BILLINGS — The casual wrestling fan would have never noticed him.
Thousands of eyes focused on any one of 12 mats at the Montana high school state wrestling tournaments last weekend, many skimming from one mat to the next. But some recognized him, locking eyes even, receiving a forced half smile, nod or maybe even a hello.
When eye the contact broke, they likely had a similar thought as him — “I should be out there. I should be No. 37.”
John Mears knows that life isn’t always fair. He didn’t look like the three-time state wrestling champion that had dominated Class A over the past few years. Donning blue jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap pulled down lower than normal, the Belgrade senior blended in with the crowd at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
In a perfect world, Mears would have been on the mats, competing with his teammates, wrestling at 170 pounds with a fourth consecutive state championship on the line. But Mears knows better than most it isn’t a perfect world, after concussions dashed his dreams, forcing him to give up the sport in which he was mere weeks away from making history.
He finished his senior year, Belgrade’s first in Class AA, with a 6-0 record — three pins, two technical falls, a major decision and one concussion.
“I always tell people that this is probably the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome in my life,” Mears told MTN Sports during Friday’s quarterfinal round. “I don’t think I’ve come across anything quite this sad, or where I felt like I let people down, even though people are very supportive. I still feel like I let them down in some way.”
He didn’t, of course, but it’s an understandable response after the expectations he had created. A 120-pound champion as a freshman in 2017, Mears went on to win titles at 132 and 152 pounds the past two seasons.
Friday and Saturday he would have chased history at 170 pounds, joining Bozeman’s Leif Schroeder and Frenchtown’s Jake Bibler in pursuit of a fourth state title, something only 35 athletes had previously accomplished. Schroeder succeeded, becoming four-timer No. 36, while Bibler came up short against Lewistown’s
Cooper Birdwell, who in turn will chase his fourth title next year.
Those were the especially difficult matches to watch for Mears, who would have welcomed the challenge, win or lose, if only his body had allowed it.
“(Thursday) it was kind of like, I don’t know, my body and my mind were still thinking I was going to wrestle, so (Thursday) it didn’t hit me, but (Friday) it hit me so hard,” Mears admitted. “Throughout the day it was off and on, seeing my teammates doing good, that just triggered it.”
“It’s so much different. I was actually talking to somebody, and it’s so true, it’s so much bigger while you’re wrestling, but now it seems so small,” he continued, referencing the all-class state tournaments atmosphere. “It all seems so small. It’s totally different, night and day, wrestling and not wrestling.”
In the end, Mears knows life is bigger than wrestling, and he will continue his athletic career at the collegiate level. The senior signed with Montana Western’s football program as a kicker, where the contact will be minimal but the competitive spirit will remain just as high.
“I’m really excited. I know a couple people at Western, which will make it nice,” he said. “Actually, talking to people around the state that wrestled, there’s a few people, including one from Belgrade, that will help me bring in. I went up there for a visit and it was really nice, the team was very bonded together.”
Mears knows his days with wrestling likely aren’t done, either. He plans to major in physical education in Dillon, with thoughts of becoming a teacher and, you guessed it, a wrestling coach.
“I actually got to sit in on a quarterfinal match. (Belgrade coach Sean Dellwo) let me do that, so I was very thankful for that,” Mears said.
Minutes later, Mears wandered his way down to the Class B-C mats, watching his cousin, Malta’s Callan Mears, in a quarterfinal match. Though he remained quiet behind the gate, his mind appeared to be racing with advice — when to shoot, where to aim, knowing when to wait for a better opportunity.
The wrestler may have been taken, but the wrestling knowledge clearly remains. Mears never missed a practice and helped Dellwo and the staff prepare the rest of the Panthers for the state tournament.
“I just encourage them all the time and try to be a role model for the underclassmen,” he said.
Admittedly, Mears will always ask himself, what if? What if he hadn’t suffered the concussions? What if he had qualified for a fourth state tournament? What if he had advanced to the championship match with the opportunity to become No. 37?
He’ll never know for sure, of course, but history was certainly on his side. But it wasn’t just the idea of becoming a four-time state champion that disappoints Mears, it was that the sport was taken completely away before he was ready.
“John told me not to take a single second for granted,” fellow Belgrade senior Gabby Weber told MTN Sports on Friday, Feb. 7, hours before she returned to the basketball courts after suffering her own setback. “He told me to soak it all in because he won’t get that opportunity.”
“I would say, ‘Look for the positives and have fun,’ because that will make it 100 times better,” Mears advised to other athletes, noting their opportunities could also disappear in a moment's notice. “At least for me, that’s how it was.”
Spoken like a true champion, four-time or otherwise.