INDEPENDENCE — Chris Johnson was losing a battle he waged alone.
In the process of trying to cope with the loss of his father, emotions put Johnson on his back, leading him to become withdrawn from his friends and activities, including wrestling and his teammates. The Independence junior 135-pounder, who had wrestled since first grade, left the wrestling room around the holidays. But, it soon became apparent he didn’t have to handle the situation it alone.
The support Johnson received from the Independence coaches and wrestlers has helped Johnson pick himself up off the mat and return the Mustangs lineup.
Johnson and wrestlers from across the state will compete in district meets Saturday, vying for spots to the state tournament Feb. 17-20 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Johnson lost his desire for a sport he had been in since a youth.
“I kind of lost interest in everything,” Johnson said. “I’ve been wrestling since I was five or six years old. Then this year I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Johnson was still reeling from the death of his dad, Geoff, who died on Halloween at the age of 60 due to complications from diabetes in Montana. The loss was tough on Chris, who visited his dad’s cattle ranch there during the summer, after his parents divorced and his mother, Micki, moved with the two children back to Independence while they were young.
The memories of his dad are fresh in Chris’ mind. Like the times spent hanging out during the summer visits, when they would swim a lot. One specific moment is emblazoned on his mind.
“Probably the last time I saw him,” Chris Johnson said. “It was last summer when I got on the train to come back here.”
A photo of Chris and Geoff hangs in the Johnson’s living room. It was taken when Chris was a youth at a rodeo in Chinook, Mont. Geoff, who used to ride bulls and saddle bronc, introduced rodeo to Chris, who started with riding sheep, then steers and finally bulls the summer before his freshman year.
Chris found an outlet for that when he discovered the Iowa High School Rodeo Association. He is currently ranked fifth in Iowa and has hopes to qualify for nationals at Gillette, Wyo., which requires a top-four state finish.
“That’s another goal for him,” Micki Johnson said. “That’s a part that connects him to his dad.”
Chris admits he thinks about his dad often. The simplest reference or conversation triggers thoughts of his dad.
“There’s things that remind me,” Chris Johnson said. “Just random stuff that someone will say that reminds me of him.”
Chris was part of a group, including his older sister, Cassie, that discussed the decision to take him off a ventilator.
“That was a really difficult thing for him to be in on,” Micki Johnson said. “That was very hard on him.”
Things became overwhelming for Chris around the holidays. He quit showing up for practice without notifying anyone on the team. He shut down socially.
That’s when those in the Independence wrestling circles began to show their support. Doyle met with Johnson, and filtered through the excuses to the real problem. Johnson became emotional when asked about who had talked to about his father.
“I told him I want to see Chris Johnson walk down the hall with a smile on his face, regardless if he wrestled or not,” Mustangs Coach Michael Doyle said. “The issue wasn’t to keep him in wrestling or not keep him in wrestling. The issue was to get him to deal with the situation with his dad and ultimately develop self-confidence and self-worth.”
Doyle offered his support and instructed his team to do the same. Doyle, who was a mentor to Chris since first grade and a neighbor to the family, commanded them to give Johnson his space. Micki Johnson called the support awesome and she’s very proud of the efforts of the Independence wrestlers.
“They all supported him,” Micki Johnson said. “They kept him really involved. It became more of a concern for him than any kind of a let down, which is incredible to me.”
Johnson remain worried about the backlash, thinking the team would feel he abandoned them. The opposite was true as they included him in post-meet activities and welcomed him as he sat on the bench during a dual against rival West Delaware.
“The team responded pretty well,” said Doyle, praising the efforts of Tyler Endres, who wrestles 130 and is one of Chris’ closer friends. “They were understanding of what I was trying to do.”
The approach has appeared to help. Doyle said flashes of the old Chris are more common and he is gaining confidence.
“It’s more prevalent,” Doyle said. “I think it will get better.”
Doyle said he thought that wrestling could be therapeutic and be a benefit, providing a distraction from the struggle. He said the wrestling team and community resemble a family.
“I didn’t want him to think he was alone,” Doyle said. “Like we were excluding him and when it was on his terms and he wanted to come back the door was open.”
The season began and shortly after competition started Chris was wrestling for the Mustangs. He beat two ranked wrestlers, earning a runner-up finish at the Independence tournament. He placed in two more tournaments, winning a tournament at Oelwein, before his hiatus.
Since his return, Johnson (17-5) helped the Mustangs capture their second straight Wamac Conference crown, following a discussion with assistant coach Keith Donnelly a week before the conference meet led to his return. Although he finished fifth, he pinned his way through the consolation bracket, earning important bonus and advancement points.
“He was really disappointed with fifth, but I told him, ‘Do you know what you did for the team? Do you know how many (points) to got for the team?’ ” Micki Johnson said. “I don’t think he was thinking of it that way at all.”
He was also one of nine Independence district qualifiers and helped the team reach Wednesday’s regional dual finals. His goal is to get to Des Moines and he knows what he has to do to achieve it.
“Just wrestling hard,” Chris Johnson said. “This is my last shot of the year.”
This wasn’t the first Johnson had to face adversity with a parent and the Independence wrestling program came to the aid of the Johnson family. Three years ago, Micki had a brain tumor surgically removed and members of the program raised thousands of dollars to help with costs. Chris has shown his resilience during both events.
“He’s a survivor,” Micki Johnson said.
That process is far from over, but he will deal with it and move on with the help of his team.
“I’m not completely over it, which I don’t think I ever will be,” Chris Johnson said. “But, I have improved.”