Center Grove wrestler Johnson turning tragedy to triumph

The mullet, now in its third year, is a glorious showcase of blondish brown curls extending to the upper regions of Nate Johnson’s back.

Juxtaposed by sides kept bristly short, the distinctive look maintained by Center Grove’s sophomore 285-pound wrestler is as much of a tribute as it is a style preference.

In October 2020, Johnson’s mother Julie, an ardent supporter of everything all three of her and her husband, Don’s, children did — yes, even the mullet sported by Nate, the couple’s youngest — lost her long battle against cancer.

She was 48.

“In my eighth-grade year during football season, my coach told me I could run the ball if I got a mullet, and I started growing it then and ran the ball. Scored a touchdown,” Johnson said, laughing. “I just kept it because I liked it, and my mom liked it a lot.

“I told her I would keep it through my senior year.”

Johnson, now one of several Trojan wrestlers currently sporting a mullet, has emerged as one of the promising underclassmen for what, on paper, could be among the most talented squads in school history.

He takes a 19-2 record and No. 9 state ranking into Saturday’s Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference meet at Warren Central. He’ll be challenged by, among others, North Central junior Oliver Wilson (ranked 12th) and Carmel soph Tamir Halevi (21st).

Johnson’s losses this season have been 3-1 in overtime to Franklin senior Jacob Johnson, ranked fourth in Indiana at 285, at the county meet in December, and a 5-3 decision against Westfield senior Mihail Platonov, ranked sixth, at the Al Smith Invitational in Mishawaka.

Not bad for someone who was a 220-pounder on the junior varsity at this time last year.

The work ethic Johnson demonstrated in the offseason, both in the weight room and at various competitions, served as a way to honor his late mother.

Ditto the success he’s enjoying this season.

“She would always take me to practices, and was my biggest fan. I just look up to her most,” Johnson said. “Hard work. It pays off, you know, like they all say. I went up a weight class, so that helped, too, and got stronger and a lot faster in the offseason.

“I’ve got a great practice partner, Jacob Newlin, and another partner, Tyler Schott, who helps me out.”

Johnson is one of the Center Grove wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in his weight class. Each has blazed his own unique path to success, whether it’s senior holdovers Hayden Watson and Drake Buchanan or newcomers such as freshmen Julian Weems or Silas Stits.

Johnson’s motivation is as powerful as it is personal.

“You hate for something like that to happen. It’s unfortunate, and I know his mom means a lot to his family, and to him,” Center Grove coach Maurice Swain said. “Nate was kind of put in a situation where he had to grow up a little bit faster than everybody else.

“Nate’s been wrestling his whole life. It’s not like he started in high school or middle school. We kind of knew with him it was just a matter of physical maturity kicking in. We knew once that happened that he was going to be a force.”

Standing on the awards podium at the state meet in February is one way for Johnson to position himself a little closer to Julie, who no doubt would be a most curious and interested spectator.

His coach is confident such a postseason scenario is possible.

“I tell Nate every day that I think he’s a top-five dude in the state,” Swain said. “And when you’re a top-five guy, you have the potential to win the whole thing.”