An inspiration’

By Tammy Keith Published February 19, 2012 at 2:59 a.m.
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— Jesse Johnson, 18, said he wakes up in the morning thinking about things such as what girl he might talk to at Russellville High School, or an upcoming wrestling match. “I don’t wake up thinking, ‘Oh, my life is so horrible, and I’m missing my arm and legs,’” he said. Johnson, who was born in Russia, doesn’t really like the term, but he’s a “congenital triple amputee.” He was born with three missing limbs — both legs beyond the knee and one arm below the elbow. It hasn’t held him back from much, including becoming a winning wrestler. Johnson was adopted when he was 3 years old by a family in Arkansas. “That didn’t work out so well,” he said, hesitating to elaborate. “I try to keep everything positive.” Lori and Willie Johnson of Russellville already had a house full of adopted children — but they took Jesse in for respite care when he was 8, just until he could be adopted again. “Things got pretty bad at their house, I guess,” Lori said of the first family. “There are different fits for different families. It ended up we kind of liked him,” she said, laughing. The Johnsons adopted Jesse when he was 9. He’s right at home with the 18 other children. That doesn’t include eight others, for a total of 27 Johnson children. Lori gave birth to four of them, and she and Willie adopted the rest, all of whom have special needs. “We live with these kids, and to us they’re not disabled. They’re just kids,” she said. “We live with them being loud, obnoxious or sweet.” She said Jesse had reactive attachment disorder and a lot of anger. “You can’t be rejected that much and not have those rejection things,” she said. He wasn’t violent, she said, but he was a handful. “He’s headstrong, and he would argue,” she said. “I told him, ‘If you can be here and not cause a lot of trouble, you’re welcome to stay.’” Jesse remembers coming into the house full of kids. “It was so big and crazy,” he said. Lori said one of her older sons had become involved in high school wrestling. She thought the sport might be a good outlet for Jesse’s anger.

“I am not a sports-type mom. That was the least thing I could relate to,” she said. “He always wrestled with his brothers. It was kind of natural for him.”

When Jesse was in fifth grade, Lori put him in a wrestling program at the Boys and Girls Club in Russellville.

“When I first got started in wrestling, I wasn’t very good like I am now,” he said.

“I was looking for something to do, and that year I couldn’t see myself doing anything. I couldn’t see myself being successful at anything,” he said.

“Life changed a whole lot. School is what changed dramatically.”

In his previous family, he lived on a farm and was home schooled, although he said it was inconsistent, and he was behind with his studies.

He started attending Russellville Public Schools when he was 8, and today he’s a junior.

“Everybody was very supportive of me. The teachers are what helped me the most,” Jesse said. “I owe my success to my third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers.”

He said it was his fifth grade homeroom teacher, Cherish Holt, who made the biggest difference.

“Mrs. Holt was like, ‘Jesse, you need to stick with it. No one does anything good the first year,’” Jesse recalled.

Holt has a mutual admiration for her former student.

“Jesse has always had a special place in my heart,” Holt said. “When he first came to me, I don’t think he knew his potential, but I could see it. He had a wonderful personality, just waiting to be discovered. I never accepted excuses from him just because of his condition. At first, I think this frustrated him, but after a while, he realized I was doing it because I had high expectations for him and I believed he was capable.”

Holt said she has enjoyed watching his journey from little boy to “the amazing young man he is now.”

She said she is most proud that “instead of playing the pity card and making excuses, he has risen above it and showed others that just because you may have been dealt some challenges, God made you unique for a reason, and he will never give you more than you can handle.

“He is an inspiration to me,” she said.

Jesse said he also was inspired by a book one of his coaches, Terry Davis, read and then gave to him.

“He knew I was kind of down on myself,” Jesse said.

The book, No Excuses, is about champion wrestler and motivational speaker Kyle Maynard, who was born with all four limbs missing.

“It’s the first book I’d actually completed reading,” Jesse said. “I still have it. I use that as motivation.”

“The coaches here in Russellville are fabulous,” Lori said.

“Jesse has come a long way,” Athletic Director Jim Dickerson said, “and he’s a good kid.”

In eighth grade, Jesse won the state youth title in the 87-pound weight class.

“After I’d won that, I was feeling really good about high school, and I really thought I was going to go in and place at state,” he said. “I went 14 and 16.”

Although “that’s a decent record for a freshman,” he wasn’t satisfied.

Last year, he won the state title. This month, he placed second at the state 6A-7A competition in the 106-pound weight class.

“Both matches were very close,” Jesse said, and he lost to a boy he’d won two matches against before.

“I hadn’t had sleep the night before. I stayed up all night, thinking and thinking,” he said.

Jesse said he was “so disappointed” by the second-place finish that he cried.

“I felt like I had let everybody down,” he said.

Russellville High School head wrestling coach Tye Roberts said that wasn’t the case at all.

“He didn’t let anybody down,” Roberts said. “That’s the only match he’s lost all year. He lost by one point with one second left.” The coach said that what makes Jesse a good wrestler is his love for the sport. “I think he understands the sport really well, and he’s determined to be good at it, and he works really hard at it,” Roberts said. “He’s got a great attitude.”

Jesse said the advantage of being a triple-amputee wrestler is that he has upper-body strength.

“One of the advantages is I’m the strongest kid in my weight class. I have the strength of a 160-, 170-pounder,” he said. “It’s all upper body — I have a big chest. I can bench 220 [pounds].”

During the school day, Jesse wears short prosthetic legs, which make him about 4 feet 5 inches tall.

He has taller protheses, which make him 6 feet tall.

“The thing is, I can walk in them, but I can’t run in them,” he said. “I love the short ones so much better.”

He also has new “running legs.”

Lori said the track coaches have approached Jesse and asked him to learn to run track.

“I’m going to start working with them this summer. I plan on running track with them next year,” Jesse said.

He has one more year to achieve the state championship in wrestling, then hopes to get a wrestling scholarship for college.

“I love math,” he said. “I plan on going to college to be an architect.”

Lori said her son is smart and “good-hearted.”

“People take to him because he’s charming and because of his disability,” Lori said. “He’s a good kid.”

Jesse said he’s been told he’s an inspiration to others.

“It feels amazing,” he said. His advice for others is to “get out and do stuff — do stuff you’re good at,” he said. “It helps you in life.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline. com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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