Athlete of the Week: Belleville’s Rocco Negron overcomes injury, wins OW at District 10

To understand how much wrestling means to Rocco Negron, all one has to do is look at the harness wrapped around his once-surgically repaired right shoulder every time the Belleville senior takes the mat.

“It’s in rough shape,” Negron said about the shoulder that will require surgery at the conclusion of the season. “I wear a double shoulder brace on it because it’s that bad.

“But I wasn’t letting anything stop me from wrestling.”

No amount of physical pain was going to stop Negron from returning to action this year and on Saturday, all of the rehab and determination paid off in a performance neither he nor anyone else with the Belleville wrestling program will soon forget.

Negron, who was awarded the top seed at 144 pounds at the NJSIAA District 10 Tournament in Nutley, got consecutive first period pins over Ethan Pinilis of Montclair and Livingston’s Alexandros Gilatis. Then, in the final, Negron won a 10-2 major decision over Verona’s Joel Gonzalez to win his first career district crown.

To cap off the day, Negron was named Outstanding Wrestler for the tournament.

“(Wrestling) wasn’t something that he was going to let go because this is something he really cares about,” Belleville head coach Joe Pizzi said. “He’s been doing it his entire life, he’s dedicated a lot of time to it. So it means a lot to him to come back the way he did and rip his way (through the bracket) in the district tournament. To then get the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Tournament was very cool. That was the cherry on top for us as a team.”

Negron’s championship performance has also earned him the distinction of The Observer Athlete of the Week.

“It means everything to me because it’s been one obstacle after another. It feels great to be named Outstanding Wrestler,” said Negron. “I was not expecting it at all, especially after the finals match, but I am beyond grateful.”

Negron’s inspiring wrestling journey has been well documented. Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a child, Negron started wrestling at the age of 6 with Belleville Recreation, winning several youth tournaments along the way.

As a sophomore at Belleville, Negron achieved a longtime dream when he qualified for the state tournament in Atlantic City despite suffering a shoulder injury earlier in the season that eventually required surgery.

Negron then opened his season with 32 consecutive victories, highlighted by an Essex County championship at 132 pounds. A potential return trip to Atlantic City was denied when he missed weight before the beginning of the district tournament.

According to Negron, his shoulder started bothering him again in August. And after losing his first match of the season due to an injury default, he and his coaches made the difficult decision to rest the injury in hopes that he could return for the end of the year.

Negron was sidelined for more than a month and was unable to defend his Essex County title. A frustrating choice, but one he was hopeful would pay off in the long run.

“Being on the sideline without my guys wasn’t fun at all and I was getting impatient,” said Negron. “But my coaches were making me focus on the bigger picture.”

“We had to be methodical in the way we approached it,” Pizzi said. “We decided that once he was that he wasn’t going to just jump right back on the mat. We wanted to give him more time to heal.

“I’m giving him a lot of credit because most kids would be very, very nervous at the situation. I’m sure it’s still on his mind, and this is not an easy thing to do, wrestle with an injury that could then happen again at any moment.”

Negron returned shortly after the Essex County Tournament and entered Saturday with a 14-1 record, despite not having the shoulder back at 100-percent. But neither the status of the shoulder, nor the harness worn to protect it was going to stop Negron this time around.

“Around a week before the district, I just told myself that it’s the last ride so let it fly out there,” said Negron. “I will not let my high school career end on something I can control.”


Negron was one of four Observer-area wrestlers to win district titles on Saturday at District 10. Nutley senior Brandon Toranzo repeated as champion at 285 points, while sophomore Christopher Cifelli won the title at 106, giving the Raiders a pair of district champs for the first time in more than a decade. Kearny’s Joshua Baeza continued his undefeated streak, winning the title at 138 pounds to improve to 35-0.

In total, 23 Observer-area wrestlers will compete in the Region 3 Tournament that will be held on Friday and Saturday at West Orange.



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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)