When it comes to wrestling, Steve Johnson has done it all
NICOLLET – Few people have been involved in the sport of wrestling from as many different angles as Steve Johnson.
Since taking up the sport as a sixth-grader in his hometown of Hector, Johnson wrestled competitively in various capacities until he was 56 years old. He coached the Nicollet wrestling team for almost 40 years and has also been involved in the sport as a parent and as a dedicated fan.
On April 27, Johnson will add “Hall of Famer” to his wrestling resume when he is inducted into the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association (MWCA) David Bartelma Wrestling Hall of Fame during an induction dinner in Benson. He will be one of eight people inducted as part of the Class of 2013.
Johnson sees the honor as being a recognition of his lifetime of dedication to the sport.
“I guess to me, a lot of it’s longevity,” Johnson said. “When you’ve coached as long as I have, you’re bound to have some good wrestlers and you’re bound to have some wins under your belt. I think a lot of it has to do with just being a kind of a person that does it for a long time and sticks with it.”
Though Johnson has the kind of stats that one would expect of a Hall of Famer – including a 324-201-6 coaching record – his legacy extends beyond wins and losses. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in the sport of wrestling has been his ability to inspire others, demonstrated by the fact that a number of his former wrestlers have gone on to coach wrestling themselves, including his sons Chad and Ross.
For as much help as he has provided others within the sport, it is the people that helped him along the way with his own wrestling endeavors that he is dedicating his induction to. He plans to use the induction ceremony as a way to thank those individuals, from his parents and other family members to his former assistant coaches, administrators and athletes.
“To me it’s not an award that I got, or I earned it, it’s an award that everybody helped me get,” Johnson said. “I guess I look forward to the opportunity to recognize them. As far as I’m concerned, I already got recognized, so I’m looking at that time as a chance to thank them for helping me get the award.”
Right from the beginning of his experience with wrestling as a sixth-grader back in 1960, Johnson was given all the support he needed to develop his relationship with the sport into a life-long commitment.
Johnson’s parents, Roland and Phyllis, became dedicated wrestling parents when three of their four sons took up wrestling. The oldest brother, Dennis, was the first to take up the sport, but the second oldest, Galen, instead chose to take up basketball.
As the third-oldest brother, Johnson likewise had to make a choice between the two sports. Though he hadn’t wrestled before his sixth-grade year due to the absence of opportunities to wrestle at the youth level back then, Johnson made the choice a day or two before the start of the winter season that year to join the varsity wrestling team as a 95-pounder rather than join the junior high basketball team.
“I think the thing that I liked the most [about wrestling] was the individual aspect,” Johnson said. “You couldn’t put the blame on anyone else. You felt good about the wins, you felt bad about the losses and you had nobody to blame but yourself if you didn’t give it everything you had, or if you didn’t go out there as prepared as you should be. It was all on you.”
Johnson’s younger brother, Jay, also decided to take up wrestling, a commitment that he also turned into a lifelong passion. Jay went on to coach at Eden Valley Watkins and is also a strong candidate for Hall of Fame induction in the future.
Johnson was a talented wrestler for Hector High School, but he wasn’t able to turn his regular season success into a state tournament appearance. After a promising eighth-grade campaign, knee surgeries wiped out much of his freshman and sophomore seasons and it wasn’t until his senior season that his best chance came to advance to state.
He entered the postseason his senior year with the No. 1 ranking wrestling at around 140 pounds. However, his season came to an unfortunate end in the section tournament when he put his opponent in a cradle, but in the process inadvertently put his own shoulders to the mat and pinned himself.
“I got up thinking I had won,” Johnson said. “I got up, [the referee] raised the other guy’s hand, and I said, ‘No, you raised the wrong guy’s hand.’ He said, ‘No, you pinned yourself, you put your own shoulders to the mat.’ That was a pretty big disappointment.”
Johnson mentions the disappointing end to his senior season as a major reason that he continued with wrestling at the college level, spending two years at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, before transferring to Minnesota State University, Mankato (then known as Mankato State College).
At Morningside Johnson also continued his career as a defensive end in football. However, after raising his weight to over 200 pounds for football and cutting it back down to 167 for wrestling, he decided to end his football career when he transferred to MSU.
The Morningside wrestling team had great success with Johnson on the team, especially when Jay joined the team in Johnson’s sophomore season and the team went 12-0, ending a 52-meet win streak for rival Westmar College in the process. However, Johnson had better individual success at Mankato, earning All American honors in 1971 with a sixth-place finish at 167 pounds in the NCAA College Division Wrestling Championships.
“I really think I grew a lot as a wrestler at Mankato,” Johnson said. “I got to deal with a lot of very good wrestlers, and the competition was extraordinary.”
Even during his college days, Johnson received tremendous support from his parents.
“My parents, whether I was at Morningside or Mankato, they would be out in Brookings, S.D., or they would be in Cedar Falls, Iowa, or wherever we were wrestling, they were there,” Johnson said. “Fargo, Grand Forks, it didn’t matter. They were very supportive.”
After graduating in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Math Education, Johnson immediately took a teaching position at the high school in Ogilvie, where he was the head coach in football, wrestling and track. However, a year later he jumped at the opportunity to relocate closer to home when a position opened up at Nicollet High School, where he stayed from 1972 until his retirement in 2009.
“I thought that [Nicollet] was just another stepping stone, I would be going to something bigger and better, but every time I went and interviewed I turned the jobs down,” Johnson said. “I finally quit [interviewing], and said, ‘I’m probably going to stay here,’ because I really enjoyed my administration here in Nicollet and the people I worked for and with.”
In addition to being the head wrestling coach at Nicollet, Johnson also spent some time as the head football coach, girls’ softball coach and head boys’ and girls’ track coach, taking on extra responsibilities when needed.
“I was even the cheerleading advisor one year,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t teach them any jumps or any cheers, I just supervised. So sometimes when you’re a small school you get things that you really don’t want to do, but you do it.”
Johnson had a pair of undefeated seasons coaching the Raiders’ wrestling team and also had a heavyweight state champion, Ryan Rosin. He mentions his main highlight as a coach, however, as watching so many of his wrestlers go on to pursue coaching careers themselves, including his two sons.
As a parent, Johnson made sure to repay his own parents’ support for him by giving his sons ample opportunities to thrive in the sport from an early age. When his sons were just starting out wrestling, Johnson would often load up a station wagon to take his sons and other young wrestlers to weekend tournaments throughout Minnesota.
“We didn’t have real agendas, we just wanted to go have a good time,” Johnson said. “I think that’s part of any success I had as a coach, is I always tried to make things fun. And wrestling is a tough sport, it’s hard to make fun.”
Chad is now a successful head coach at Sibley East and Ross was formerly the head coach at Wayzata. Johnson, Jay, Chad and Ross have amassed more than 1,000 combined coaching victories.
The Johnson family’s dedication to wrestling was never more apparent than when Steve, Jay, Chad and Ross were all coaching different high school teams at the same time.
“We used to have a thing called the ‘Johnson Duals,’ and it was my brother’s team, my team and my two sons’ teams, then just for the hell of it we invited St. Paul Johnson, just because their name was Johnson,” Johnson said. “We had the five teams and you’d wrestle four duals, each one would wrestle the other four teams that day. That was always fun and it kept our family together, it was another time for our family to get together.”
Even while he was coaching, Johnson continued to wrestle himself, taking part in open tournaments until he was 56. He has since had a double knee replacement, otherwise he may still be tempted to wrestle at his current age of 65.
“Most people at that age have more sense,” Johnson said.
Nowadays, Johnson’s involvement in wrestling is mostly as a fan. He is an avid follower of college wrestling – having traveled to the NCAA Wrestling Division I Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, just last week – and closely follows his sons’ high school teams. He was devastated when Nicollet ceased to exist as an independent team when it merged with Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial this season, but still keeps tabs on the current generation of high school wrestlers from Nicollet as well.
Today Steve also keeps busy serving as a substitute teacher, a City Councilman and the Valley Conference Executive Secretary. Steve’s wife is Judy, and in addition to sons Chad and Ross they have a daughter, Lori.
Also being inducted to the Hall of Fame alongside Johnson on April 27 will be Roger Knutson, Kory Mosher, Rodd Olson, Jerry Reker, Dan Snobl, Dan Stifter and Dave Zuniga.