DENVER — It stuck with me for over a year. Seriously, I might never forget it, and Thursday at the Colorado High School Activities Association state wrestling tournament inside the bustling Pepsi Center, I finally got the chance to ask Nathan Johns about it.
Because kids don’t react the way Johns reacted when he lost. He didn’t just lose in the 2017 Class 3A state title match; he lost in the most crushing way possible, on a high school kid's biggest stage possible, in front of a packed house that probably didn’t think his reaction was possible. And a year ago Johns was only a 16-year-old sophomore at The Classical Academy, which makes his reaction to losing in the state title match — by the narrowest of margins, a 3-2 decision — even more powerful, impressive and lasting.
He smiled. That’s it. He lost, then he smiled, and he shook every hand he could find. In the two matches that preceded Johns’ defeat, the losing wrestlers left the mat in tears. That’s the usual reaction for teenagers in a crushing situation like that. But Nathan Johns? Different. One year later, I was granted the privilege to ask him: What’s with the losing smile, man?
“My goal here,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “is not just to do my best and hopefully to win.”
OK, where’s he going with this?
“The goal for me is to make sure that I’m a reflection of Christ in everything that I do. If I leave here and people say that I was a positive reflection of him, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”
Nathan Johns is 31-3 this season after Thursday’s takedown of Eagle Valley’s Marco Rodriguez at 182 pounds. If he’s wrestling for a state title on Saturday — probably against Valley stud Josh Flanagan, who’s 41-2 and beat Johns in an ultimate tiebreaker earlier this season — nobody among the massive wrestling crowd that always packs Pepsi Center will be surprised. Yes, he’s here to win a state title for TCA, a squad that, under coach Sean Collins, not only preaches the notion of a brotherhood but goes out and lives it for everyone to see.
Collins comes from an Air Force family. In 10 seasons as the coach at TCA he’s applied the same philosophy to his guys.
“When you move around that much,” Collins said, “family becomes your rock.”
It was in a tunnel at Pepsi Center that Collins’ approach was on display. Seconds after TCA junior Liam Young dropped a heartbreaking decision to Drake Horn of Delta, Collins spoke to the kid not about technique or conditioning or anything he did wrong. Collins talked about belief in self, how Liam belongs here, how the next big step in the development in his wrestling career is to embrace as much.
This, friends, was real coaching.
Back to Johns, who represents TCA’s best shot at a state title. Here’s another thing you should know: he’s 2.5 years in and he’s never gotten a “B” in high school. The closest he’s come was an A-minus in AP U.S. History, and Nathan promptly set up a meeting with the teacher to learn what he didn't know so he could raise the A-minus to a solid A. His goal — Nate’s big on goals— is to graduate high school without a single “B” on his record.
“Engineering,” is what he wants to do with his life, and UCCS is where he’s looking to attend college, sans wrestling. Pro tip for UCCS: admit Nathan Johns.
“Wrestling is fun,” he said, “but academics are what I know are going to take me where I want to be.”
That, and his Christian faith. He prayed before his match on Thursday — not for victory, but for “protection” over himself and his opponent, Marco Rodriguez from Eagle Valley. As a guy who broke a collarbone as a freshman, Johns acknowledged that “injuries are the worst,” and he wants no part of his competition suffering from injury, either.
“I think the reason I'm able to stay calm here is where I put my emotions. Only a few people win a state championship. If everybody makes that their goal, the vast majority of wrestlers are going to fail," said Johns, who just turned 17. "So I try to put that emotion into my relationship with God and growing that relationship with God. That way after every match — even if I don’t win the match — my emotions aren't tied up in the match. If I glorify God, I win every match.”
It was one year ago that Johns lost in the state final when his opponent caught him in “a high crotch grab into a double.” Yes, he remembers the exact move. How could he forget? Well, I sure did. But I haven’t forgotten how he reacted.