ON A DAY when the nation fell silent, Dillen Rocha remembers the noise.
He remembers the baby who wouldn’t stop crying. He remembers the rambunctious family of five who sat next to him at a Chinese buffet, his runner-up choice for lunch on the day after 9/11. He remembers his grandma, “Va,” as he calls her. Angry. Arguing. Audibly irritated by the fact that Dillen’s eighth birthday wasn’t going as planned.
Hanford, California, was a ghost town on Sept. 12, 2001, still reeling — along with the rest of the country — from what had happened a day prior. The fear of what could happen next left the world around Dillen preoccupied on his birthday, a day that was supposed to be his.
Folks stayed in. Stores closed. And as Dillen found out, restaurants and malls did, too. His usual birthday lunch at Sizzler’s and trip to the mall to pick out a toy weren’t going to happen.
On that day, Dillen’s birthday routine — like so many parts of him would become — was broken.
HE’LL ADMIT IT. He hasn’t had the best of luck.
To give some perspective, Dillen’s birthdays have included some less-traditional festivities — throwing a family member in jail, getting his laptop and toys stolen, watching a stranger threaten his dad with a gun. Something else always took precedent. So by his standards, a birthday the day after one of the largest terrorist attacks in history wasn’t bad.
But this story isn’t about birthdays.
“My story is more of a tragedy story, if anything,” Dillen said between sips of hot cider on a rainy December morning.
The industrial technology junior had just finished a group project competition, a shot at some cash from the IT department at Cal Poly. He’s asked how it went, but his dark green tie gives it away. Wrapped around a white collared shirt, the tie is loosened, as ties are, in either frustration or relaxation.
It’s the former. He lost, and he’s pissed, the way athletes get pissed about anything that resembles competition. While he hasn’t seen action on an NCAA mat since 2013, calling him a “former” collegiate wrestler doesn’t feel right. The word carries too much weight. Wrestling is a part of him. That won’t change. But here, at a coffee shop in Downtown San Luis Obispo, tie, collar, slacks and all, is the least he’s looked like a wrestler in all the times we’ve spoken.
“Tragedy,” as he says, isn’t overstating it. In fact, he’s spot-on. Dillen’s story is a tragedy in every sense of the word.
His body is ripped to shreds, wear and tear from years of pushing, pulling, twisting and turning. More times under the knife, more surgical scars than he can keep track of. His family, though it stands strong now, has fallen to pieces more than once. His fragile state led him to a decision: quit the sport he’s known all his life, cut his losses and move on.
He’s suffered every type of pain a 21-year-old could. He’s said premature goodbyes to the things he loves most. And like most tragedies, Dillen’s story doesn’t have a Disney ending. This isn’t the tired, stale story of a fallen athlete clawing his way back to competition.
This is not a comeback story.
DILLEN’S WRESTLING CAREER began with his arms wrapped tight around his mother’s leg, his intentions wrapped even tighter.
Wrestling was a family affair. So as younger brothers do, he would follow his three older brothers to practice in the local high school wrestling room. But Dillen — not yet 4 years old and nowhere near 4 feet tall — thought he wasn’t ready yet. He clung to his mom instead.
He would make his way onto the mat in time. In fact, he was built for it — quick, scrappy and small. How small? Too-small-for-football-or-baseball small. How small? A-hundred-pounds-as-a-high-school-freshman small. How small? Invest-hundreds-of-dollars-in-weight-gainers small.
His size didn’t stop him.
“I kind of set the standards for him, and he always tries to meet them or beat them,” said his brother Brandon Rocha, a 24-year-old Cal Poly construction management alumnus and former Cal Poly wrestler.
Dillen talks a lot about how good of a wrestler he was, as if you don’t believe him. As if you need convincing. As if he’s the only one who remembers. It almost feels desperate. A kid who just can’t physically prove himself anymore, he leans on memories and 8-year-old trophies gathering dust on a shelf at home. He wants to make sure you know how good he was.
But he was good. Very good. Dillen estimates he had more than 150 wins in middle school, including two victories at the NorCal Tournament of Champions (TOC), essentially the state meet for that age group. Freestyle & Greco-Roman State, California World Challenge, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The list goes on. There were a lot of tournaments, and he remembers them all.
When Dillen talks about losses — which were rare, he says — he’ll always tell you what his former opponent is up to these days. He lost to Jered Cortez, who now wrestles for Illinois, he says. He lost to Mason Pengilly, who now wrestles for Stanford, he says. At TOC, he beat Nahshon Garrett, who’s now a two-time NCAA All-American at Cornell. His old practice partner from Lemoore High School is Isaiah Martinez, now a national champion at Illinois, the Amateur Wrestling News Rookie of the Year and InterMat’s Freshman of the Year. He was always in the company of greatness.
Dillen wants you to know how good he was, because he wants you to know how good he could have been.
DILLEN’S FATHER is a second-generation farmer, born and raised in Lemoore, California. Anthony Rocha speaks with a twang that makes the word “wrestling” sound like “wrastlin’” and tends to choose “no more” over “anymore.”
He also doesn’t like doctors. Dillen calls it a “stubborn Portuguese country mentality” — the body fixes itself. So when Dillen started complaining about his hip in middle school, Anthony brushed it off. “It’s just growing pains,” he would say. Years went by, but Dillen kept complaining, so a visit to the doctor was in the cards.
This was when his body began to break.
Hip problems turned into shoulder problems, which turned into knee problems, which turned into more hip problems, more shoulder problems and more knee problems. Six surgeries in six years. Again and again and again. Aside from the pain, the hospital bills and the time spent rehabbing, the worst part for Dillen may have been the timing. He wanted to wrestle at the next level, and he needed a scholarship.
He wrestled through a blown-out shoulder his entire junior year of high school, hoping to pick up a scholarship and have surgery after the season. But he didn’t place at state and colleges didn’t want damaged goods, so opportunities fell off the table. Senior year brought more of the same, with the only offers left from either expensive out-of-state schools or less-competitive wrestling programs. So Dillen followed Brandon to Cal Poly and walked on.
The hip injury that started it all turned out to be fibrous dysplasia, a rare bone growth in which normal bone is replaced with fibrous bone tissue. He had less than 40 percent of his hip bone left, so wrestling, running and lifting weights forced a crack in the hip.
It sounds bad. But it’s nowhere near as bad as it almost was.
The first set of scans revealed a cyst along with the crack and damaged bone, which prompted a visit to Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno, California. Dillen, 13 years old at the time, doesn’t remember what the exam room looked like — he’s been in too many hospitals to differentiate. But he does remember sitting on the examination table with his mom and dad in the room, and what happened when the cyst specialist came in and started talking. He remembers buzzwords.
“You don’t expect to hear that,” Dillen said. “You’re young, so you have this vague idea of what cancer really is. The worst things were going through my mind.”
Dillen looked to his dad, who could only stare at the ground. Anthony had insisted it was growing pains and put off a trip to the doctor for years, but this was something worse. Dillen was transferred to a cancer wing of the hospital at UC Davis. Specifically, infant cancer. Specifically, the “severity” floor. A place where other patients cling to life.
“I didn’t think I was in that bad of shape,” he said. “There were people there in terrible shape. There were people dying on my floor. When you’re seeing babies in capsules trying to live, you know you’re in some deep shit.”
The cancer specialist said Dillen likely wouldn’t be able to wrestle again, and he potentially wouldn’t be able to walk again. Dillen went under the knife for a biopsy of his hip, knowing he would wake up to one of two results: cancerous or noncancerous. Chemotherapy or no chemotherapy.
Anthony was all smiles when Dillen came to.
Dillen would need two hip operations over the next two years: the first to insert a plate, barrel, screw and three pins; the second to replace the hardware after Dillen outgrew it. A lot to handle for a teenager, but still a blessing after the Rochas had feared the worst.
“They wheeled me out,” Dillen remembers. “You just see all these cancerous babies and that’s when I was like, ‘Thank god. This could be so much worse.’”
Dillen doesn’t hold it against Anthony for pushing away the injuries. That’s just who his dad is. Dillen’s mother, Regina Rocha, left the room when the second doctor dropped the initial cancer scare.
“I remember sitting there and asking my dad, ‘What happens if I’m going to have to lose my hair?’” Dillen said.
Anthony, the hard-nosed country man, stood there, overwhelmed by guilt.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Don’t worry. You’ll be OK.”
He seemed fine.
He now tells Dillen the rest of the story — Anthony went outside and cried.
ALL DILLEN WANTED was a Philly cheesesteak.
That, and a chance to wrestle with his big brother at the Keystone Classic, both of which could be accomplished in Philadelphia early in his freshman season at Cal Poly.
Dillen’s shoulder had other plans, though — plans that involved waiting six months to even start practicing. Held in November, Philadelphia was four and a half months after his first labrum and capsule repair. Brandon said he was coming back too early. Cal Poly head coach Brendan Buckley said he was coming back too early. The trainer said he was coming back too early. Dillen didn’t care. He wanted to wrestle with his brother, and Dillen — still competing as a walk-on — wanted that scholarship.
“That’s all I wanted to do. I hadn’t wrestled with (Brandon) since he was a senior,” Dillen said. “If I went out there and showed (Buckley) that I had heart and wrestled to the fullest of my ability, even with injury or not, (I thought) he was going to offer me a scholarship the following year.”
But to get to the Keystone Classic in Philadelphia, Dillen had to compete at the Roadrunner Open, held a week prior in Fresno. He showed up out of shape.
“Biggest detriment to my whole college career,” he says now.
Wrestling in the 149-pound weight class, he won the first match and got off to a lead in the second. Out of shape and already exhausted, Dillen lost the second match in overtime and felt his shoulder separate. He wanted to injury default out. But if Dillen was going to wrestle in Philadelphia the following week, he had to commit to competing at the Roadrunner Open and see it through. Buckley didn’t want his wrestlers coming and going at their own leisure. He didn’t want them competing one week then sitting out the next to rest. So he gave Dillen an ultimatum: If he wanted to wrestle at the Keystone Classic, he couldn’t injury default out at Roadrunner.
“I remember stepping on the mat knowing I wasn’t in the right mindset,” Dillen said. “Mentally, that was the weakest I’ve ever been in my life, wrestling-wise.”
He wrestled through the pain. He was pinned. His shoulder popped out.
“It was a big match,” he said. “If I was in better shape, things would have been on the right track. I wrestled that match and it was a complete U-turn.”
Dillen’s first win at Roadrunner would be his last, the one and only win of his collegiate wrestling career. He lost both duals in Philadelphia and went on to lose his next 10 contests, finishing freshman year at 1–16, with more than half of his losses pins. Damien Arredondo, gunning for the 149 spot, was rehabbing an injury as well — Dillen felt like he was wrestling to fill a spot.
“On the mat, I felt like I was just fulfilling my obligation to step on the mat,” Dillen said. “I didn’t just flop. I wrestled as hard as I could. But I felt like I was just a pawn to coach Buckley’s game. I was just fulfilling what he needed me to do. I was just mentally weak. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s just because I was young. Maybe it’s because I was just getting my ass beat left and right. I just didn’t have any support. I wasn’t getting any support from the coaches.”
“That year was pretty much a waste of my time,” he said. “I was wrestling for the wrong reasons.”
Dillen’s freshman year broke him in more ways than one. His shoulder, his spirit, his attitude. Sixteen losses. That’s Dillen’s only taste of collegiate wrestling. And as of now, that’s the way his wrestling career ended.
If Dillen returned to the team, he could go out on a different note. Compete with a body that’s been healing for two years. Wrestle for the right reasons.
But this isn’t a comeback story.
REGINA WAS always there.
From Dillen’s first wrestling practice, when he couldn’t find the strength to let go of his mom’s leg, to tournaments, concession stands, fundraising and pancake dinners, she devoted herself to the sport. Dillen still hears her voice on old video tapes of wrestling meets. He’ll watch from time to time, and has to reach for the mute button because she would cheer so loudly.
He misses that.
Regina’s closest friendships were built in the wrestling community. It was as much a piece of her as it was of Dillen. And then it broke. Her boys grew up, graduated and wrote the next chapters of their wrestling careers away from home. She and Dillen’s father were legally divorced. Regina’s friends, so ingrained in the wrestling lifestyle, faded away as the sport grew less significant in her life. She fell into a deep depression. Time spent fundraising turned into time spent drinking.
That was Regina’s downfall — she drank her life away.
Brandon, also banged up by the grind of wrestling, was especially close with his mom. He was in pain. She was in pain. So Regina made him a promise: She would stop drinking if he stopped wrestling.
“She saw how much we were getting hurt, how much we really disliked our daily life of wrestling,” Dillen said. “We weren’t happy. My mom knew that we weren’t happy. Maybe she saw he wasn’t happy, and he was just getting hurt. She didn’t want him to be hurting himself anymore. It gave Brandon a reason to quit. It gave my mom a reason to quit.”
Dillen says it was too late by that point.
She checked into a hospital on Thanksgiving — the second time Dillen ate Thanksgiving dinner in a hospital. The first doctor said there was no hope left, that no one at her age could recover from such severe liver damage. The second doctor offered hope. He said Regina was young, vibrant and her spirit would bring her through the illness. So after a few weeks, he sent her home.
It took two days at home for the Rochas to realize the second doctor was very wrong. Back to the hospital she went, this time without confusion and without differing professional opinions — Regina wasn’t going to live much longer. Dillen would make the two-hour trek from Cal Poly every other day, between shifts as a manager at OfficeMax, between finals. He and Brandon would sleep on the floor by her bed, until the nurses told them not to, as they waited for their mom to die.
Near the end, the doctors pumped her stomach and gave her a powerful steroid, which would last until her stomach filled back up. The effects were strange. For a couple of hours, she was completely coherent. Color in her face, the ability to make conversation, trying to comprehend that her life was hanging by a thread.
It was almost as if she wasn’t dying.
But this was the end. Whatever Dillen and his family had to say to her, according to the doctors, they had to do it now. His voice trembles when he remembers that moment. She didn’t quite understand what was happening, so Dillen had to look his mother in the eyes and tell her she wasn’t going to make it.
“I made a promise to her that I would be the most successful man she would ever dream of,” Dillen said.
Regina’s stomach filled up and her family filed out, leaving only Dillen in the hospital room.
Her breaths became sporadic. A big one, then two minutes would go by before she would gasp for air again. Dillen would put his finger under her nose occasionally to make sure she was breathing.
Then two minutes went by without a breath.
“I go up to her, I’m shaking,” he said. “She was gone. It was over. I started busting down crying.”
It was Christmas Day.
DILLEN CALLED his dad, he called his brother and talked to his roommates. He felt uneasy, restless, anxious, sorrowful. But most of all, he felt guilty. He felt like he was doing something wrong.
This was the morning he quit wrestling.
Dillen, fresh off his second shoulder surgery, took sophomore year off wrestling. Rehabbing was going well. He felt good. But plans of returning for junior year changed when Regina died. She didn’t want him wrestling. Anthony, now living alone in Lemoore, didn’t want him wrestling. Something was off. Little by little, he pulled away.
“My life was pretty much in shambles,” he said. “I didn’t know where my life was going. Throughout my whole sophomore year I was kind of in a gray area, not knowing if I should wrestle again.”
He met Buckley at a coffee shop and tried to put the words together, find reasons through tears and stutters. But reasons felt like excuses. My mom passed away. I need to spend time with my dad. I don’t know if I can handle another grind of a season. I can’t run well because of my hip.
Doctors tell Dillen that if he tears his shoulder again he’ll need a bone block, which would keep him from raising his arms above his head. It’s life-changing, but of all the things that a bone block could prevent in the future, Dillen only mentions one.
He’d never be able to hold his daughter.
Buckley understood, said Dillen quit the right way. They left on good terms, and Dillen left the coffee shop, driving laps around the block near his house. He didn’t want his roommates to see him cry.
“Even though I lost wrestling, which is a part of my life, I also lost my mom, which is a part of my life,” Dillen said. “Both of those things together were a big part of my life. A lot of moments that were tied with my mom were tournaments, going into the wrestling room the very first time, holding onto her leg. Remembering little things like that and knowing that both of them were kind of coming to an end … This was my chance to break away, cut my losses and understand that there’s more to life than wrestling.”
DILLEN SPENT this past summer in Lemoore, rebuilding his car and rebuilding his life.
The Nissan 280zx, a 1979 model, was not in good shape. But piece by piece, he and Anthony put it back together — a complete body restoration. New interior parts, new wiring, new paint, rebuilding it back to its former glory.
Without wrestling, Dillen is confident, he’s academic and he’s focused. He called fall quarter the happiest he’s ever been. He feels like he’s the smartest he’s ever been, consistently landing on the Dean’s List and securing a summer internship with Pepsi Co. He’s clear-headed for the first time in a long time.
“There’s nothing holding me back,” he said. “Wrestling isn’t holding me back. I don’t have any obligations to wrestling and time constraints, anything like that.”
He also spent the summer at his old stomping grounds, the Lemoore High School wrestling room. He helped coach this year’s squad, and — most importantly — reconnected with Martinez, his old practice partner. The two still go at it, and though Dillen doesn’t beat Martinez, the NCAA champion who went undefeated as a freshman, he holds his own.
There, wrestling with his old partner as he would every day, in the place where his career began, is when something sparked.
A reminder of who he used to be, perhaps, and a confirmation of his potential. He thinks about that, what he’s capable of. But he’s also realistic. If I did that every single day, would I still be able to make it? Could I handle the grind of a full D-I season? He sees his roommates, also wrestlers, going to practice every day. It bugs him. The Lemoore coaches think he should take another shot at wrestling.
“Dillen could have been that good,” Anthony said, regarding Martinez. “I just don’t want Dillen broken no more. I just want him to be a successful person, without wrestling. He doesn’t need wrestling to be successful. Been to the hospital too many times, and I just don’t want to see him have to go through that again. It’s not worth it.”
‘WILL YOU WRESTLE AGAIN?’ is a question Dillen has been asked a lot in the past six months.
Three p.m. — synonymous with practice time — on a warm, windy April afternoon seemed like a time he’d give in, a time when he would finally answer that question, because he could see the path he abandoned diverge from the one he’s chosen now. That path stretches from Mott Athletics Center to the Recreation Center, and it’s the journey Cal Poly wrestlers make every day before 3 p.m. His destination was different — the library — but by coincidence, we ended up overlapping with the other path, walking right behind his former teammates.
Just back from a day at the beach, Dillen didn’t look much like a wrestler. Board shorts. Flip flops. Toes coated in sand. A black snapback worn in a way that doesn’t block the sun. He blends in. He looks like any other student. But unlike them, he’s seen both paths, the one wrestlers take, and the one he was taking. He knows where each one leads and where each one ends.
“The only thing that wrestling holds is pride,” he said. “What else do I got to prove? Do I have to prove that I’m tough? I’ve already done that. Do I have to prove that I’m a good wrestler? I’ve already done that. Do I have to prove that I can be a nation champion?”
“I don’t know if I could do that. What would the added value of being a national champion have in my life? I don’t know if it would be worth it.”
Three p.m. now means something different for Dillen.
The paths split. He walks toward the library for an afternoon of studying, away from the wrestling room. Away from competition. Away from a piece of him. Away from 7 a.m. lifts, weigh-ins, weekends on the road and a life lived seven minutes at a time. Away from pain. Away from surgery. Rehab. Surgery. Rehab. More surgery and more rehab. Away from a life that could’ve been and, for so long, was.
He doesn’t look back once.
THERE’S A PART of him that hasn’t quit yet, whether he knows it or not. That same part of him remembers a time in his life when everything — his body, his family, his career — was still in one piece, when expectations were high and he was meeting them.
“Nothing panned out that way,” he said. “Shortcomings, injuries, not living up to my fullest potential, it really bugs me. I have no control over my shoulder. I have no control over what happened to my hip. But I do have control over wrestling, or not wrestling. I do have control over fighting through these injuries and possibly becoming an All-American or possibly being a national champion.”
“Am I going to do it? Or am I not going to do it? Am I going to talk about it or am I actually going to do it?”
He still dances around the question. “But what would it take for you to decide?”
Well, there’s his body. He feels strong. Very strong. Or at least as strong as he’ll ever be after six surgeries. Each injury has been inconveniently timed, each rehab rushed. Now, he’s given his body a chance to recover. But the possibility of a bone block is a risk — a big one. He’s going to test his body this summer, see if his hip can handle cardio, if his shoulder can handle grappling.
There’s the Cal Poly wrestling team, with the 149-pound spot solidified, meaning he’d have to fight for a chance to get on the mat at all. And taking two years off doesn’t exactly make you the most popular guy on the team.
Then there’s Anthony, who would sign a blank check to keep Dillen from competing.
But the biggest factor is guilt, that he didn’t give 100 percent his freshman year, a dismal 1–16 showing where his shoulder would pop and sublux with each loss. That’s his last taste of wrestling, and it’s surely not how he saw his career ending.
“I want to go out on a note that says I gave it all I have,” Dillen said. “I pushed myself to the best that I could be. I became the best wrestler I could be. I tried to become a national champion with the intentions to be a national champion. I didn’t try to be a national champion and just wrestled with the intentions of just getting by.”
He’s referenced a comeback more than once.
In December — “Maybe, potentially there’ll be a comeback next year.”
In April — “I wouldn’t put it past myself to make a comeback.”
And with each time we’ve spoken, he’s looked more and more like a wrestler. From the collared shirt and tie in December to beach clothes in April to a Cal Poly wrestling cut-off in May.
“I know if I go one last hoorah — one last go as hard as I can — I’m going to go one last go as hard as I can,” he said. “No doubt about it. I will seriously come out of it broken.”
He’s starting to look like a wrestler again. And the idea of becoming one seems to be getting more and more real. But this is not a comeback story.
At least not yet.