, we can tell you that, in this contest, the “enemy” doesn’t stand a chance.
When Rocco wrestles, he wears headgear bearing the words “Autism Awareness.” His is not a secret battle. He himself is aware of exactly what he’s up against, and his determination to deal with it is nothing less than inspiring.
It is also obvious that neither he nor his family defines him on the basis of the disorder. Which should be an inspiration to other families coping with the same challenges.
His parents noted that their son did not speak until he was 5. However, at age 4, he basically taught himself how to play chess by studying the diagrams in a chess manual. At school, he excels in math and science. His goals are to win the state championships and to win a college scholarship.
He may not have spoken until he was 5, but today he is articulate and witty. “He’s 9 going on 19,” is the way his mother put it.
It was at age 6 when Rocco announced: “I want to wrestle.” And he is now fully committed to the sport as a member of the Belleville Recreation team.
On Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays he works with his coaches, Lawrence and Matt Fusco (both Belleville natives); on Tuesdays and Fridays, the focus is on strength and conditioning and on Wednesdays, hel joins in on practices at the Predators Wrestling Club in Caldwell, under the direction of coaches Rick Caamano and Jay Jenkins.
Rocco’s dad, Cesar — a Kearny police officer — credited all the coaches with helping his son “to come out of his shell.”
Nicole added, “’If you want me to train you, you’d better start reading and doing homework. If you want to wrestle with me, you have to do well in school.’
Matt instilled that in him. “It was Lawrence who built up his confidence competing on the mat, by being a constant figure in his corner at these tournaments, especially at the USANJ Kids’ Scholastic State Championship. Lawrence’s presence has played an important part in his social development.
“They understand each other, and Rocco trusts the Fusco brothers completely. They’ve taught him to give 100% and they have helped him to learn a lot of life’s lessons.”
We asked Rocco himself what makes a good wrestler. His answer, “Someone that’s smart, that pays attention, that wants to wrestle, that listens to their coaches and that wants to compete.”
During our visit to the Negron home, we were privileged to visit “The Pit,” which is the basement gym — built by Cesar –where this family of athletes works out. Rocco’s older brother, Elijah, is also a wrestler, and Rocco’s twin sister, Rhiana, does Judo.
It was down there on the blue-and-white wrestling mat where Rocco learned to walk, his dad noted.
Cesar, who boxes, also recalled how, when Rocco was a baby, “I would be hitting a speed bag and holding him in my other arm.” This kid is very much at home in a competitve environment.
The walls of “The Pit” are lined with the family awards and photos, including one of Cesar winning a 2007 N.J. police officers’ boxing championship at the Sun Bank Arena in Trenton. The same forum where Rocco won his state medal in March. “To see him win a medal in the same arena was incredible,” Cesar said.
We asked Rocco, who won all those medals in just his second year of wrestling, what were some lessons he learned. “Stance,” he said. “It’s the first thing you learn. That, and not to get pinned.”
Somehow, we think that, as he grows up, Rocco’s stance will ensure he never gets pinned by life.