Judging from the ferocity of the attack and the clinical manner in which the victor had disposed of his victim, the freshman from Fairleigh Dickinson University was no ordinary college wrestler. His unfortunate opponent had been taken down by a move that resembled a body slam and been pinned before he knew what had hit him. While the poor fellow was being peeled off the mat one of his teammates walked over to the winner and asked, "Do you by any chance also play judo?"
Clyde Worthen, a fourth-degree black belt who decided to go back to school at the age of 30 when Fairleigh Dickinson offered him a wrestling scholarship, was forced to admit that he did know an uchimata or two. "But I didn't tell him how much judo I had played," Worthen says. "This entire business of using a judo black belt in college wrestling had been a little unfair as it was."
Some other items that Worthen omitted from his biography that afternoon were his six years of international competition in a combat sport very similar to wrestling; his three second-place finishes in the U.S. National Judo Championships; his 10 consecutive New Jersey titles and, oh yes, his six children, all of whom play judo. Worthen's wife Rose Mary holds a brown belt, and there have been evenings when all eight members of the family worked out together at a YMCA near their home in New Milford, N.J., 11 miles northwest of New York City.
A sophomore at Fairleigh Dickinson this year, Worthen was one of 12 players who represented the U.S. at the world judo championships in Vienna two weeks ago. And although he was eliminated in the first round of the 176-pound division, a rather typical result when American judoists play on the international level, merely being selected to compete in Vienna was quite an accomplishment for Worthen, whose high school athletic career was one of New Jersey's most undistinguished. "You might say I was a late bloomer," he says. "I tried out for every team there was at Linden High and finally made the track squad my senior year because nobody else could pole-vault 10 feet."
November 10, 1975
Worthen married his high school sweetheart shortly after graduation and went to work as a butcher at a store called Meat City before taking up judo in 1964. He was looking for diversion, but his instructor was a fifth-degree black belt from Japan who saw considerable potential in his new pupil. Worthen quickly caught judo fever. In 1969 he finished higher than any other American in the World Games at Mexico City. That same year he and his wife were divorced after seven years of marriage and two children, and a short time later Worthen married Rose Mary, a young widow with four kids of her own. Where had they met? At a judo class, of course.
Just satisfying the athletic needs of this real-life Brady Bunch would be a financial burden for a father with a seat on the Stock Exchange. But Worthen has not had a full-time job since he began playing judo. When several universities offered him wrestling scholarships last year because of his abilities in judo, he and Rose Mary decided that being paid to get an education was the smartest thing an amateur athlete with a family of six could do.
"Kentucky and Florida offered me full rides but we couldn't see moving and taking the kids away from their friends," Worthen says. "When Fairleigh Dickinson said they could pay me $200 a semester, I accepted. I would wrestle Montclair State at 167 pounds on Friday night, and then gorge myself for 24 hours so I could get up to 176 to play in an AAU judo meet Saturday night. This year I'm on a full scholarship."
That Worthen, the late bloomer with the big family, should have selected Fairleigh Dickinson over its more illustrious competitors seems almost too fitting. A private university built on four sites in New Jersey, FDU also has campuses in the Virgin Islands and at a 13th century abbey in Wroxton, England. Called "Fairly Ridiculous" by many Jerseyites, the school also seems to be a haven for every offbeat athlete in the East.
In the past three years FDU has fielded the following lineup: a 46-year-old wide receiver in football; a 43-year-old priest who played center on the Knights hockey team; a one-armed soccer player and a one-armed fencer; a baseball player who made hand grenades in a bomb factory during the summer; another baseballer who did yoga in the on-deck circle to relax; a boxer who was once a bodyguard for the Beatles; and a cross-country runner who lost an inch in height—from 5'5½" to 5'4½"—during his college career.
Among FDU's odd collection of athletes, Worthen is by far the best. In 1969, when the judo national championships still were open to foreign competitors, he placed higher than any American in his class, losing only to a Japanese collegiate champion who won the U.S. title for a third time. At the 1971 nationals he again came in second, this time behind an 18-year-old high school whiz from Chicago named Irwin Cohen. And four years later Worthen proved his staying power—and unfortunately his consistently bad luck—by losing to Cohen's younger brother Steve.
Steve Cohen, 19, probably is the man Worthen ultimately will have to beat in order to qualify for next year's Olympic Games in Montreal. But winning a medal will not be easy for either of them. The Japanese have never lost a gold in the 176-pound class. Cohen, who also represented the U.S. at Vienna and caused a stir by winning two bouts, and Worthen are so evenly matched that their six-minute bout to determine who would represent the U.S. in the Pan-Am Games ended with only 10 seconds remaining, when Cohen won with an armlock. Cohen is fast and graceful, just the opposite of Worthen, who plays a Joe Frazier role to Cohen's Ali.
"Those three second-place finishes in the nationals are a continuing source of frustration to me," Worthen says. "I am only 1 and 3 against Cohen so far, but I've been working toward the Olympics for 11 years and I feel I'm about to clamp down on all these technique players."
One of those so-called "technique players" whom Worthen has been working on is his stepson Tom, 13, who recently has become a trifle too defensive in his play. Last year he won the state age-group title. Tom's younger brother Kevin, 11, cannot decide which sport he likes best among soccer, baseball and judo. Worthen's children from his first marriage live with their mother, but spend as many weekends as possible with their second family. Zinera, 12, participates in both gymnastics and judo, and her brother Tony is one of the better 9-year-old judo players in the area.
"They're no different from my real brothers and sister," says Tom, who probably spends the most time with Worthen. On Monday evenings Clyde does not get home from training in New York until past Tom's bedtime, but Tuesday is a big night for stepfather and son at the Cranford Judo and Karate Center, where Worthen learned his judo from Yoshisada Yonezuka. On most Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights (Clyde works at the APA Trucking Co. on Thursdays) the Worthens serve their judo family-style at the Central Bergen Y.
"Of course, a lot of people say, 'What is this 31-year-old guy doing running around playing games when he has a family to feed?'" says Worthen. "Well, we've managed. I just tell them that I'm in my second childhood. After all, when I made the honor roll at Fairleigh Dickinson last semester with 3.65 out of 4.0 in business management, my father did give me $50 for a good report card."