By Gabriel Stovall
It may not have looked like it, but Eric Johnson was not in his most tip-top, celebratory mood last weekend.
The ELCA wrestling coach had reasons to celebrate though, while in last weekend’s traditional state tournament in Macon — two, in fact. Their names: Chase Burdette and Griffin Alexander.
The duo became the first to win a state wrestling crown of any kind in the school’s history. Bully for them.
Johnson cheered when each won, and feared for his life when Burdette, wrestling at 220 pounds, celebrated his victory.
After Burdette’s 2-1 decision, the junior took off in a full sprint from one end of the mat to the place where his coach was, almost like a son runs to his dad for an embrace.
“I was kind of scared,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Chase comes barreling at me at 220 pounds and I thought he was going to knock me down.”
Johnson staved off his happy wrestler. But staving off that nagging punch-in-the-gut feeling he had, even in the midst of celebration, was not as easy.
You see, ELCA probably should’ve had three state tournament champions. The third one should’ve been Eric Johnson’s son Trent.
Wrestling at 126 pounds, Trent was well on his way to the semifinals when he suffered a leg injury that would not only end the junior’s tournament, but also his next-to-last opportunity to win gold as a high school grappler.
And at that point, who could blame Eric Johnson the coach for turning into Eric Johnson the dad?
“To have our two guys win, it was very, very exciting,” Johnson said. “But it was a little bit of a damper put on it when my son broke his ankle in the quarterfinals. It was a little bit of bittersweet. ”
It happened when Trent Johnson’s opponent landed hard on the outside of Trent’s ankle after he planted his foot. The impact fractured the youngest Johnson’s fibula, but it didn’t immediately hault his progress.
“He said he felt a pop, but didn’t really feel the pain for five to 10 seconds,” Eric Johnson said. “They stopped the match for a minute. And Trent actually finished the match.”
And not by the skin of his teeth either.
“He actually scored a take down,” the elder Johnson said proudly. It happened after the injury to the ankle. Trent would go on to win the match by regular decision
Turns out, the bone wasn’t displaced. He was able to get a splint put on it. But his Macon excursion was done. Instead of going to hang out at the hotel, or mope about a lost opportunity, however, Trent Johnson did what he, and the others on the ELCA wrestling team, have been trained to do.
He showed class and the heart of a teammate, even through adversity. He did so by rooting on the rest of his teammates, and being among the loudest to cheer for Burdette and Alexander when each were victorious.
It was more than just an inner drive or a strong innate desire to take the high road. Eric Johnson said Trent, who placed sixth — and every other wrestler on the Chargers’ squad that had to battle up-hill climbs to stand on the top of Mount Macon — embodied a determination that flows out of their relationship with God — a relationship Johnson says gives them understanding even in situations that don’t seem understandable.
“(Trent) was mature about it all,” Eric Johnson said. “Even when the kid he wrestled and beat came back and got third. All Trent would say is that God has a reason behind it. Of course he’s disappointed. But he knows God is sovereign, and he has a purpose. And that something good is going to come out of it. I’m just really proud. But this story isn’t just about Trent. It’s about the whole team.”
And dare I stretch it to say, the whole wrestling community, especially in Henry County.
It would be inappropriate of me to guess the relationship status between God and the wrestlers and coaches that make up said community. But it is not irresponsible of me to take note of the faith-based characteristics that a tight-knit family of fighters tend to exhibit toward each other in the toughest of times.
The family element was seen when Union Grove assistant coach Chad Kollert shared a touching Facebook tribute of Zach Robinson, the Woodland wrestler that tragically lost his life in a car accident the night before National Signing Day.
It was seen from Coach Johnson once again as he not only brushed aside the hurt behind his son’s injury to cheer on the wrestlers he coached, but also the ones he didn’t. Wrestlers from other schools, like Union Grove freshman Justin Ruffin who won a state crown for the Wolverines.
You’ll hear it when Union Grove coach Matt Ferrari talks about the bond he and his staff have with coach Joe Hutsell and the guys who are helping him build a program at Luella.
If it all sounds like the stuff that families are made of, Ferrari will tell you that you’re absolutely right.
“You hit the nail on the head when you say it that way,” Ferrari said. “It’s family. We may all wear different color singlets and wrestle with different schools that have different mascots, but when it’s all said and done on the mat, we are a family. We’re a tight knit community that’s close to each other and always rooting each other on.”
That’s why Ferrari and his team went to the local sign shop to get special headgear stickers to wear during sectionals that featured an emblem dedicated to the fallen Woodland wrestler.
The GHSA gets it too. Georgia’s governing body for high school athletics approved a letter requesting permission for Union Grove to wear the special headgear sticker during state.
Ironic how, in one of the most physically intense sports you’ll find, some of the biggest, softest hearts also exist.
As Eric Johnson rattled off the names of wrestlers from Union Grove, Luella, ELCA and even a kid from first-year school Hampton that placed, you could tell the family thing was real — nothing feigned.
And just when you think the family narrative has hit its peak, the coach supplied one more crescendo.
In the midst of all the action involving Henry County wrestlers, Johnson got the chance to catch Jordan Pitt, a wrestler from Chattahoochie who also won gold.
Johnson bumped into Pitt’s aunt as she watched her nephew wrestle. Pitt’s aunt is the mother of twins Mike and Chris McCarthy, and widow of their father Mark. Mike, Chris and Mark were killed in a twin-engine plane crash back in April 2007.
Mike and Chris, freshmen at ELCA at the time, were just getting welcomed into the Chargers’ wrestling family. To this day, coach Johnson said his wrestlers still sport decals commemorating the loss.
He said it was neat to bump into the twins’ mother and see her still finding a way to support someone else in the family doing what her sons also loved. It also, no doubt, brought back a few memories.
Suffice it to say ELCA and Johnson know all too well the sting and pain of such a loss as that which Woodland experienced.
More family resemblance.
As for Trent, he recently returned from college visits to Anderson University and Shorter College. He’s already planning his next steps after high school.
And for ELCA, Eric Johnson is excited about the fact that both his state champs are returning, including promising wrestlers like Dalton Hardeman and several underclassmen.
At Union Grove, Ferrari is excited about the prospects of coaching a potential four-time state champion in Ruffin. But he’s also feeling a bit emotional about the departure of his senior class, and the next one coming up.
It represents the last of the guys he coached in his final two years in middle school.
The family is changing.
Meanwhile, Johnson said he couldn’t help but be excited about the team he’ll field next season. It could very well challenge for a state crown, he says.
Then he adds the caveat that represents the clincher of what he lives by and has tried to model to his wrestling family at ELCA over the last 10 years.
“Lord willing,” he said with a smile.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. An award-winning sportswriter, Stovall has been covering sports in parts of the Southern Crescent for four years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1. Also catch us on Twitter @crescent_buzz.