High School Sports

Southeast's Tony Johnson: Made for the mat

Tony Johnson had never considered wrestling, had no interest in wrestling, and wasn't going to change his mind about wrestling.

But Southeast coach David Tawater knew by looking at Johnson's physique and seeing his quickness as a sophomore on the football field that he could be a good wrestler — if he gave the sport a chance.

Finally, Tawater, after talking with Johnson's father, issued a challenge.

"I said to Tony, 'I want to put you out in a real match, and let's see if you like it from there,' " Tawater said. "'You give me one match against another school, and if it doesn't work out and you don't like it, you can be done. No hard feelings. It wasn't for you.' That was our deal."

Johnson agreed. After one match, he was hooked.

Now a senior, Johnson is ranked fourth in Class 6A at 119 pounds and is eager to qualify for state for the third time. He wrestles Saturday at the City League meet at Heights. The meet begins at 8 a.m. with the finals at 7 p.m.

"I love the sport," Johnson said."... I really do feel like I found, like my dad said, my calling. He thinks the sport was made for me."

Anthony Johnson might be right. There's not many athletes who can pick up a sport and qualify for the state tournament that first season.

"He's just one of those unique guys," Tawater said. "You just don't get that every year. I don't know when I'll have another Tony Johnson."

Johnson entered wrestling with key tools — he's 5-foot-2, quick, muscular and strong. But it took time to grasp wrestling's nuances. When he started, he relied primarily on his strength and a few simple moves taught by Tawater.

"If you do some nice things, you don't need to know every move in the book," Tawater said.

But the learning process was frustrating at times.

"The practices were crazy," Johnson said. "It was pretty intense. Back when I first got in there, there was a lot of guys that had experience. I was walking around the room getting beat up by everybody. I was strong, but everybody was experienced, and I was losing. I hate losing. I was getting mad."

But Johnson didn't quit.

"He knows (wrestling) is on him," his father said. "No excuse for losing. It's not the team, it's him."

Johnson quickly experienced success, qualifying for the Class 6A tournament his first season. He didn't place, but he had gotten a taste of wrestling and wouldn't let it go. As soon as the season ended, he joined a wrestling club.

He improved and expanded his moves as a junior, reaching the state tournament a second time. Now he's got moves and wrestling smarts.

"He's still doing basically what he's been doing, but he's better and he anticipates better," Tawater said.

"My technique is a lot more crisp," Johnson said. "It's not me trying to outmuscle everyone. It's double the trouble — technique and muscle."

Still, what hinders Johnson at times is inexperience. Many of the wrestlers he faces have competed since they were tykes.

Anthony Johnson often wonders what if — what if he had put his son into wrestling when he was younger?

"My dad says all the time that he can't believe he didn't get me into wrestling earlier," Johnson said. "He beats himself up over it."

Anthony Johnson is sure his son would have been a state champion by now if he had started earlier.

"He's a champ in my eyes," Anthony Johnson said. "I've watched him endure. He comes home, 'I can't eat, I have to lose weight.' He's on the treadmill, hitting the bag after he gets done working out at school.

"I hate the fact that I was nai(uml)ve and just new to the sport of wrestling."

Tony Johnson may be late to wrestling, but he plans to remain in the sport, hopefully competing in college.

Listening to Tawater was the best thing he did.