James Green: From Willingboro to wrestling all-American

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Nebraska all-American wrestler James Green from Willingboro. (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska)

Your parents decide to move out of the city, away from Brooklyn. You end up in a South Jersey town where your best buddy's dad puts wrestling mats down in a dance studio in the recreation center and shows you what he learned as a college star.

It could have played out some other way, and you never would have been a state high school champion or a college all-American.

So James Green was lucky? To land in Willingboro, yes. But you don't lose your father when you're 10 years old and attribute your life's course to luck. Your father wouldn't have stood for that anyway.

Green is a three-time collegiate all-American at Nebraska, wrestling at 157 pounds, with goals to reach Olympic heights. He is one of the star attractions at a college wrestling showcase Saturday night at the Palestra.

Did he take to it right away?

"I had my struggles," Green said over the phone this week. "I guess you could say I did take to it. . . . I was a small guy. I was a small dude coming up. Then I finally got bigger. Being a small guy, you're bound to wrestle other small guys. My dad, he wasn't having it. My dad always had me wrestle older kids, bigger kids. I was crying, getting beat up."

Then he'd go to a tournament, finally wrestling opponents his own size, and he'd walk away with the medal.

"His father was the driving force," said Tom Scotton, who ran the local wrestling program and has had two of his own sons go on to wrestle in college. "I didn't want to go to all these tournaments. He talked us into going to them."

"He didn't want anyone sitting on their behinds," said Joyce Green, James' mother, talking about her late husband. "They had to get up and do some type of activities. James has two sisters. He had them in gymnastics, in dance. He even had our oldest daughter in wrestling, too. That didn't go far!"

As for James, "he didn't want to disappoint his dad, first and foremost," Joyce Green said. "I think he enjoyed winning, getting his hand raised."

"Oh, gosh, he had more energy than anyone around," said Scotton, a former Bucknell wrestling star. "Everyone else got tired. James never got tired."

His father was a native of Jamaica who had moved to Brooklyn as a teenager and married a New York girl. Shortly before his son was born, James "Country" Green had opened a recording studio in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section.

He eventually moved his family out but kept the studio, and allowed a struggling rap artist to live there. James Green said his father helped a lot of people trying to make it in the music business.

"Yeah, he got killed by one of the guys that he helped," James Green said.

Police said the other man got in an argument with Green's father over money for rent and studio fees, and the man shot Green's father in the stomach in 2003. He was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving 25 years to life.

Close to Philadelphia, a community offered its help. James stayed on his feet. He found that was his wrestling specialty, too.

"Growing up, that was kind of our motto: 'A takedown's a win,' " Green said.

A state champion in high school, he has progressed to being a more skilled wrestler down on the mat, he said, but wrestling "on my feet" remains his strong suit. Experts will tell you it is an essential skill in international freestyle wrestling, where Green plans to have a future.

"I want to win the national [NCAA] title, I want to win the Olympic title, the world title," Green said. "Essentially, I want to be one of the best."

As a junior, Green was Big Ten champion and finished third at NCAAs. That earned him an invitation to the NWCA All-Star Classic on Saturday night at the Palestra. This season-opening showcase was held in Washington in recent years. Top-ranked wrestlers in each weight class were invited, with just one title match at each weight, starting at 6:30 p.m. The building will get loud.

"We like to remind the basketball guys that Palestra meant 'House of Wrestling' in Greek," said tournament director Roger Reina, the former Penn head coach.

Wrestlers from Penn and Drexel are in the field, in addition to the one from Willingboro, who hasn't forgotten the forces that came together and got him to the mat or the man who always saw him as bigger than his weight.

"I can only imagine what his dad would be doing right here," Joyce Green said about her son's wrestling success. "He would probably be bragging from here to forever."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus