The movie star smile was magnetic and contagious, enthralling the already overjoyed crowd. Alongside the mat, fellow wrestlers leapt in the air, trading high fives and celebratory hoots and hollers.
No, the scene wasn’t Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, the site of New Jersey’s high school wrestling state championships in mid-March. The action on this early January evening was inside the 5/6 gymnasium at Williamstown Middle School.
Marquez Campbell, an eighth grader in his first year at the school, had never wrestled competitively prior to joining the school’s team less than two months ago. During a recent weeknight match against Pennsauken, Campbell continued to put on the best show in town, working his way around the mat and maneuvering his way to a second-period pin.
The frenzied cheers coming from the fans populating the packed bleachers was moving. The lump that suddenly appeared in the back of your throat was difficult to ignore.
“It’s amazing,” Principal Dana Mericle said. “It sends a message to everyone: You can do whatever it is that you want to do. You just have to persevere and not be afraid to give it a try.”
Campbell has been nearly unbeatable in his first year of wrestling despite his daily battles with autism. As a result, the 15-year-old, always smiling Campbell has become a sensation at the school.
Everyone from his teammates on the wrestling team, the team managers who save a spot for him at their table at lunch, to the other athletes, coaches, teachers, administrators and parents in and around Monroe Township, have become addicted to the feel good story of the school year.
With each of Campbell’s wins, which are becoming a near-nightly occurrence, the Braves’ wrestlers break out into a celebration as if they won a team title and the roar of the crowd behind them raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
“The best thing about it,” Mericle said, “aside from just how talented he is, is the team behind him. They just care so much about him and are so happy for him.”
“He’s got a drive that’s contagious,” added Williamstown Middle School wrestling coach Tom McAvoy. “They’re motivated and inspired just by him going out there and giving it everything he’s got.”
When asked about his sudden leading role at the school, his work with the coach and his teammates, Campbell simply smiles as he runs along the mat prior to the match.
“It’s really good,” he said.
In the interest of full disclosure, Marquez Campbell has wrestled before this season.
Two or three years ago, before his family moved to Williamstown, Campbell was part of a team that almost surely wasn’t aware of his talent within. Knowing he had autism but not knowing his capabilities, that team basically let him win all of his matches, making handshake agreements with opposing wrestlers and teams while letting Campbell have the enjoyment of being a part of a team.
The first mistake in this plan was underestimating a preteen with autism. The second came when one of his final opponents apparently missed the memo about playing dead.
“I guess they didn’t say anything and the kid didn’t take it easy on him and Marquez exploded,” explained Campbell’s mother, Alyssa Caban. “He was so mad. Because the whole time (it’d been really easy). He got so fired up. He was almost trying to kick the kid.”
Flash forward to this fall. Campbell was acclimating himself to a new school and had to join some clubs as a member of the National Honor Society. After the untimely death of his birth father a year ago, Campbell had been on a health kick (he stopped eating sugars, only drank water and wanted to join a gym), so signing up for Williamstown’s Weight Club was a natural fit.
McAvoy oversees the Weight Club. Its members are dominated by the school’s wrestlers, who quickly became Campbell’s friends.
“He’s in all of my classes, too, and when he comes out here, he understands what we’re trying to teach him,” said fellow eight grader Hunter Johnson, a lifelong wrestler who has taken to tutoring Campbell mid-match.
“I like watching him wrestle. He’ll look over to me, Jackson (Slotnick) and Tyler (Devers) and kind of ask what to do and we’ll show him a move; he’ll do it and win the match.”
That’s almost exactly what happened in the match that led to a pin over his Pennsauken opponent on Jan. 7.
Campbell scored a takedown in the match’s first period, but then opted to begin the second in the neutral position. Before long, he took his opponent down again, this time near the edge of the mat, just a few feet from where his teammates were cheering him on.
Campbell heard their instructions through the escalating noise and collected his second pin in less than a week.
“Every time he wins everyone is screaming and the gym goes crazy,” Slotnick said. “Watching him makes you think anyone can do anything … He pays attention and he learns, he goes out there, tries his best, and does what he has to do.”
“He comes to practice every day with a big smile on his face, goes to the mat with a big smile on his face, and win or lose, he comes off with a big smile on his face,” said Devers, a fellow eighth grader.
“He just loves it, and he keeps striving for progress.”
The wrestling season is already one month old and Campbell has lost “maybe one or two” matches, according to one astute observer. But the winning is really just a bonus.
Campbell’s constant, infectious enthusiasm has taken over the wrestling team and the school at large, too.
“It’s a lot of love — it chokes me up,” Caban said. “Even the kids who aren’t on the wrestling team and are involved in other sports, I hear them talking and they don’t know I’m his mom. They’re like, ‘Oh you’ve got to watch this kid. He’s so good. He has autism, but he’s so good.’
“He’s showing the kids that even someone with struggles can endure and move on and have success. It makes me feel good because it helps me know he’s going to be OK in the future. It’s a worry that parents of kids with special needs have. But if he can fit into his community, that’s half the battle.”
The wrestling season is far from over but Williamstown Middle School’s team has been a rousing success in 2020. From the seasoned athletes who have been winners on and off the mat as competitors and teammates, to the new kid emerging as a wrestling prodigy and role model, and the veteran coach who learned to never underestimate the will of a kid, with or without disabilities, too.
“I’ve made the mistake of setting the ceiling too low,” said McAvoy, who has been coaching wrestling in the district for 25 years. “I had a predetermination of where he’d be able to get to. For 14 days straight he did something that exceeded those expectations. It blew my mind, day after day after day, and finally, I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I setting it up for failure?’ … I’ve stopped trying to limit him because of his limitations or challenges; we started focusing on his ability. What can he do?”
The answer might not be simple, but it won’t come from simply looking at someone and drawing your own conclusions, either. You can’t judge what’s inside a person based on their appearances or the labels they carry around like nametags as they make their way through their daily routines.
“It really makes me think that there aren’t any limitations in life,” Devers said. “Go as far as you can go, keep striving for whatever you want.”
What can Marquez Campbell do?
Anything he wants.