Jordan Burroughs has seen the gamut in nearly a decade at the highest level of wrestling, from Olympic and world titles to significant injury to devastating defeat. Then Burroughs heard about high school wrestler Dathan Wickson Jr. and was floored.
Wickson received the Courage Award from Burroughs during USA Today‘s High School Sports Award show Thursday night.
Less than two years earlier, Wickson spent four hours having a cyst that grew into a tumor removed from between his brain and his skull.
“Wow, just incredible what this kid has been able to overcome in a short period of time,” Burroughs said by phone Thursday evening. “Typically, the adversity that you overcome as an athlete are injuries: a torn labrum, a torn ACL or some sort of injury that happens that’s wrestling related, but this is one of the few times you see an individual that has to overcome something as serious as brain surgery.”
It all began when Wickson was 10 years old. In his sleep, he fell off a couch and hit his head on a coffee table. Doctors closed the wound. Wickson felt fine and went about regular life, including wrestling and playing football.
Then Wickson developed headaches as a high school freshman, so intense that he underwent tests. They showed a crack in his skull, which was connected to that fall several years earlier. A cyst had formed, leaking spinal fluid.
“I was really scared at first because I never think I have to have brain surgery,” Wickson said. “Then, when it started to come down to it [surgery day], my family was really close to me and telling me everything was going to be OK.”
Doctors told Wickson that he would be able to wrestle again. He returned in full this past season.
“At first it was really tough,” coming back from surgery, Wickson said. “I couldn’t do anything at all. We’re just sitting back, watching everybody [practice]. And I like to take action. I don’t like to sit back and watch what other people do, and I can’t do anything. It was a really tough time, but I knew I had to get back out there on the mat.”
His dad and coach, Dathan Sr., was so confident his son would be unaffected in competition that his primary concern was the move from 120 pounds as a freshman to 152 pounds as a junior.
“After he started to go, just the timing of being back on the mat was a big struggle, reacting to his opponents and stuff like that,” his dad said.
Wickson persevered. He won nine straight matches at one point and became the only wrestler from his school — (Rockford, Ill.) Boylan Catholic — to reach the state tournament.
The goal next season is to win a state title. Wickson wants to wrestle collegiately. If he does both, he would follow the path set by his favorite wrestler Burroughs, who didn’t win a state title until his senior year.
“This is a great story, inspirational story,” Burroughs told Wickson on the phone. “When you’re living it, you can’t really see how cool it is, the accomplishments that you’re making and the strides that you’re gaining while you’re living it, but it’s pretty cool to see from the outside looking in.”
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— TODAY with Hoda & Jenna (@HodaAndJenna) June 18, 2020