Jan Johnson’s Unlikely Return To The Wrestling Mat
When freshman linebacker Jan Johnson decided to walk on at Penn State, he anticipated that his destined place was on the gridiron. It’s not like the former Governor Mifflin star couldn’t play; Johnson fielded offers from the likes of Fordham and Akron, but saw greater opportunity in Happy Valley, and decided to sacrifice a potential scholarship for the chance to walk onto the field at Beaver Stadium donning the iconic basic blues. Isn’t that every Pennsylvania high school football player’s dream?
Upon his arrival, Johnson lived out that dream despite being pegged with a redshirt. Entering at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Johnson was the epitome every great Penn State linebacker before him, at least from a physical standpoint. But Johnson’s career trajectory was significantly altered with one simple phone call to James Franklin from esteemed wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson. The purpose of this call? Get Johnson, a decorated two-time PIAA champion, on the wrestling team.
“When we found out [redshirt freshman] Nick Nevills was going to be out for a while, I called up Coach Franklin that same night and said ‘Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have anybody on your roster that’s redshirting this year and has wrestling experience,’ and Johnson’s name came up,” Sanderson said at wrestling Media Day. “Franklin was very supportive throughout the entire process, and ultimately it was Jan’s decision. We’re excited to have him, and I promised Coach Franklin that I’d keep him big.”
Sanderson noted that he was still easing Johnson into the program prior to his team’s season-opening bout vs. Lock Haven, as the freshman still needed time to acclimate during his transitional period.
Dual-sport athletes at the Division I level are a rarity, but do occasionally appear at programs across the country. In principal, the sheer physicality of the two sports makes it so skills can be transferred over, and based on Johnson’s massive build, it’s easy to envision him excelling at such a high level. And the weight that was mentioned earlier? That’s now a thing of the past after Sanderson got a hold of him. Johnson, listed as a heavyweight, currently tips the scale at 235, and he’ll be expected to hover around that weight for the remainder of the season.
Though the prestige that comes with representing two of the most iconic programs in collegiate athletics is appealing, a great deal of thought went into the decision to make the leap, according to Johnson.
“I figured that since I’m redshirting in football, I thought this was a great opportunity to get out here,” Johnson said during Media Day. “They needed help, and I can fill in and do a good job here. The situation matched up perfectly where I’m not going to lose a year of eligibility for football, and I’ll still be able to wrestle.”
Obviously, football and wrestling share certain similarities, but the main difference falls with conditioning. It’s vastly different, and that’s one of the first things Johnson picked up on during his first few days with the team. Football might get an athlete into stellar shape, but the endurance necessary to thrive on the mat isn’t easily attained. Keeping weight factors into that process, adding an extra element of conditioning not found on the gridiron.
“It’s different, but it’s been going pretty well,” Johnson said. “I’ve just been drinking a lot of water and eating a ton of calories all day. It’s pretty much another job.” Johnson noted that, despite his prime level of fitness, the first day of practice was the toughest, but added that it’s been relatively smooth sailing ever since.
Speculation regarding Johnson’s performance ran rampant after Media Day, but the fact remained that Johnson’s prowess remained much of a myth, given that he’d never wrestled at the Division I level. However, that notion would be put to the test on Nov. 13, as the Nittany Lions opened up the 2015-16 campaign against Lock Haven — featuring Johnson as the heavyweight anchor. At 235 pounds, Johnson would have to wrestle with a chip on his shoulder, given the fact that his opponent — Lock Haven’s Brad Emerick — tipped the scale at 280 pounds. Though his rust was evident early on, Johnson persevered, using his athleticism to gain an advantage over the lumbering Emerick, who favored a more abrasive, physical wrestling style.
Johnson eventually defeated his massive opponent, capping off a dominant 50-0 shutout while earning his first career victory as a Nittany Lion. The victory is surely one of many to follow, making Johnson’s story unique. It’s not every day you see a Penn State linebacker make the jump from the gridiron to the wrestling mat, but Johnson’s spirit says everything about him, making it obvious why he had no reservations when it came to lacing up the wrestling shoes.
“It’s pretty awesome that I get to be a part of two of the biggest programs here at Penn State,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to me, and it means even more to my family and friends back home that I can be able to do this.”
Embodying the consummate student-athlete, the sky is the limit for young Jan Johnson. This is just the first chapter of what could be a special career in Happy Valley.