Braden Morgan rolled over, looked at his dad, and something wasn’t right.
He called his mom. Minutes later, his brother came flying down the Morgans’ neighborhood road going about 70 miles per hour. He pulled the emergency brake and jumped out.
Russell Morgan died of a heart attack Oct. 20, 2013. He was 50. He was Braden’s best friend.
In wake of the hardest event of Braden’s life, a star was created, but it took time. He said immediately after his father’s death, he didn’t want to do anything, go anywhere. That extended to wrestling.
“I used to hate wrestling,” he said. “My eighth-grade year, I quit. I only did it for my dad.”
His brother Bryce, someone Braden said he never had a strong relationship with, refused to let him quit. Wrestling quickly became Braden’s outlet, and Bryce became his best friend and bit of a father figure.
Now Braden is a Kansas state champion, two-time high school All-American and the No. 7 220-pound wrestler in America, according to FloWrestling.
Saturday, he was at it again in the same gym where he said he realized he was better than great — he was one of the nation’s bests.
Last year, Morgan won the Derby Invitational, one of the biggest tournaments of the Kansas high school wrestling season. In the championship bout, he met Newton’s Wyatt Hendrickson, a state champion Morgan said he has wrestled every year since he was 6.
Growing up, Hendrickson never lost to Morgan. They became rivals and friends, and beating Hendrickson became Morgan’s goal. He did, and it was Hendrickson’s only loss of the season as he went on to a Kansas Class 5A title.
Saturday, Morgan fell one win short of defending his Derby Invitational crown. He lost a 4-3 decision to St. James Academy’s Cade Lautt, who InterMat Wrestling has as the No. 20 220-pounder in the U.S.
More time was spent cleaning blood off the two wrestlers than the 6 minutes it took for the upset. It was the most anticipated bout of the tournament as wrestlers from every school crowded around the mat to watch. Some even pulled their phones out to record.
It has been more than five years since Morgan’s dad passed away. In that half decade, Braden has achieved few in El Dorado ever have.
When he was a freshman, he said he approached his coach, one of two multi-time state champion wrestlers in school history. He hadn’t wrestled a varsity bout but was about to make his mark.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to be the next two-timer,’ ” Morgan said. “I told him I wanted to be the best, and he said, ‘All right. Let’s do it.’ “
His coach, Wesley Reynolds, said Morgan is one of the most driven and motivated athletes he has ever been around. Some of the top wrestling programs in the country have taken notice. Morgan said he is down to Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma State.
He will likely be one of the only Division I athletes to ever come out of the Class 4A high school. Reynolds said though he has coached state champions, none have gone on to the levels Morgan will, so managing those expectations and pressures has been a challenge.
Reynolds said he doesn’t know whether El Dorado has ever produced a Division I wrestler. The Wildcats have had six state champions in the past eight years, but none have matched Morgan’s potential.
“I think it’s hard for a lot of us to know how to act or what to tell him because none of us have been there,” Reynolds said. “I just try to keep him grounded and keep him focused on keeping doing what he’s doing, not being complacent with it.”
Morgan said he loves and hates being a big fish in a small pond. All eyes are on him to win another state championship in 2019, but Morgan has bigger ambitions.
On March 25, Morgan took third at the High School Nationals in Virginia Beach. He admittedly beat wrestlers he shouldn’t have, but he has fed off that. Saturday he walked around the Derby gym wearing a warm-up jacket with a checklist on the back. Two were checked off:
- regional championship
- state championship
- national championship
“It feels good to finally be recognized as one of the best, because I know I am, and I’m finally proving to everybody that I am,” Morgan said. “But I’m still hungry. I’m not even close to where I want to be. I’ve already got a state title under my belt. I want another one, but that comes in the motion of winning a national title.
“I expect that state title. I don’t expect a national title. This to me is a pit stop along the way. I think I can beat anyone in the state of Kansas, no matter who they are. I’m just ready.”
Wrestling has become a lifestyle. He told his mom she won’t have to pay for education. His family has converted a garage into a wrestling room, so he can train all year.
Morgan dawns tatoos on his chest and arms in memory of his father and points to the sky before every bout. He has been through more than the average wrestler, and because of it, he has reached heights few ever will.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without that struggle at 13 years old,” Morgan said.