GOTHENBURG — Andrew Johnson just wanted to wrestle.
His story made national news in December when the New Jersey high school junior was told by a referee that he must cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.
In most cases, wrestlers with long hair — including females — are required to wear a covering over their hair. Johnson did, but was told by the official that it wouldn’t suffice.
In a video that circulated online, a visibly distraught Johnson had his hair chopped off in an impromptu haircut mat-side. He then proceeded to wrestle and earn an emotional victory, having to have his hand raised by the same referee who gave him the ultimatum.
"It was a lot of anger, because I loved my dreads. I loved them to death. I still have one hanging right now," Johnson said, reaching behind his head to display a lone remaining dreadlock as he spoke in the Gothenburg wrestling room. "(All the attention) was crazy. I felt like I was on top of the world, and at the same time it was awful. I’m just trying to rebuild right now."
When Johnson was told he’d have to cut his hair or forfeit, his mind raced, full of emotion and unsure what to do.
"My mom didn’t see me, but I looked up to her and put my hands up, like what do I do, because I don’t want to do this," he said. "It came down to it and I don’t remember anything hardly, because I was just sitting there crying."
Once it was time to wrestle, those tears turned to determination, which he unleashed on his opponent.
"I was mad and tried to use that. It was a tough match and (the opponent) put up a good fight," Johnson said. "I honestly don’t think I should have won that match, but I came back in overtime. It was the most relieving feeling, because if I would have lost, I don’t know what would have happened."
In Gothenburg Tuesday, the senior-to-be and his younger brother Nate were on hand for the Legends Wrestling Camp put together by Swedes wrestling coach Tom Scott.
Some of the best wrestlers in the world were in attendance, including David Taylor, Bo Nickal, Zain Retherford and the crowd favorite, former Husker collegiate national champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs.
"My mom told me there was a camp in Nebraska and rattled off a few of the wrestlers," Johnson said. "When she said Jordan Burroughs, I said, ‘We’re going. It’s far away in Nebraska, but I don’t care — we’re going.’"
Burroughs’ hometown of Sicklerville, New Jersey, and Johnson’s, Buena, New Jersey — both in the Philadelphia area — are only about 20 minutes from each other.
The two got a chance to meet and talk. Burroughs said he hopes to encourage his fellow Garden State grappler to shake off the ugly incident.
"I was one of the only athletes that got a chance to talk to him. I think that he had such a high level of respect for me and what I’ve been able to do in my career and what I stand for that he was willing to field a call from me," Burroughs said. "I really just wanted to introduce myself, tell him I was thinking about him and let him know he had empathy from the wrestling community. Maybe not a lot of people expressed it, but I wanted to let him know a lot of us saw it and that he was brave for doing what he did. He’s a leader."
Burroughs had the same reaction as many around the world after watching the video.
"It was saddening. Especially because he’s so young and so impressionable," Burroughs said, "but also because I know how strong your hair is tied to your identity, especially as an African American. When you’re in high school, you’re trying to discover yourself and who you are. Bullying is prevalent (in high school) and I know that was probably a difficult time for him.
"He wasn’t trying to be a pioneer for civil rights, he just wanted to wrestle. His life has changed drastically, I imagine, but I hope he’s been able to get some normalcy. It’s cool to have him here. What an ordeal he’s been through. I’m glad he came out the other side of this and is able to be a normal kid again."
The Johnson brothers and many others are in Gothenburg thanks to the hard work and commitment of coach Scott.
After Burroughs and other legends attended last year’s camp, Scott reached out to Burroughs asking how he could expand the experience to more kids, which is how the idea of camp scholarships came about.
"After last year, Tom asked how we could do it better, get the community involved and implement some sort of strategy to get people from all around Nebraska and all over the country that appreciate this, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to be here without a scholarship," Burroughs said. "We wanted to create something that would give back to the wrestling community as a whole. Tom did a tremendous job finding the right recipients, getting them here and paying not only for their travel, food and hotel, but also making sure these guys were taken care of from a wrestling camp perspective so their tuition is free."
Scott’s vision, plan and execution of the camp is something Burroughs respects greatly.
"These (camps) can be expensive, so for the amount of scholarships Tom gave, that’s a ridiculous amount of money that was spent to make sure these guys were taken care of," Burroughs said. "Tom has a big heart and understands beyond the financial security is a certain amount of community outreach that is going to go way beyond what we can do (during the camp). I think the impact that we’re going to create is planting a seed of integrity and character, and allows these guys to dive into the sport that has helped establish me as a man and has been great for so many people around the world. They wouldn’t have been here without it. They probably would have been at home watching cartoons, and now they get to have a life-changing experience."
For Johnson, things were admittedly a little strange after the incident and subsequent publicity, but now he’s focused on honing his skills on the mat for his upcoming senior season.
"It was a roller coaster when it was happening. I was getting back in the wrestling room and, honestly, it was kind of weird because I was ‘the famous kid’ and that wasn’t ever a good feeling," Johnson said. "I’ve been dealing with it and have a lot of support. Jordan Burroughs and Tom (Scott) and this scholarship … I’m just so thankful for this and everybody here. I’m ready to get on the mat and learn how to be a better wrestler."