Sometimes, the path toward greatness is riddled with pain and strife.
Toms River South wrestler Marvin Hayden knows the path well and has refused to cave in to what, for many, would be the easy way out.
“I’m not bitter about what I went through,” said Hayden, a senior 220-pounder who will be striving to win an NJSIAA District 24 championship at heavyweight, where he is the top seed, Saturday at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River High School North. “I just look at it like that’s what I went through and it was part of my life. There’s nothing I can do to change what happened. I’m just going on in life with the plan to succeed.
“It would be easy for me to just give up and say, ‘Oh, yeah … I grew up in the projects. I’m not expected to be anything, so I’m not going to be anything.’ That’s not the way I think. My past doesn’t define me.” Click on the video icon above to watch a video feature on Marvin Hayden. Using our mobile app? Watch the video here.
And that’s just the beginning of the success Hayden already has become.
“He’s totally beating the odds,” said Toms River South head coach Ron Laycock, whose team, which shared the Shore Conference Class A South division title before winning the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III crown last week, has benefited this year partly because of Hayden being a solid upperweight.
“He’s a kid who has had every reason to just throw up his hands and call it quits, but he keeps pressing on. He won’t stop until he’s successful. A lot of kids with his past would have given up a long time ago. Marvin just wouldn’t do it.”
Beginnings of a rough road
Hayden grew up in New Brunswick and had a pleasant family life up until he was 12 years old. But then his father died and things changed.
“That was a big loss for me because a lot of changes start going on around the house and where I lived,” he said. “I grew up in the projects and everybody had similar lifestyles. I don’t think I was a bad kid, but I did some silly things to get in trouble. I was fighting a lot. You do silly things when you’re little.
“But as years kept going by, things were starting to get worse. My mom was yelling at me for no reason. I used to get punished for things … beatings, but I didn’t think that was much of an issue, because in the projects everybody’s mom was whooping them so it seemed like something normal. I thought because my mom beat on me it was because she loved me.”
To avoid being home during his middle-teen years, Hayden ended up staying at friends’ homes most nights. Eventually, being with certain friends led to more problems on the streets and with police, and a deteriorating home life didn’t help matters, Hayden said.
“Times were really rough and I went through a lot of stuff,” he said. “So, I started fighting more in school. I was raised fighting, so I just liked fighting. I didn’t realize it was wrong. It just felt good when I did it. But then I started getting into big fights, on the streets, and getting in trouble with the cops. My mom would always get into this big fuss that she didn’t want to pick me up.”
After eventually ending up on probation and doing community service as part of a court order, Hayden continued to get into trouble with fighting. At one point, when he was 15, a judge allowed Hayden the opportunity to continue on probation with additional community service.
“But my mom wasn’t trying to have it,” he said. “She didn’t want me back home. So the judge looked at me, then looked around, and said, ‘I guess you’ve got to go to jail.’ So I was sent to a juvenile detention center because there was no place else for me to go.”
‘Left in jail’
According to Hayden, he remained in juvenile detention for three months. But during that time, he was given several opportunities by the courts to return home.
However, as he approached his 16th birthday, he wasn’t welcomed home.
“Every time I went back to court, the police officers would come in and tell me my mother didn’t want me back home,” Hayden said. “They kept telling me, ‘We can’t do nothing about it because you have nowhere to go.’ So my mom left me in jail. Months went by and people kept telling me they were looking for a program for me.”
Hayden eventually ended up in a program for at-risk teens, but he said it wasn’t much better than being in the juvenile detention center.
“This was when my life really started getting bad,” he said. “I went to this other program for bad kids, and I had to wait four or five months before I could go home. But that was just for weekends, which was OK with my mom. So I went home on weekends and then back to the program the rest of the week. I was in a 6-to-12-month program, but I stayed in there for 14 months.”
Despite being “in a program” for that long, Hayden said he felt more comfortable with that than being at home, and he spent most of his weekends home someplace other than his house. It was then he realized he was better off just taking care of himself, rather than keep hoping his mother would help him.
“I did a lot of thinking about it, and I realized that if I was going to be satisfied with doing nothing in life then I was going to be nothing in life,” he said.
New road toward better things
After nearly a year and a half of being bounced around between programs, Hayden was given an opportunity for a fresh start at Ocean’s Harbor House in Toms River. Following an extensive interviewing process, he moved into the group home for homeless, neglected, abused and abandoned teens in July 2011.
That’s when vocational educational counselor Matt Coder entered his life.
“Marvin was already 17 when he arrived to Harbor House, and we got along right away,” Coder said. “He had a tough run and didn’t have anybody, so he had a thick skin and didn’t really let anybody in. He kept to himself and was quiet. But he was respectful and didn’t have a problem with the rules we had in place.”
A month after being at Harbor House, Hayden picked up a part-time job at Wendy’s on Route 37 in Toms River, then got right to work on improving himself as a student once he was enrolled and going to class at Toms River South.
He did what?
For many years prior to last school year, Hayden had been a basketball player, and he had intentions of trying out for coach John MacIntosh’s squad as the winter sports season drew near. Somehow, B.J. Clagon talked Hayden into considering wrestling instead.
With a physical already completed and all the necessary paperwork handed in to the athletic office, Hayden figured his fighting experience during his teens might benefit him on the wrestling mat. So he ended up in South’s wrestling room the first day of practice.
“I didn’t know anything about wrestling,” he said. “I don’t even know how I became friends with B.J., but he was telling me that they needed heavier kids on the team, so I figured I’d give it a shot.”
Hayden found out quickly that all his street smarts and previous fighting experience did him little good on the wrestling mat.
“I started understanding it and … if this was on the streets, it wouldn’t be like that, but on the mat I was getting beat up,” he said, laughing. “I don’t like getting beat up. I don’t like losing. Wrestling was nothing like fighting. But I’m not a quitter, so I wasn’t going to start something I wouldn’t finish.”
Assistant coach Joe Adelizzi had a feeling Hayden was just getting started toward better times on the mat.
“Somebody once told me that anybody can be good at wrestling if you’re tough enough, and Marvin definitely is tough enough,” he said. “When he walked out of the room the first day of practice last year, I have no doubt that he walked out, sat down in the locker room and said, ‘I want to be good at this sport.’ And he’s worked hard to become a better wrestler.”
So hard, that Hayden competed in multiple summer leagues and regularly attended John DeMarco’s Gut Wrench Club in Toms River.
“What’s inspired me most about Marvin is his dedication and commitment to the sport,” Laycock said. “He set out to be a better wrestler, and he did whatever he could to get himself better, which ultimately helped our team be better. He went to Gut Wrench from March to May last year, competed in summer leagues, was in the gym working out, and he didn’t miss a single day doing it.
“I remember after the district tournament last year, and he said to me, ‘Coach, I want to be a district champion next year.’ And after I told him what he had to do to get himself to that level, he just went out and worked his butt off to do it.”
More than a wrestler
In addition to becoming a solid wrestler helping his team, Hayden has become a role model for his classmates at South and housemates at Harbor House. He continues to work at Wendy’s, and last year, for the first time in his life, he reached the high honor roll as a student, Coder said.
“We were really happy for him when he got all A’s on his report card,” said Coder, who along with other Harbor House personnel have frequently attended Toms River South wrestling matches during the past two seasons to cheer on Hayden and his teammates.
“Everything’s been forward for him since arriving here. Everything he does, he wants to do well. He not only sets goals, but he learns the steps that get him to those goals. He’s changed our lives at the house. And the great thing is the car’s in motion, and all we’re doing is helping him make a left or right here and there.”
How far can he go?
By all accounts, Hayden is headed for success. Some would even say he’s already attained some measure of success simply by not allowing his past circumstances to consume him.
The good thing is Hayden knows both his immediate and long-term futures have opportunities for further success, and he plans on making those chances reality.
“I’m planning on going to college and studying criminal justice, and hopefully in five years I’ll have a good job and career,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to work hard, keep looking ahead and staying positive. But I can do that. I have no doubt I can be successful.”
As for his wrestling career, Hayden believes he can wrestle in college somewhere, but he hasn’t completely made the decision whether or not to go that route.
For now, he’ll take on one goal at a time, starting with trying to win a district title this weekend and keeping up his chances for a spot in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall in two weeks.
“He absolutely can get to Atlantic City,” Sternlieb said.