Tragically killed Army wrestler inspired many through highs and lows
By PATRICK LANNI | nj.com | Published: February 3, 2020
In the weeks leading up to his tragic death, April Morgan got to see a side of her son that he kept to himself not because he was ashamed for the world to know he was struggling but because he never wanted his mom to worry.
Even during his toughest times at the U.S. Military Academy, Chris “C.J.” Morgan would pick up the phone, and his message was always the same: I’m good.
But the reality was, things were not always good.
About a month before the rollover crash that left Morgan dead and 21 other cadets injured last June, the always-positive and uplifting hometown hero began to open up to his mother and let her see what was sometimes hidden behind his big smile.
"For him, there was a point he thought he was never going to make it," April Morgan said Friday night when thousands poured into the gym at West Orange High to see Army take on a Lehigh in a special senior night match dedicated to Morgan and his family.
“He was there (at West Point) and nobody knew the struggles that he really had. Even athletically, he had such a passion for wrestling, but the injuries he had in high school came back so he never really got to reach his potential. Between struggling with school and being injured, he was just such a bright person that he would never let anyone see that he was down.”
During his time at West Orange, Morgan built a reputation as the kind of special kid who shook everybody's hand with two hands and won with dignity, respect and humility.
As a senior in 2015, Morgan was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the Essex County Tournament, finished fifth at the NJSIAA State Championships in Atlantic City and won more matches than any wrestler in West Orange history.
He played saxophone in his school’s orchestra and by all accounts was the type of renaissance man who was wise beyond his years.
"What he represented is everything we want our kids to be," Caldwell coach Sean Romano said. "When he toed the line, he was going to beat you up. When he got off the line, he was a true gentleman."
On Friday, cadets in the crowd wore shirts with the words faith, family, duty, honor and country, the slogan for the C.J. Morgan Foundation.
No. 11 Lehigh swept four bouts in the upperweights to pull away from No. 19 Army, 24-9, but there was a palpable energy in a place Morgan called home on a night when wrestling felt like an afterthought.
“An important thing for this night that I’ve thought about, is that it was senior night, but it was really Chris’s night,” Army senior Cael McCormick said. “I was honored to be apart of it, share it with him and his family and everyone in the West Orange community.”
Getting out of the water
McCormick heard the story a couple days after he and his teammates decided to move their match from West Point to West Orange.
"There was one semester, he was hanging on the edge of being ineligible," McCormmick said. "I don't think he was even allowed to compete, but he showed up with the greatest work ethic you could imagine. He was coming and working harder than everybody in the room."
“Looking back on it, somebody told that story a couple of days ago, and we were like really ... but that’s the kind of person CJ was. He was the utmost stand-up guy.”
Usually when Morgan was on break from West Point, he took off his uniform and forgot about life as a cadet. That was something his mother remembered, but this time was different.
The Morgan family was back in Chicago in November of 2018, mourning CJ’s grandmother and April’s mother, who had just died after a battle with cancer. Through it all, Morgan stayed locked into making sure he crammed every bit of information he was getting from the classes he was missing.
One of them was a history class.
The other was Military Survival Swimming, and this was not a GPA booster like the you might be thinking. No matter how hard Morgan prepared, the only thing that mattered was how he performed under water in a series of rigorous training sessions.
Morgan failed the class on his first attempt and needed a miracle the second time around.
"He said it was the hardest class he ever had to take," April Morgan said.
“There was a moment in that class that he thought he was going to drown. He was like ‘God I’m coming. I’m ready,’ but then something clicked in his head and he kept fighting. He was showing me everything that he was doing. He said ‘Mom by the grace of God, I was able to pass that class.’ He was able to get himself out of the water.”
Nobody ever doubted Morgan’s perseverance. His brother Colin is now a freshman at West Point and wore his military uniform during an emotional pre-match ceremony when every senior on the Army wrestling team was awarded their varsity letter.
“Honestly, he was a person who cared about people. He cared about himself, but he never left anyone behind,” said Colin who, like his brother, finished his West Orange wrestling career on the podium in Atlantic City.
Colin wanted to join his brother at West Point before his death and his passing only reenforced his dedication to a life of service.
“I knew for sure,” he said.
A homecoming to remember
Chris Morgan, CJ’s father, rarely misses any wrestling action and served as Army’s honorary captain Friday night.
After Army freshman P.J. Ogunsanya walked off the mat with a limp, Morgan threw his arm over his shoulder and helped him back to the bench.
Throughout the night, Morgan shook hands with every person who came out of the bleachers.
Just like his son would have.
“It’s a mission for us to let everyone know what kind of amazing person CJ was, and he did that himself," West Orange coach Stephan Zichella said. “Everybody admired him.”
Earlier in the day, four Essex County high school teams squared off on side-by-side mats to set the stage for a special evening of wrestling.
Caldwell gave up a home match, allowing West Orange to host the event, and West Essex and Seton Hall Prep moved one of Essex County’s most-anticipated matches of the season over to West Orange.
So on a night when the wrestling world came together, this was a homecoming to remember the little things about a leader who inspired many.
“I’d come into the locker room. He would say ‘Joooooey’ and I’d go ... CJ. You’d never be able to replicate that again," said Army assistant coach Joe DeAngelo. "He was a shooting star, a once-in-a-lifetime personality.”
And that’s what April Morgan wants people to remember about her son.
Even when times were tough. He would just smile because he was all good.
“That was his thing," she said. “He was my hero.”
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