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Jonathan Haddix is living proof that nothing can squeeze the mat out of a wrestler's blood.
Not sickness. Not even high school graduation.
“My senior year in high school, I was ranked in the (statewide) Top 10,” says Haddix, who wrestled at 189 pounds for Anderson County. “I got strep, mono, and walking pneumonia all a week before the regional tournament. I still wanted to wrestle but the doctor told me 'No.'
“That was one of the lowest points of my life when I could not wrestle.”
That was back in 2009. With few opportunities for collegiate wrestling, it looked like a wrestling career had been pinned.
Less than four years later, Haddix is back, albeit in a different role.
In a turn of events that no one could have predicted, Haddix is now coaching the sport he loves at Anderson County Middle School and he could not be happier.
“When I got done wrestling, I thought I was done. I thought I was done for life, but it was something I was hoping I could continue for life,” Haddix says.
He'd done a four-year stint in the National Guard when Haddix learned of the middle school opening. Without a second thought, he applied for the job, created when long-time coaches Travis York and Mike Ramirez stepped aside.
Now, with the enthusiasm of a kid who has just gotten THE gift he wanted for Christmas, Haddix is leading the Mustang program to early success. The team won its first meet at Madison County and has three unbeaten wrestlers after Saturday's home match with a pair of Lexington schools.
“It hadn't crossed my mind to coach,” Haddix said last week.
So far, Haddix is doing just fine with an age group that is, for the most part, just finding itself on the mat.
“My wife says I do better with 11-year-olds and I never grew up anyway,” Haddix says with a laugh.
Actually, coaching middle schoolers can be a difficult proposition, especially to someone who never competed at that level.
“I didn't wrestle in middle school,” says Haddix, who started his career as a high school sophomore. “When I started practice, all I knew was high school. I had to adapt.”
While middle school sports do serve as feeder systems for the high school programs, there is much more to the task. Unlike the more traditional sports like basketball or football, many of the kids are taking part in competitive wrestling for the first time when the join the Mustang team.
“It is a whole different atmosphere,” Haddix says.
At the middle school level, many kids are simply trying out sports to see what they want to pursue later, if at all. It's not uncommon for a kid to have a great day in competition one day and forget the practice uniform the next.
“In middle school wrestling, one day, they will buy into the system and take in everything you say,” Haddix smiles. “The next day, they are jumping around, lying on the mat and doing things like that. I think it is just their age. With middle school kids, you have to keep them on task.”
Haddix has also seen how much kids change during those middle school years. “There is so much difference between sixth- and eighth-graders,” Haddix says. “There is more than between a sophomore and a senior in high school.”
Haddix, however, isn't worried too much about the results right now. It's all about learning the sport and learning to compete at a higher level.
“I try to teach discipline,” he says. “You have to have the discipline to show up for practice and give your best every day.”
Still Haddix is a competitor. One only needs to see him twisting and turning in the coach's corner for a few bouts to see that. He just wants to make sure his wrestlers understand success and what it takes to get there at the high school level.
“The big thing is that some coaches teach kids how to win at the middle school level,” Haddix says. “I want to teach them how to win in high school.”
In other words, Haddix feels middle school is about learning the basics, learning the proper way of doing things. If that yields winning in the middle school years, it is just gravy added to the meal.
“The reason I passed kids that had been wrestling for years was I came in as a sophomore with clear thoughts. Coach (Tom) Castle taught me all that I needed to know.”
Getting the wrestling part down has not been difficult but that is only part of the job.
“When I came into it, I had no idea what I was doing,” Haddix smiles. “I had no clue there was so much paperwork.”
Haddix credits York and Anderson County High School coach Graham Carlton for making sure the middle school program kept going.
“I credit Travis York for starting the program at the middle school,” Haddix says. “If it were not for Travis York and Steve Karsner (who started Anderson wrestling at the high school), we would not be where we are with the program.”
Haddix feels the middle school will have a major say in where the program goes in an era that is seeing wrestling being added to numerous high schools each year. Part of the job is just getting kids to come out for the team.
This year, there was little concerted effort as Haddix got a late start. “Basically, it was real simple,” he says. “We had an announcement that said, 'If you want to wrestle, sign up.'
“We had some kids recruiing their friends. They seem to love it. Their parents tell me they love it.
“We have 20 kids on the roster. The cool thing is that most of the kids have stayed with it. It is a 5:30 thing, so it is not just kids staying after school. They have to be here from 5:30 to 8. They are committed to this. They are not just coming after school. They want to come and be a part of the team.”
In their own small ways, then, the Mustangs are mirroring their coach.
“I started out with an 'A' on my chest,” he says. “It is my program and has been my program since I was a sophomore in high school.”
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