Andrew Johnson returned to the wrestling mat on Friday night without incident and with success.
Johnson, the Buena High School junior who was thrust into the national spotlight when his dreadlocks were cut before a Dec. 19 match, registered his first pin of the season during a quad-meet at Timber Creek.
Johnson slapped palms with Buena coach George Maxwell, then was greeted by high-fives and backslaps from his teammates after registering a pin of Timber Creek’s Divante Lopez at the 5 minutes, 46 seconds of their 120-pound bout.
“Kids always amaze me,” Maxwell said. “They are so resilient.”
Friday’s round-robin event, which included teams from Cherry Hill West and Cherokee, marked the first competition for Buena since the Chiefs’ scheduled home match against Absegami on Wednesday was postponed by school officials after the referee informed them on Tuesday that Johnson would need to wear a hair-covering to be eligible to compete.
The postponement re-ignited the controversy that had erupted after video of Johnson’s dreadlocks being sheared before the Dec. 19 bout went viral, creating a social-media firestorm, drawing comments from politicians and national figures and prompting allegations of racism.
“Andrew just wants to wrestle,” said Dominic Speziali, a Philadelphia-based attorney for the Johnson family. “He’s a great kid. He really is. I think everything will run smoothly going forward.”
Maxwell praised Johnson’s ability to maintain his composure and focus on wrestling despite the distractions of the last three weeks.
“I’m really proud of the way he’s carried himself,” Maxwell said. “I’m really proud of the way he’s practiced. He goes hard. He gives it everything he has.
“That’s what we talk about, going hard for six minutes. If you do that, you have nothing to be disappointed about.”
Friday’s event at Timber Creek in Erial, Camden County, was attended by Larry White, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
White carried a purple folder, inside of which was a memo from B. Elliott Hopkins, the wrestling rules interpreter for the National Federation of State High Schools Association, outlining the organization’s updated position on the sport’s hair-covering rule.
“I’m here to make sure the officials and the schools have the latest interpretation of the rule,” White said.
According to Hopkins’ memo, the NFSHSA acknowledges that there is a “wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth. ... Please understand that our rule is solely based on length, not style.”
White indicated that some referees, including the official who was assigned to Buena’s match on Wednesday, might have been interpreting the rules more strictly and regarding Johnson’s current hair style as requiring a protective cap. White said that was not the case under the NFSHSA’s updated memo.
“What I’m hoping is that we all get on the same page,” White said, indicating that NJSIAA officials had forwarded a copy of the memo to every one of the organization’s 400-plus member schools. “Hopefully, we won’t go through a situation like this again in a long, long time, if not forever.”
Friday night’s event was officiated by three referees, Mark Beirerschmidt, Darren Walsh and Jeff Leaf.
Johnson wrestled without a hair covering. As did every other wrestler, he wore headgear that protected his ears.
Johnson, who is bi-racial, returned to the mat for the first time since Dec. 19 at the Williamstown Duals, wrestling without a protective cap over his hair, which he wears in a short but distinctive style.
White said confusion over the rules might have been inadvertently created on Monday when the New Jersey wrestling rules interpreter, Roy Dragon, sent a memo on the hair-covering rule to each chapter of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association that included photos, including one of a young man whose hair resembled Johnson’s current look.
“That’s why we asked the national federation to get involved,” White said. “They have an updated interpretation which stresses that the big thing is length, not style. We needed to make sure that all of our coaches, schools and officials are on the same page.”
Johnson lost his first bout on Friday night, dropping a 4-2 decision to Cherokee’s Andrew Aromando.
After that bout, Johnson sat with his back against the wall near the bleachers and was comforted by his mother, Rosa Santiago Johnson.
Rosa Santiago Johnson and Andrew Johnson both declined to comment.
Johnson came back in a big way in his next bout, registering three takedowns and finally earning the pin just 14 second before the buzzer of the third and final period.
In his third bout of the night, Johnson scored a 3-2 decision over Cherry Hill West’s Mike Ummarino in a hard-fought battle.