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The Gazette KCRG
Posted February 11, 2010
Wrestling with a loss
Caption: Independence High School 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson jokes around with Independence assistant coach Keith Donnelly between duals at the 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

Caption: Independence High School 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson jokes around with Independence assistant coach Keith Donnelly between duals at the 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

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In the process of trying to cope with the loss of his father, emotions put Johnson on his back, leading him to become withdrawn from his friends and activities, including wrestling and his teammates.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.”

JOHNSON_PREPThe 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.”

Independence 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson gets a nearfall against a Denver-Tripoli wrestler during the Class 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. Johnson won the match with a major decision, 14-2. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

Independence 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson gets a nearfall against a Denver-Tripoli wrestler during the Class 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. Johnson won the match with a major decision, 14-2. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

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.”

Independence 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson is congratulated by his grandmother, Elaine Kirkendall of Independence, after Johnson pinned Mount Vernon's Mitchell Jilovec during the 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

Independence 135-pound wrestler Chris Johnson is congratulated by his grandmother, Elaine Kirkendall of Independence, after Johnson pinned Mount Vernon's Mitchell Jilovec during the 2A Regional Wrestling Dual Tournament at West Delaware High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Julie Koehn/The Gazette)

19 Responses to Wrestling with a loss

  1. Nice work KJ. Great story….will be rooting for Chris the next couple weeks

  2. Way to go Chris! We are proud of you!!

  3. Very nice and inspiring write-up! Way to go Chris and the Independence wrestling team! Keep up the hard work!!

  4. Chris, I hope you get everything you’ve worked so hard for! Good luck!

  5. Dear Chris: Growing up is tough at times, but having a great family like yours helps. What a great group of friends you have, and I know your friendship is a blessing to them. Your Grandma and Grandpa keep us up on all the news and we wish you best of luck. All our Love-Glen and Darlene Lorenz

  6. What a wonderfull story about Chris Johnson. He isn’t the only one that got emotional. We both got all chocked up and teary eyed when we read your story Chris. Even though we are in Arizon we are pulling for you. Always do your best.
    Clark and Lil Madison

  7. Keep up the good work, we are so proud of you and continue to think of you and your family

  8. Hang in there Chris. You have a lot of people supporting you. We wish you the very best!!

  9. KJ you’re truly best!! You do it with class!!

    MJ

  10. Chris, I am a life long friend of the Kirkendall’s and your uncle Terry, who is one of my best friends, sent me the link to your story. Losing your Dad is a tough deal, I still think about mine everyday. What is now difficult and distracting will become comforting and cherished memories as time goes on. Your family and friends are the key, keep them close and they will always help you find your way. I wish you the very best of luck in the upcoming qualifiers, regardless of the outcome, you are all ready a winner and a fine young man.

    Kort

  11. Keep your head up Chris! Great job so far on the season and best of luck at Districts!

  12. Nice Job Chris. We are very proud! Go Stangs :)

  13. Praise God for the wrestling family! Sounds like yours is a dandy. We are also in the wrestling family, and had one of our senior leaders suddenly lose his dad 3 weeks ago. People from all over the state, and even out, expressed support to the family…it is truly amazing to see! Best wishes to Chris, Micki, and Cassie…and maybe someday we will meet again!

  14. Awesome job, Chris. I am so proud of you as your Dad would be, too. He loved you very much and was so proud of you. You are so like him with your determination and tender heart. He is watching over you and in time, with God’s help, we will heal and have many wonderful memories of our short time with him. You are so blessed to have a wonderful and giving wrestling family to help you over the bumps of life. Keep up the good work!

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