Black History Month: How great black wrestlers impacted Jordan Burroughs' life

By Jordan Burroughs | Feb. 20, 2019, 1:02 p.m. (ET)

When I began wrestling as a kid, I knew very little about the sport, or its heroes. Growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood, very few of my buddies were wrestlers. As I peeked around the wrestling landscape as a young man, I noticed there weren’t many black kids from other neighborhoods wrestling either. I remember traveling to team tournaments years ago only to come to the sad realization that very few individuals looked like me. It was uncomfortable, and for a period of time I was convinced that this wasn’t the sport for me.

This was before social media and widespread internet access.  Unless you subscribed to a major wrestling publication, you were out of touch when it came to the best wrestlers in the world. In short, I had no idea who the heroes in the sport were, and I was definitely unaware of any of them who looked like me.

There was a time when I tried to quit the wrestling team so that I could play basketball instead. I’d had enough of “being different.” But instead of quitting, I finally did my research, and dived into the history of this sport. I found out who the greatest wrestlers were and was surprised to see that many of them were brown like me. This discovery changed my life forever.

At the time, there were two legends named Kenny Monday and Kevin Jackson -- the only two black men to ever win a Olympic Gold medals in wrestling. Kenny earned one in 1988, and Kevin in 1992. These men paved the way for me to be great. I believed that if they could do it, I could do it because they had done it first.

In 2012, I joined the greats. I became only the third African American to be crowned an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling. It was an iconic moment for me, particularly because I got to join two of my heroes.

I’ve been blessed enough to have been coached by Kenny and Kevin. I’ve given them hugs after victories, gone to them for advice and admired their abilities for the entirety of my career. I’m so thankful for those guys and their willingness to embrace me. They broke down barriers and allowed me to blaze my own trail to follow.

They didn’t realize it at the time, but they were major inspirations to me during my Olympic pursuit -- then and now. When you talk about impact, it’s easy to see what they’ve done for our culture and the growth they’ve helped perpetuate through me. I believe we’ve truly made wrestling cool for kids growing up in urban communities.

The impact of black wrestlers in this sport is immeasurable -- Lee Kemp, Townsend Saunders, Chris Campbell, Joe Williams. The list goes on and on. Because of their success, I’m in the position to set the course for the next generation. My goal is that I’ll someday inspire the little brown boy or girl somewhere struggling with their decision to wrestle. To the individual looking for a powerful presence in the wrestling world, I want to let them know that hard work and dedication through the sport of wrestling can change your life. Someone’s future is depending on it. Just like the pioneers before me, some day your hard work will inspire a small town kid to chase his or her own dreams. Someone is always watching. Don’t waste your opportunity to be a hero.