March 1, 2012
When fifth-year senior Dave Johnson was in high school, he prided himself on never missing a practice. Like any competitive wrestler, he had experienced his share of minor aches and pains, but never anything that a little athletic tape couldn't fix. Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, he expected that good health to carry over, figuring if he trained harder and put more practices under his belt than anyone else, then he would inevitably be better than his opposition.
But five years later, while reflecting on a collegiate career that featured one season in the permanent starting lineup and two stunted by season-ending knee surgeries, he admits that his collegiate career turned out to be a bit of a rollercoaster.
Johnson will end his career back in the Wolverine lineup, however, after earning the 184-pound spot for the Big Ten Championships with a pair of wrestle-off wins earlier this week.
He was only on campus for a few months before ending his stretch of good luck. He had already planned on redshirting his freshman season. He competed unattached in the Eastern Michigan and Michigan State Opens, earning his first collegiate win in the former, and was wrestling well in the practice room. Then in December, he was wrestling Jeff Marsh in a singlet match in an afternoon practice. It was a close match, and going for the win late, Johnson put himself in a bad position and tore the ACL in his right knee.
"As a freshman, everything was so new," said Johnson, "and I was just trying to fit in and find my place on the team. So, to sit out right away was hard, but the upperclassmen helped me a lot. There was never a point when I didn't feel like I was part of the team. Jeff Marsh was particularly helpful, because he felt so bad about hurting me."
After wrestling year round through high school, Johnson went a full year without competing. When he came back, he was hungry to compete and knew he needed to compete to first get back to where he was before he could start making gains. He competed in five open tournaments and, as a backup to Aaron Hynes at 157 pounds, Johnson appeared in three dual meets, earning his first varsity win with an 8-6 overtime decision over Northern Iowa's Trevor Kittleson at the National Duals.
The following season, in 2009-10, he earned a permanent spot in the lineup, compiling a 19-20 record as the Wolverines' 157-pound starter, while earning a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships.
"That year was good for experience," said Johnson. "It was an okay season, definitely could have been a lot better, but I planned on having two more seasons after that. But then, before the school year even started, I had another season-ending injury. I didn't practice one single time that whole season; not one practice was I on the mats. For that to happen as a redshirt junior, in my fourth year, that was pretty tough."
The second injury occurred while Johnson was running up a steep hill during an individual workout in August. He felt a pop in his knee and some minor pain but continued along on his run. After a few weeks, the knee grew more and more swollen, and a subsequent MRI revealed that, sure enough, he had torn his ACL in the left knee.
"At first I didn't really believe it," said Johnson. "The first time it happened, my knee hurt so bad that I couldn't even walk. The second time, it was sore, but it didn't feel anything like that first time. I figured it would be easier to come back from it, physically, because I'd been through it before. But mentally, it was really tough.
"To be honest, I didn't think that much about wrestling last year. It was too hard to think about wrestling while not being able to wrestle. I focused on school and other things. I'd come in, do rehab and cheer for the other guys, but I couldn't sit and watch practice, because it just ate at me not being able to wrestle."
He'd been through rehab once before, so he knew what to expect the second time. He and Michigan athletic trainer Joel Pickerman focused on the things that worked well and brought quicker gains the first time they went through it, like kettle bell squats. He knew how sore the knee would get and how hard he could push it without swelling.
He didn't return to the mat until the summer. Just as the first time, it was a slow process to get back into shape. But the second time around, he knew how hard he could push himself and had a better understanding of what his knee could handle. After four years at 157 pounds, he decided to bump up to 165 and right before the open tournaments, he finally started to feel closer to 100 percent.
Johnson has appeared in four varsity competitions for the Wolverines this season, appearing at three different weight classes, and is 9-6 with four bonus victories. He secured his first dual win in nearly two years, rallying from an early deficit to defeat Indiana's Preston Keiffer, 18-2, and, in U-M's most recent competition against Missouri at the National Duals, lost a narrow 6-5 decision in his first match up two weight classes at 184 pounds.
"College wrestling is a grinding season," said fifth-year senior Kellen Russell. "It's tough to come back from an injury like that and have the same fire. He did it twice. For him to do all that work and not even know if he'd have a starting spot, it took a lot of guts. He's one of the hardest workers in the room. He'll wrestle with anyone. He's the guy who, if he's not starting, will do whatever he needs to do to help the starters. He's only concerned about the team, and if it leads to him having a starting spot, which it did this year, then he'll be thankful for it. But he'd be traveling this weekend with us anyway to help the team."
"Here's a kid who has persevered in the truest sense of the word," said head coach Joe McFarland. "He's come back from two ACL surgeries, and despite his own setbacks, he has always stayed consistent and kept a positive attitude. He's been a role player for us, and he's a great teammate. To see him come through down the stretch and earn an opportunity to wrestle in the Big Ten Championships, it's a great story, and it's a testament to his character and commitment."
Now in the twilight of his wrestling career, Johnson's body is holding up well. The left knee, the most recent surgery, aches from time to time but never two days in a row. In preparation for the two-class weight bump, he has been grabbing bigger and bigger partners in the practice room and is growing more comfortable with the size differential. Whatever happens at this weekend's Big Ten tournament, he is simply happy for another chance to compete.
"When I was going through rehab last year, I wasn't sure if I'd ever be back to 100 percent," said Johnson. "But there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to stick with it. When I got beat out for the starting spot at the beginning of the season, what could I do but keep wrestling? I'm still wrestling, still competing and still working hard. I filled in a couple times this year, bumped up and filled in. It's about finding a place to wrestle.
"I've just got to wrestle."