WEST ORANGE, NJ — In special recognition of former West Orange wrestler Christopher “CJ” Morgan—who would have been a senior wrestler this season at the United States Military Academy in West Point—the academy will host its “Senior Night” match at West Orange High School (WOHS) on Jan. 31.
The 2015 WOHS graduate, who was a standout athlete at his alma mater, was a 22-year-old junior at West Point when he lost his life during a training exercise on June 6, 2019. Although Morgan's time on Earth was cut short, his legacy and passion for life continues to inspire his family, friends and teammates.
In addition to a heavily attended ceremony held at WOHS in the days following his death, more than 1,500 people also attended Morgan’s funeral at West Point—including former United States president William Jefferson Clinton, who spoke during the service.
Morgan, the oldest of four children, was born to April and Christopher Sr., who recently recalled their son’s love of the military, which they said started at an early age.
"My cousin graduated from West Point in 2001, when CJ was just 5 years old," said April, whose cousin is now a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. "CJ just loved West Point from that moment on. We had no idea what West Point was about up until that day. I remember CJ running onto the field (at Michie Stadium) and really taking in the environment.”
The Morgan family has had other family members in the military as well, April noted, including a grandfather who served in the Navy.
Her husband explained that CJ was a freshman in high school when the family moved to West Orange and that the Morgans “really liked the area right away."
CJ took an interest in wrestling at West Orange while also excelling for the football team. By his junior year, CJ was establishing himself as a standout on the wrestling mat; and in his senior year, he advanced to the state championships at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, where he earned an elusive state medal in addition to winning an Essex County, district and regional championship.
Stephan Zichella, CJ’s coach at WOHS, said he always knew he had someone special in CJ.
"I've been very fortunate to have some tremendous kids come through this program," said Zichella. "But to be honest, there was no one like Christopher Morgan. What an incredible young man, both in the classroom and in athletics."
According to his father, CJ's prowess was also in the field of music, but very few people knew that CJ played the trombone.
"There would be wrestling matches where he'd compete, then head off to play the trombone in the school band,” said Christopher. “CJ started playing in the fourth grade and continued through the eighth grade. When he got to high school, he gave up the trombone for a little while, then got back into it later in high school."
CJ's love of the military continued into his high school years, which resulted in his being a part of the inaugural ROTC class at WOHS.
“The driving force behind the ROTC program at West Orange High was Dylan Pennell, who was a year older than CJ,” said Christopher. “Dylan went on to the United States Naval Academy. Dylan and CJ were teammates on the wrestling team. Dylan got a year in the ROTC program and CJ got two years.”
The WOHS ROTC program recently honored CJ as part of its annual Veteran's Day Ceremony held at the school. He was also honored that week during the countywide Veterans Day Observance ceremony, where CJ's parents accepted an “Essex County Community Star Award” on his behalf.
CJ’s love for his family also spoke volumes, according to his parents.
April explained that CJ had an extremely close relationship with his grandmother, who died only seven months prior to CJ’s accident.
"When my mother passed away, CJ eulogized her at her funeral," said April. "He was our oldest, and he wanted to do it. He did a good job.
“When CJ was born, Chris and I were still getting established in our own lives. Consequently, he spent a lot of time with my mother, as we finished school. The two of them were very close."
The bond between CJ and his siblings was also tight. In fact, the second-oldest Morgan sibling, Colin, followed in his brother’s footsteps and is now a member of the boxing team as a freshman at West Point.
Christopher noted that Colin, about 160 pounds, currently holds a record of 2-0 on the boxing team and currently aspires to attend medical school one day.
"CJ and Colin were different personalities," said April, who noted that aspired for a career in law. "They were very close, but just different in their approach. Colin is one of those who can show up and get an 'A' on a test. CJ had work a little harder. But they both had their goals and were on their way to reaching them."
April also recalled CJ’s visits home over the Thanksgiving holiday as being quite the event.
"CJ must have brought home about 15 classmates," she said. "We went through a lot of food during Thanksgiving, and they would stay over for a few days during the holiday weekend. Colin doesn't bring as many home yet, but we still have a good time."
The couple also described CJ’s relationship with their two daughters, Chase, who is a freshman at WOHS and a manager of the wrestling team, and Camryn, 10, who has taken an interest in dance.
"CJ and Camryn were very close; I guess it was an oldest-to-youngest thing," said April. "Don't get me wrong, all my children are close, but there was a special bond between them. Camryn was just 9 when her brother passed."
In addition to being a talented student, athlete and musician, CJ’s mom said he was also “a movie buff” and that "Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone were among his favorites."
CJ’s legacy shines brightly within the Morgan household.
"He was my hero," said Christopher. "He made us look good as parents."
"CJ's hero was his dad," said April. "The two of them were something special."
Since both Christopher and April were very young when CJ was born, Christopher explained that the “respect factor was always there,” but that the couple “could also relate well” to their son.
“CJ was a respectful young man, and that's what made us proud more than anything,” his father said. “He was good to people."
Today, CJ’s wrestling coach remains grateful just to have coached him during his years at WOHS.
"Those of us who knew CJ were blessed to have been around him for 22 years," said Zichella. "I believe he's on to a higher calling. We won't know, now, what that is; but one day, we will."
It was Zichella and the head wrestling coach at West Point, Kevin Ward, who put together the idea to have Senior Day held at WOHS this year.
"Stephan and Coach Ward were the ones who made it happen," said Christopher. "We're just happy be a part of it, and to have our son remembered."
Inspired by the love and character that shown through the West Orange native, the community recently established the CJ Morgan Foundation, whose mission is to “support and enhance the higher education opportunities for students interested in serving their country within the armed services as well as those involved in student athletics, student leadership roles and community service activities,” according to the foundation website.
The Christopher ‘CJ’ Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund was also established in 2019 along with a challenge grant to raise funds for a permanent endowment.
"CJ Morgan made it his business to live a life of example through living his faith and encouraging others," the site states. "Keep his vision of uplifting leadership alive by making a difference in a student’s life, by donating to the Christopher ‘CJ’ Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund."
Duty, Honor and Country, along with a strong Faith, love of family and commitment to a higher purpose continue to define CJ Morgan; and that love will carry on to parents, siblings, classmates and countless friends.
"We're doing okay," said Christopher. "The holidays were tough, but our family is strong. We're so grateful to so many people, including the West Orange High wrestling and football families and so many people in town."
The United States Military Academy wrestling team will take on Lehigh University for this year’s Senior Night on Jan. 31 at West Orange High School. All Mountaineers are encouraged to attend, as CJ will be honored during the event.