Draped in red, white and blue, Jordan Burroughs clutched the American flag and scanned the crowd looking for his mother amongst the fans that filled box seats at ExCel Exhibition Centre in London. The moment he spotted her, he jumped the barrier and raced into the crowd. Burroughs and his mother embraced in celebration.
At age 24 his dream came true: Jordan Ernest Burroughs was an Olympic gold medal winner.
It’s a big dream that started 3,542 miles away from London, England in small town America — Sicklerville, New Jersey — where, as a boy, Burroughs brought home a school flyer promoting local youth wrestling.
“I will never forget the day,” he said. “I took it home and asked my mom if she would take me to practice.”
The seed was planted. In August 2012, the journey that started two decades earlier in the modest suburb of Philadelphia had reached its destination: the 2012 Summer Olympics.
“At a young age no one really knew much about Jesus,” said Burroughs. “We went to church as a ‘feel good’ opportunity rather than an opportunity to get closer to Christ. I remember hanging out, singing and learning about God and then we’d go home and do our thing. I knew who God was but I really didn’t have a relationship with him.”
Burroughs found direction in sports instead. By high school, he began getting serious about wrestling. It paid off.
Burroughs started winning regional and state tournaments. His neighbor and best friend, Vince Jones, were fierce competitors, pushing and challenging each other. Still, the teenage boys needed more direction than bedroom idols Cael Sanderson, Brandon Slay, Mark Ironside and Damion Hahn could offer. They found it in Winslow Township High School wrestling coach and mentor Rick Koss.
“He (Koss) saw two young kids who were hungry for success and hungry to be the best, but we didn’t know what it took to be the best,” said Burroughs. “We wanted to win and we saw winners but we didn’t know what it took to get there. We were going through the motions everyday at practice and we thought we would improve. He taught us work ethic. He taught us about setting goals. He opened our eyes.”
Burroughs improved his academic grades and his wrestling skills, winning three district titles, two regional championships, and a state title at Winslow Township High School. Then, tragedy struck. His grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died two months later.
“It was a scary time because he was really close to our family, said Burroughs. “Life isn’t promised; it’s precious and fragile, so we got in the church and tried to establish ourselves with Christ. At that age, I tried, but I fell short.”
Burroughs believed in God. He was baptized his senior year at Winslow but, young and immature, it didn’t take long for him to drift from the Lord. His newfound freedom and success on the mat became a distraction.
In 2006, Burroughs was offered a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, the same school that had recruited and signed childhood friend Vince Jones. He accepted.
“I tried to make a change in my life at that time,” he said. “I was 17 years old and 19 hours away from home in college. I got caught up in the life of being a college student; girls, casually dating, parties and drinking. I was never a party animal but I was a guy who liked to have a good time and enjoy being a young man and having freedom for the first time.”
Like Koss, Nebraska head coach Mark Manning saw Burroughs as a young, raw talent. Manning, the second winningest coach in Nebraska wrestling history, began working closely with his new pupil.
“When he was a younger wrestler he was all concerned about rankings and who was ahead of him, what the Internet was saying,” said Manning. “Jordan would come to practice and say, ‘this website said this about me.’ To see him go through that to what he is now, I really seen him grow.”
Slowly, Burroughs began showing signs of maturity on and off the mat. By the end of his junior year at Nebraska, he had won back-to-back Big 12 titles and an NCAA title. He was stronger and wiser on the mat. He was primed for his senior year at Nebraska; then, another setback.
In December 2009, in a match against Central Michigan, Burroughs opponent Steve Brown rolled over his leg. Burroughs continued to wrestle for another eight minutes with tears to his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
“It was horrific,” said Manning. “I told him, ‘You’re done Jordan,’ and he wouldn’t let me stop the match.”
He eventually lost the match, snapping his winning streak of 44 consecutive matches. His season also ended on that day, but his career didn’t. Burroughs underwent reconstructive surgery and was off the mat for nine months.
“It killed him sitting out that year, but it also drove him,” said Manning. “I saw a drive, a motivation; I saw a recommitment to being the best.”
“Everyone talks about Jordan’s talent and, but one of the things a lot of people don’t talk is his work ethic and his mental toughness,” said Brandon Slay, 2000 Olympic gold medalist and U.S. national team coach. “He’s always doing his regular workout – and extra. To break his foot before the world championships, do all the necessary rehab and work off the mat, then get on the mat and win a world championship takes mental toughness.”
Again, Burroughs tried to reach out to God.
“I was feeling low again,” said Burroughs. “I wasn’t wrestling. I wasn’t with my team. I wasn’t the best wrestler in the country. I tried to establish some Christian friends and started going to Bible study on a weekly basis. It worked out well for a while, but it was just situational.
“My faith throughout my life has come in waves. It has come in times where I’ve be down and I was complacent where I was in my life where I wasn’t happy or I thought things were taking a turn for the worse and I would say, ‘God I need you now. Please help me out of this place in my life.’ Then once I get out of that place I was like, ‘OK, I’m good now. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m wrestling well.’”
In 2010, his senior year at Nebraska, Burroughs returned to the mat bigger, stronger and healthy. His physical talent produced a third Big 12 title, his second NCAA national championship (including his second undefeated season) and the Hodge Trophy (wrestling’s Heisman trophy), awarded to the nation’s most dominant wrestler. Burroughs was back on the winning track. Who needs God?
“I was feeling really good so I felt there was no need for me to have Christ in my life,” said Burroughs.
After winning gold in London, Burroughs disappeared into the tunnel and, for the moment, the dream continued. Everyone wanted a piece of the gold medal winner. Interviews, press conferences and autographs, all the sweat, all the hard work and extra training, this was the payoff. Burroughs was living his dream.
He had accomplished all his goals. He was proud. His parents and family were proud of him. His former high school coach and mentor were proud. He was the pride of Sicklerville, New Jersey. Nebraska was proud. Representing and winning a gold medal made the United States proud.
Then it stopped – and Burroughs was left holding a medallion.
“That’s it?” he said. “I thought once I became an Olympic champion I’d feel complete; I’d feel whole. I’d be extremely happy and joyful and this would be the best time of my life.”
Instead, Burroughs felt empty.
“I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist,” said Burroughs. “I was extremely successful. I was recognizable to sports fans. I was being blown up by every wrestling fan in the community. My ego was huge. I idolized winning. I believed that all my success was due to everything I had done. I was extremely prideful.”
After returning to the States, the glory of the gold became an Olympic-sized disappointment. In October 2012, Burroughs accepted an invitation to attend “24 Hours for God,” a Fellowship of Christian Athletes wrestling camp for high school kids in Edwardsville, Illinois where more than 60 athletes and coaches participated in over the weekend to learn about wrestling and worship Jesus Christ.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” said Burroughs. “I’ve never seen so many kids so happy and unashamed. They were less impressed with me being there and more happy that Jesus was in their presence.”
The experience pricked Burroughs heart.
“I wanted to be those guys,” he said. “I wanted to live that life. I wanted to be able to sing and praise out loud. I wanted to be one of these kids. I want to be able to know Christ fully and completely. That’s what they showed me; these kids opened my eyes. I was watching these 14-15 year old kids. Instead of looking up to me I was looking up to them. I’ve been all across the country, around the world and have met thousands of high school kids but that day was an eye-opening event.”
Burroughs was humbled.
Slay, an Olympic gold medal winner in Freestyle Wrestling at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, knew exactly what Burroughs was experiencing: post-Everest syndrome.
“After winning the gold medal, becoming the best wrestler on the planet, a lot of athletes feel like this Everest experience is going to fill them,” said Slay. “Reaching the Everest of wrestling doesn’t fulfill you. It’s a really beautiful view on top, but you can’t stay there. In the real world if you climb Mount Everest, you have to go back down or you’ll die from oxygen deprivation. In the athletic world it’s kind of the same, once you reach this peak you realize you have to go back down. A gold medal is always going to leave you empty. We will always feel emptiness unless we have oneness with the Savior.”
As Burroughs tumbled down Everest clinging to a handful of medals, plaques and trophies, he remembered something Slay told him: “He said, ‘hold on to everything in life with an open hand.’ Whether it’s my wrestling career or the amount of money in your bank account, everything good comes from God. He’s provided me with everything I need to be content; there’s nothing in this world I need to be content.”
In that moment, God revealed himself and Burroughs let go of his pride. He put his trust in God and his life began to change.
“In our world it’s all about accumulation; people just want to gain things,” said Burroughs. “There’s no other thing in life that’s more fulfilling then a relationship with Jesus Christ. Contentment is one of the biggest things I learned, knowing that regardless of where you are in life, it’s all about being content with what God’s provision.”
“This guy is definitely going to be the most decorated wrestler in the history of our sport,” said Carl Perry, Executive Director for FCA Wrestling. “This is the Michael Jordan of our sport. There’s a humility there that is impressive. He’s got this perspective that, ‘I’m not going to be defined by a gold medal, by a world championship. I’m going to be defined by my faith.’ He is special. People are flocking to our sport that never have because we have Jordan Burroughs. Because of his faith, he’s bringing awareness to the Kingdom.”
“You identify with that statement because when Jordan goes to the Olympics all eyes were on him – at weigh-in, during warm up,” said Manning. “When we went to Budapest, all the teams stopped, all the coaches were videotaping Jordan, watching Jordan warm up, watching Jordan’s matches. It was amazing. Kids, young boys from other countries, just want his autograph, want his picture. It’s a frenzy.”
Like every professional athlete, Burroughs will experience highs and lows; wins and losses; joy and pain.
But he’s a year older, a year wiser and more confident than ever knowing he’s filled with the Spirit. “I think he’s humbly confident,” said Slay. “He believes in the gifts that God has given him. His attitude, his personality has changed and I think that’s proof of someone who has become a new creation through Christ.”
Manning added, “It’s one of the joys of being a coach, seeing young men grow up before your eyes. Jordan understands he has a deep calling, not only to be a great champion but to be a champion for God. We’ve talked about it. God gave him that platform and he understands it’s sacred.”
“My job’s the input and God’s job is the outcome,” Perry continued. “I think he has that mentality. What that does is take the pressure off. There are athletes who don’t live up to their full potential because of fear – fear of failure. I don’t see that in him. There’s a freedom in that, a maturity level on the mat and a maturity level spiritually.”
Burroughs is embarrassed by the praise. “When people call me a man of God, I know I don’t deserve the grace He provides,” he said. “I am a regular guy. I grew up in a non-traditional home, middle class home. My success came later in life through hard work and the extension of grace. But God wouldn’t put me in this place to squander this opportunity.”
Jordan Burroughs is back on the mat, training, and chasing another big dream: to become the winningest wrestler in American history. When he’s reminded that he will need to win every World Championship until 2017 and another Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016 to accomplish his goal, Burroughs shrugs.
No problem, he thinks, I no longer have to wrestle with God.