On the surface, it’s like any other evening in the Fried household. The banter among his father, Justin, and mother, Randi, suggests controlled, yet somewhat routine, chaos.
There’s the smell of the Frieds’ famous beef stew simmering in the oversized kitchen, laughter among the “extended family” of former West Orange High School wrestlers Dave Joisil, who graduated in 2007, and Emiliano Betancor, a 2011 alum, who are heartily enjoying the stew.
Stephan Zichella, Fried’s high school wrestling coach at West Orange, is also at the table, taking in the entire process.
Welcome to what is commonly known as the second wrestling room at West Orange High, the entire Fried residence — equipped with a regulation size mat in the basement, where many an impromptu match is held.
Desalegne (pronounced De-SAL-In) offers a shy smile and takes his seat with Betancor and Joisil.
“My family is incredible,” Fried said. “I love them so much.”
It’s a busy week for Desalegne Fried, who today will begin competing at the NJSIAA/Star-Ledger/Resilite wrestling tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The three-day tournament will be capped Sunday afternoon when the championship bouts of the 14 weight classes are wrestled.
Fried, a senior, finished second at the Region 4 tournament last weekend in the very competitive 138-pound weight class. This will be his first trip to the ultimate destination for a high school wrestler, but if you ask his parents, the championship has already been won.
“This is all gravy,” Justin Fried said. “If he ends up on that podium on Sunday, you’ll see me running around that arena high-fiving everyone. If he doesn’t, he’s already won. What really matters is that young man sitting over there and what this sport has done for him. We can never repay that.”
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Desalegne Fried, a native of Ethiopia, smiles and throws a respectful nod toward his mentor. Not a lot of words need to be said, because it’s understood what love and family represent in this household.
Justin and Randi Fried have been together for 21 years, the last 15 as husband and wife. Randi was graduated from West Orange High while Justin grew up on Long Island. The two met while students at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Justin went on to dental school after graduating college and when the couple married, he was just beginning to establish a general dentistry practice in Maplewood.
They began to think about adding children to their lives, and thought of adoption. In 1991, Randi had learned the story of then-Alabama football coach Gene Stallings and the relationship shared with his son, John Mark, who has Down syndrome. They decided to adopt a baby with Down syndrome and, in 2000, welcomed a 6-week-old female infant named Chloe. She is now 11 and thriving as a fifth-grade student in the West Orange school system, and a big fan of high school wrestling.
Three years later, the Frieds were blessed with a biological son, Kyle, who is now a second-grader in West Orange.
In 2006, the family traveled to an Ethiopian orphanage to adopt two sibling girls, Rebka, then 6, and Hana, 2, whose parents had died. The girls also had an older brother, Desalegne, who was staying in Ethiopia with a foster family, under somewhat trying conditions.
“We had met Des when we adopted his sisters,” Justin recalled. “He was having trouble with his sisters leaving and him staying. We wanted to try and help him, so we sent money so that he could continue school and, hopefully, find his way.”
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the Frieds were busy with four small children and all the challenges that come with raising a family. Justin admitted it was a difficult time.
The Frieds had developed a strong friendship with Beniam Bekele, a native of Ethiopia who works at the Solomon Schechter School in West Orange. With Bekele’s help, and Rebka’s urging, the family adopted Desalegne in late 2007, and on Jan. 2, 2008, he began a new life in West Orange.
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Desalegne spoke only Amharic when he arrived in the United States, so it was clear he could not begin attending school in the middle of the year.
By the fall of 2008, Desalegne enrolled as a freshman at West Orange. He played soccer that season, having learned the game in Ethiopia, but when the season ended, the Frieds wanted him to stay busy during the winter. So they suggested wrestling.
Zichella, who had been at West Orange for five years as head coach, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Desalegne arrived for his first day of practice.
“He spoke no English,” Zichella said. “But I immediately saw a kid who was trying his best, every day, in practice. There was no quit in this kid. And off the mat, you couldn’t meet a more caring young man. He’s always concerned about others. He’s amazing.”
Desalegne began wrestling on the JV team as a freshman. By the time the state team tournament came around in 2009, Zichella threw Fried into a pressure-packed situation during a sectional championship bout at the famed Pit in Bloomfield. Zichella was just hoping to save bonus points for his team. Instead, Fried pinned his opponent.
As Desalegne’s passion for wrestling intensified, the bond shared between the Fried family and the West Orange wrestling community followed suit.
He showed steady progress as a sophomore and junior, and finally broke through this year, winning his first Essex County championship before finishing second at District 13 and Region 4. He will take a 37-3 record into his state tournament preliminary match today at 5 p.m. against Brandon Koesheff of Jackson Liberty.
His command of the English language has vastly improved while he is one victory away from becoming the winningest wrestler in a single season at West Orange. He’s three victories shy of 100 for his career.
“You have no idea what the Frieds mean to our team,” Zichella said. “They do so many things and ask for nothing in return.”
Justin almost dismisses Zichella’s praise, instead saying, “what we do is nothing compared to what coach Zichella and his staff, along with the wrestlers, have done for Des. Things are so good today. For us to be having this conversation now, four days before the states, is unbelievable. From where we were five years ago, with five great kids now, is the best place we can ever be. Des is doing well in school and thinking about college. When someone asks how I’m doing, I can never say anything but excellent.”
Father and son have shared a special ritual before every match. Justin will hand Des his head gear and the two share a few words before Des gets on the mat. When Fried avenged a loss to Passaic Valley’s Nick Pezzano in the semifinals at Region 4 last Saturday and assured himself a trip to Boardwalk Hall, Justin was weeping when the two embraced.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to hand him his head gear at Boardwalk Hall,” Justin said, his voice choking up. “It’s emotional for me. This year has been magical, giving him that head gear is my connection to him. But he knows I love him.”