LUMBERTON — University of North Carolina at Pembroke wrestling head coach Othello “O.T.” Johnson has lived a life filled with adversity, but perseverance and determination have helped him overcome overwhelming odds.
“If you work hard, good things are going to come to you,” Johnson said. “If you get knocked down, you just have to get back up and keep fighting.”
That was a motto that Johnson learned early in life.
At the tender age of 8, his family spent most of its nights finding a way out of their war-torn country of Liberia. A civil war, which eventually claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people in the western African country, broke out due to an election in 1985 that was widely considered fraudulent. Rebel forces whose goal was to overthrow the elected regime often claimed the lives of parents and grandparents of the friends he had grown up with.
“I was about 8 years old when the first civil war there began. It really shocked the country,” Johnson said. “We went from very few people having guns, to kids my age — anywhere from 7 to 15 years old — carrying a gun knowing that was their only option for survival. Their moms and dads had been killed and there was nobody else left in the family, so they didn’t have a choice but to join the rebel forces. They knew that was the only way that they were going to eat every day.”
As tension in the capital city of Monrovia grew, more and more families began to flee to the countryside to live. Because Johnson’s aunt, Nancy Conrad, was living in the United States as an American citizen, the family took the option of residing at the U.S. embassy for a short time before it was vacated, forcing the family go on the move again.
Because traveling during the day was not an option, the family steadily made its way out of the country under the umbrella of night. Using back roads to avoid being captured or killed by rebel forces, the family made its way to a refugee camp in nearby Ghana. They would live there the next 1 1/2 years before eventually leaning on a family hero that changed their lives forever.
“We were fortunate enough to have an aunt that really cared about us,” Johnson said. “She went back to the United States and worked on getting us out of there. She filled out all of the paperwork and did all of the things she had to do to get us to the United States.”
Leaving some of his family behind, Othello, his two older brothers, his sister and his cousin boarded a plane for Winston-Salem. His newborn niece at the time, Comfort, who recently graduated from UNCP and currently serves the athletics department as the assistant spirit squad coach, also made the trip.
“When we got here, my aunt wouldn’t let us leave the house for two weeks,” Johnson said. “We were so malnourished when we got here that she spent the first two weeks fattening us up. She also wanted to give us time to get adjusted to the time change and the new environment. It also gave her the chance to get us into the local school system.”
Othello delved into the sport of soccer at an early age, but admits that his passion was to become the next Michael Jordan when he got to America. Needing shoes to reach a height of 5-foot-2, he quickly realized that he would likely to have to put that dream aside and tried out for the football team.
Along the way, his oldest brother, Archie, became an accomplished wrestler and, often times, used his younger brothers, Othello and Buster as practice dummies. It was the first taste of a sport that would eventually consume most of his life.
“I was always intrigued when my brother brought home medals from tournaments,” Johnson said. “One day, after football practice, I was in the weight room and the wrestling coach came in and told me that I could be a state qualifier as a freshman. I started to win and became obsessed with the sport because I was that good at something, and it had nothing to do with my height or my size. I was going against people whose only advantage on me was experience.”
Following an outstanding prep career, Johnson received offers to wrestle collegiately at Appalachian State and UNC-Greensboro, along with a few other in-state schools, but because of his admitted lack of study habits and low standardized test scores, he had to sit out a year under the NCAA’s Proposition 48 regulation. He decided his best option would be to go the junior college route and enroll at Colby Community College in Kansas.
He thrived as a collegiate athlete with the Trojans, twice capturing all-American accolades from the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) in 2002 and 2003. As a freshman, he turned in a seventh-place finish at the NJCAA National Championships and highlighted Colby’s runner-up finish at the 2003 event with a sixth-place finish. The Trojans finished just 4 1/2 points shy of the national title at the 2003 NJCAA National Championships.
Johnson also captured all-academic honors as a sophomore.
In a chance meeting at a pool conditioning session inside Colby’s fitness center, he would meet his eventual wife, Ivy Ramsey, who would go on to become a three-sport standout for UNCP in basketball, cross country and track & field.
“Ivy had torn her ACL so she was doing rehab in the pool while I was in there one day,” Johnson said. “She told me I wasn’t very good at swimming. We eventually became friends and it materialized into something more.”
Following a standout junior college career, Johnson made his way back to the Tar Heel State as a student-athlete at the University of North Carolin at Greensboro, where he was a two-year starter for the Spartans. As a junior, he helped lead UNCG to a third-place finish at the Southern Conference Tournament, and then took home sixth place laurels at the Southern Scuffle during his senior season.
Harboring aspirations to become the next star anchor at ESPN, it was at UNCG that Johnson developed a love for the coaching side of wrestling after working with some of the club and youth teams in the area.
“I realized that I was pretty good at communicating wrestling moves,” he said. “I wasn’t great at it, but I came to the realization that coaching was probably a better path for me. As a senior, I looked at all sorts of options for coaching and UNCP was one of the options that popped up.”
Having competed inside the English E. Jones Center as a student-athlete, Johnson was impressed by the program at UNCP, which was then under the direction of head coach P.J. Smith. One of Johnson’s mentors contacted Smith to inquire about the possibilities of him becoming a student assistant coach for the Braves, but Smith had already announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2005-06 season.
“I didn’t actually meet (former UNCP head coach) Jamie Gibbs until August, but he asked me how involved I wanted to be with the program,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted at the time, but I told him that I thought I wanted to be fully involved and that I wanted to try and get as much out of this as I can.”
The coaching marriage was magical for the Braves as Gibbs and Johnson led the program to five consecutive top-30 finishes at the NCAA Division II National Championships. Along the way, the duo mentored 16 national qualifiers, five region champions and seven all-Americans. UNCP finished in a tie for 17th place at the 2010-11 national tournament, which would, inevitably, be Gibbs’ last at the reins of the program before moving on to be the head coach at Baldwin Wallace in Berea, Ohio.
Johnson was named the program’s sixth head coach later that summer.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Johnson of the hire. “Jamie had enough faith in me to recommend me to take over the program. He believed that I was the right guy for the job.”
The program has blossomed under Johnson’s leadership. Under his direction, UNCP has registered four top-20 finishes at the national championships, including finishing in a tie for eighth at the event in his first season as head coach.
In addition to mentoring 10 all-Americans and 15 national qualifiers, Johnson has also led a pair of wrestlers, Mike Williams (2011-12) and Daniel Ownbey (2013-14, 2014-15) to individual national titles – the first three national championships in the history of the program.
“I care about my team. I care about them as wrestlers. But, more importantly, I care about them as people,” Johnson said. “With the right resources, this team can win the national championship. We have the right pieces to make a run at a top-4 finish this year, but this program is in pretty darn good shape. Good things are ahead of us.”
This story is courtesy of UNCP Athletics.