As Orren Kleinhenz lay entangled in the web of arms and legs engulfing his body last Saturday at the Friedman Wrestling Center, the overmatched Columbia freshman spastically flapped around like a fish out of water. As he gazed upwards into the ceiling’s lights, his shoulders parallel to the mat, he found himself paralyzed as if he was tied down the mat. It’s a feeling unlike any other – a feeling of helplessness, desperation, and solitude – and it’s become a common occurrence for the opponents of the Red’s 197-pound junior Jerry Rinaldi.
The sociology major has experienced success early and often this season, compiling a 21-2 record – good enough for a ranking as high as fifth in the country in some polls. He has compiled wins against stiff competition, including Lehigh’s Matt Cassidy, Illinois’ Tyrone Byrd, and Oklahoma’s Joel Flaggert. His only two losses came early in the season at the hands of top-10 wrestlers, Penn State’s Philip Davis and Buffalo’s Kyle Cerminala.
“When you wrestle him it’s like wrestling a Gumby doll,” said head coach Rob Koll. “Everything just keeps contorting itself. All these kids that wrestle against him at 197 pounds are all big and strong, but that doesn’t mean anything when you have someone draped all over you so that you can’t finish your moves. When he grabs a hold of you, his hands are so long that his fingers wrap around your wrist two or three times [and] it’s hard to get out of there. He’s long and lanky but his arms and legs aren’t weak, they’re more like pipes.”
It’s easy to understand why Rinaldi was given the nickname “Ropes” by teammate and NCAA national runner-up Tyler Baier ’05. At first glance the 6-2, New Jersey native looks more like a torso with cables attached to it than a wrestler.
“You see him walking down the street and you see a long, lanky guy, you figure he’s probably a basketball player,” said assistant coach Clint Wattenberg ’03. “But, when he is on top of you, he wraps his arms around you can’t get out. You get all rung up.”
His lean and extended body frame has even forced him to change the art of traditional wrestling, as he has found success creating new moves such as his patented “Jerry Bar,” a move that only the two-time NCAA qualifier and two-time All-Ivy first team selection has perfected.
“Some conventional stuff I can’t really do like the way it is shown,” Rinaldi said. “I have to alter it to my own style and I guess it throws some people off. The Jerry Bar is a move my old coach taught me when I was seven years old. It just kind of stuck with me and I’ve been doing it my whole career. I still use it now and it works so I’ve been sticking with it.”
Quiet and humble, the atlas of a young man has silently worked his way to becoming one of the premier wrestlers in the country.
With names on the Cornell roster like seniors Dustin Manotti and Joe Mazzurco, Rinaldi seems to somehow fly under the radar – something that might happen here in Ithaca, but will never happen in his hometown.
Rinaldi hails from Lodi, N.J., a town most famously known for being where the award-winning HBO TV series The Sopranos takes place. Regardless, Rinaldi is quite well-known in his hometown for being a wrestling hero, after winning the 2003 New Jersey state championship in which the entire crowd started chanting his name after he won by pulling off a dramatic upset. The town eventually had a parade in his honor.
It makes complete sense as to why Rinaldi places such a high importance for family values. Aunts, uncles, grandmothers – all of them fly around the country to see their Lodi High School product wrestle, often making appearances inside the Friedman Wrestling Center – a place where Jerry now calls home.
“When I pulled up to recruit him on his home visit, I started dying laughing, because the town was like a cookie-cutter of where I grew up,” said assistant coach Steve Garland. “I couldn’t believe it. I was so anxious to walk in the door and sure enough, before you know it, his mother walks in the door, gives me a hug and all the sudden we’re eating pizza in kitchen, drinking wine, eating pasta, it was just great. We had the coach over, the grandmother was over, and the uncle was over there. Jerry’s got a wonderful close-knit Italian family. He’s got a great support system and it’s just fun to be around.”
Although his family might travel all over the place to see Jerry wrestle, he has ultimately found a new family – the Cornell wrestling team.
The family atmosphere was something that Rinaldi says made Cornell attractive when he was looking at places to wrestle in college.
“I didn’t know anything about Cornell before I got the visit from Koll and Garland,” Rinaldi said. “They really made me believe that Cornell is the best program in the nation. The team was really tight knit and I felt that it was the most like a family of all the schools I had visited and it holds true to this today.”