Hours after last year's NCAA Division III wrestling finals, John
Johnson sat alone in a hotel room in Stevens Point, Wis., staring
blankly at the television. Johnson, then a junior at New Jersey's
Trenton State College, was watching a videotape that showed how he
had let the 142-pound national title slip through his hands in a
6-5 loss to Raphael Wilson of Augustana College of Rock Island,
Ill. The VCR ran from before midnight until 7 a.m. -- 13 minutes
on PLAY, two minutes on REWIND, over and over.
``Every time I watched that tape I expected the ref to raise my
hand,'' says Johnson. ``At first I was devastated. Then I realized
that losing that match shouldn't faze me. I mean, I've been
On April Fools' Day of 1989, during Johnson's freshman year at
Trenton State, his life indeed took an unfortunate turn. Stopped
by a police officer near his home in Moorestown, N.J., for pulling
into a parking lot too quickly, Johnson was asked for
identification. At the time he was living with his grandmother,
Crystal Carter. The car was registered in her name, and Johnson,
who says he feared losing control of the situation, was overcome
by panic shortly after another officer arrived on the scene. He
began struggling with the police. ``In my mind I was fighting for
my life,'' says Johnson. ``If that same situation came up again,
they'd have to shoot me in the back to get the cuffs on.''
After his arrest Johnson dropped out of school and spent nearly
two years doing odd jobs while he waited to stand trial. On Dec.
29, 1990, he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated assault. A
few months later a New Jersey superior court judge sentenced him
to 364 days in jail.
Johnson served four months in the Burlington County Jail. He found
the toughest part of his incarceration was enduring the despair
that set in at night. Every evening at 11 the thick steel door of
his cell would slam shut. ``You heard that sound and knew you had
lost another day -- one you could never get back,'' he says.
It was this sense of loss that drove Johnson to begin remapping
his life. He wrote a letter to his Trenton State coach, David
Icenhower, outlining his plans: Upon his release in the summer of
1991, he would enroll in a junior college; then he would gain
readmission to Trenton State in January 1993. He would wrestle for
eight weeks and fulfill his dream of winning a national title.
Icenhower had been unimpressed by Johnson's attitude and work
ethic as a freshman. ``There is no question that John is the most
talented wrestler to ever walk through our doors,'' says the
coach, who has won five NCAA Division III team titles and coached
17 individual national champions at Trenton State. ``So it was
frustrating to think all that talent was going to waste. Then I
read the letter. He had been given a second chance, and you could
tell he had decided not to waste even a second of it.''
Johnson was wrestling within a week of returning to school as a
sophomore in January '93. He finished 24-4, placing fourth in the
'93 NCAA tournament after losing 2-1 in the national semifinals.
Once Johnson was able to add the proper conditioning to his
arsenal of speed, upper-body strength and tactical expertise, he
was nearly unbeatable.
Since 1993 he has amassed a 42-match dual-meet winning streak and
earned two Most Outstanding Wrestler awards from the Division III
national qualifying tournament. In January, Johnson caught the eye
of Greg Strobel, a coach with the Foxcatcher Wrestling Team of
Newtown Square, Pa., which trains a number of the country's
Olympic hopefuls. Johnson, who is a year away from graduation,
will train with Foxcatcher this spring.
Despite losing in the quarterfinals of the 1995 Division III
nationals, Johnson won all his consolation matches to finish third
overall. Though his college quest wasn't entirely successful,
Johnson hopes to continue wrestling. ``If I ever give up on my
dreams and goals because of what happened to me, then I'd be a
failure,'' Johnson says. ``And there's no way that's ever going to