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How love for wrestling helped make professor a 'game changer' for struggling student

Shared connection brought James Blasingame, Krista Cox together

Portrait of professor in room filled with books
June 01, 2023

The young woman walked into James Blasingame’s office and looked around.

There were books everywhere. On every wall. In every corner. Stacks and stacks of books.

Krista Cox knew her professor in the Literature for Young Adults class at Arizona State University was a bookworm. At the start of each class, Blasingame would show his students one of the many books he had read or collected.

But on this day, as Cox glanced around the office, Blasingame’s love for literature was just a momentary distraction. She thought about how difficult it was to raise a young son as a single mom, with no family around to help. She thought about the day care bills that were beginning to choke her budget and wondered if she would have to quit school and start working.

She had skipped two classes, and Blasingame, concerned, suggested she come into his office to talk.

He asked Cox why she had been absent. The question surprised her.

“It stood out to me just because in college nobody cares if you miss class,” Cox said. “If you miss, they just fail you and move on.”

Cox told him she wasn’t sure if she could continue with her education. He probed a bit more, asking about her upbringing. She mentioned she had been a wrestler in high school.

Sometimes, a single innocuous sentence is just that.

Sometimes, it can change a life.

That day, in that office stacked with books, it changed Cox’s life.

An unexpected connection

A woman and a man standing in front of a giant 2023 sign make the ASU pitchfork hand gesture

ASU alumna Krista Cox poses with her former mentor, ASU Professor James Blasingame, on the Tempe campus. Photo courtesy of Krista Cox

On June 23, Blasingame will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame along with the rest of his 1974–75 University of Northern Iowa wrestling team that won the NCAA Division II national championship.

His induction is the culmination of a love affair that began alongside his grandmother, Jewel Clark. He’d visit her over the summer at her Mississippi home in the woods, and on Saturday mornings they would watch Memphis championship wrestling with Jerry “The King” Lawler, Dutch Mantel and Superstar Bill Dundee.

Blasingame would tell his grandmother that he wrestled in school, and she would say, “Now, Jimmy, you wrestle scientific, right? No brass knuckles.”

Blasingame was a self-described “book nerd” who would rush from class to class so he could have a few extra minutes to read a book. But those Saturdays with his grandmother left an imprint on him.

“To tell the truth, if I’d been 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, I probably would have been a professional wrestler, at least for a while,” he said.

So, when Cox told Blasingame that she had been a wrestler and was struggling to fulfill life’s obligations, he told her of a book he had read “Beneath the Armor of an Athlete." In it, Lisa Whitsett wrote about growing up in Iowa and becoming an Olympic freestyle wrestler.

Like Cox, Whitsett had struggled giving up her identity as a wrestler, and through research done by his doctoral students, Blasingame knew young people liked books that reminded them of themselves, books where the main character faced adversity but succeeded.

“The books end with hope that they’re going to make it,” Blasingame said.

Their shared connection to wrestling stirred something in Cox. She had never felt comfortable telling others about her childhood. But she opened up to Blasingame.

About how her mother, hoping to make a better life for her family after her divorce, uprooted Cox and her five siblings from New York to Chino Valley, Arizona, when Cox was in junior high school. 

Soon after moving, however, Cox’s mother struggled with substance abuse and was unable to take care of her children. Cox was assigned to her grandmother as a ward of the state, but from eighth through 10th grades she bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house.

“And then something would come up,” Cox said. “I mean, there were times where I was literally living out of a vehicle.”

Cox said her mother eventually became sober through rehabilitation but then was killed by a drunken driver. Separately, her father was incarcerated when she was a high school senior.

Cox could have succumbed to her circumstances, but she had something else in common with Blasingame. She loved learning.

“I always just did well in school,” she said. “Even when we had no parental supervision, where most kids probably would’ve been partying and ditching school and staying home, I was setting my own alarms and walking to the bus stop or calling people for rides.

“I think I always saw that I wanted a way out. And I wanted to make a difference.”

Cox received an athletic scholarship to wrestle at University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, but during her freshman year her case worker in Chino Valley let her know she might qualify for the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars Program at ASU, which awards scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The scholarships cover full tuition, fees, books and supplies, and provides a living stipend.

Cox was awarded the scholarship and was thrilled to be at ASU, even though it meant the end of her days on a wrestling mat.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, but I just knew it was a better opportunity,” she said.

But as she sat in Blasingame’s office, distraught, that opportunity seemed like a dream slipping through her fingertips.

“I shared with him that I’m a young mom, and I don’t know how I can even continue going to college,” Cox recalled. “I’m at a point where I just don’t know what I’m going to do. … Then he pulled out his checkbook and was like, ‘What do you need to pay for day care? I’ll write you a check.’ ”

Cox thanked Blasingame but declined. She was used to taking care of herself. OK, Blasingame said, but if you can’t afford child care, bring your son to class and the two of you can sit in the back.

Those simple gestures brought Cox to tears. They also strengthened her resolve.

“Just him showing he cared was enough for me to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to figure out a way,’” Cox recalled.

That way, as it turned out, would be Blasingame’s way. His caring touched Cox so much that she decided she wanted to become a teacher, so she could be the angel for a student the way he was for her. She got her master’s degree and her doctorate, became a teacher and a principal at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, Arizona, and is now the director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Gilbert Public Schools District.

“Dr. B was really the game changer for me,” Cox said. “When you’re in education, you’re asked to share your why or who made the difference for you. He’s always the person I go to.”

There is a second person, of course.

“I think a lot of people in her situation would have given up, especially on college,” Blasingame said. “For her to go on and be the principal of a giant high school and now be in the central office at Gilbert as the curriculum director, holy cow.”

Blasingame and Cox have kept in touch over the years, and wrestling has worked its way into every one of their conversations. And that book Blasingame had Cox read?

It’s still on her bookshelf. 

Top photo shows ASU Professor James Blasingame in his office. Photo courtesy ASU

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