Whether he knows it or not, Beaufort’s DeAndre Johnson has spent years training for moments like the one he experienced a couple of weeks ago when he ran into a burning building. Seeing smoke coming off the roof of his neighbor’s duplex in the early evening of Nov. 28, Johnson sprang into action and dialed 911 from his cellphone while walking to the back of the building to ensure a propane tank was not in danger of exploding.
“When I first got out of my car, I noticed the rest of the neighborhood was dead quiet,” said Johnson.
Hearing smoke detectors going off inside the apartment, Johnson knocked on the back door to no response. Though it only took minutes for the firemen to arrive, there was still time to open the door and yell inside, though the thick, heavy air made visibility low.
It was only after firemen put out the flames that Johnson was told his alert response had saved two cats and the building next door from the growing blaze. Another five minutes and a disaster was imminent, but it’s not the first time Johnson’s adrenaline and determination have overcome a sure loss.
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Just over a year ago, Johnson won the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championship in the 157-pound weight class and was voted his league’s Wrestler of the Year by opposing coaches. Before then, he was a JUCO transfer from Spartanburg Methodist. Before even that, however, he was a 2013 graduate of Battery Creek High School and runner-up to the state champion in wrestling.
To reach the pinnacle of his wrestling career last year, he had to recover from a tournament loss early in the season that dropped him from a No. 6 ranking to out of the picture altogether.
“It humbled me,” he said. “I was going through the motions of being highly ranked and realized, ‘Hey, I have to earn this.’”
He went back to a system of daily conditioning and practicing for overtime matches because he felt he had something to prove to himself and others. His adrenaline kicked in daily, and he refocused his mind and body to be ready for the moments that make the difference between champions and challengers.
“I knew nobody was going to work harder than me from that point on,” said Johnson.
It paid off in the semifinals of the championship tournament when he defeated a higher-ranked, previously undefeated opponent after taking the match to overtime.
“The last whistle blew, and I took my shot,” said Johnson, whose signature wrestling move was a front body lock.
The surprise win meant he would face the defending national champion, Destin McCauley, in the finals. Feeling confident from his 7-0 streak to end the season, Johnson dominated McCauley 14-5 to claim the crown.
But what does a collegiate wrestling champion do when he graduates with a degree in criminal justice? He returns to his high school stomping grounds to coach the next generation.
Yes, when he’s not saving animals in fires or conquering mat mortals, he’s walking the halls at Battery Creek as a different kind of hero. I know because I walk those same halls daily and get a chance to observe.
His own high school wrestling coaches Kyle Kimrey, Gilbert Sanchez and Nathan Day have all either moved to other schools or into administration. The opening was there this year for Johnson to return and continue the school’s run of state championships.
“I was afraid the culture would change, and I wanted to give back to what I got from there,” said Johnson. “Coach Day always wanted to stick to the basics, and Mr. Sanchez wanted the same but to make it look pretty, so we were lucky to have them.”
Now, as BCHS wrestling coach, Johnson can combine Day’s mantra to “stick around and you’ll be good” with his own message of believing anything is possible with hard work.
Though he has wrestling heroes of his own — some currently with Team USA — he doesn’t think his actions during the apartment fire merit the label being attached to him.
“I don’t look at it as something I deserve to be called,” said Johnson. “The firefighters are the real heroes.”
His actions in life in and outside of wrestling speak louder than his protestations. Time will tell if he ends up coaching state or national champions, but not all heroes wear capes.
Some just wear the ring of a national champion on their finger.