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Jason Gibson finds peace leading Downingtown East wrestling ‘family’

FA_Jason_Gibson_croppedBy Andy Edwards @CHCAndyEdwards
For CHESMONTSPORTS.COM
Photos courtesy of Christina Strommer (www.christinastrommer.com)
Portrait photo by Greg Birzes

Jason Gibson

School: Downingtown East
Favorite athlete: Ed Ruth (former Penn State wrestler)
Favorite food: Prime Rib
Favorite movie: “Forrest Gump”
Favorite TV show: Breaking Bad
Favorite music: Country

DOWNINGTOWN – Don’t pity yourself – that’s what Jason Gibson’s mother used to tell him. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, because a lot of people have it worse than you.

Over the last year, Gibson has had plenty of reason to lament, to sink to despairing depths. A senior captain on the Downingtown East wrestling team, he tore his ACL last spring, necessitating surgery and a six-month layoff. Just a few months after being cleared to return, he suffered a Lisfranc injury (a displacement of the foot’s metatarsal bones) that will require another surgery at season’s end.

For most high-school athletes, this would constitute major adversity. To Gibson, it just falls under one of the many invaluable lessons he’s absorbed in the last year.

“I’ve learned,” he said, “to not worry about the small stuff.”

There have been so many other things to worry about.

Many athletes talk about their teams as a family. They point to the camaraderie they share with their teammates, many of whom will go on to be lifelong friends. But for the vast majority of them, the use of the word is hyperbolic, or at least metaphorical. That’s not the case with Gibson. For him, the Downingtown East wrestling program really has been a second family, never more so than when he lost the anchor of his real one.

Last summer, Gibson’s mother succumbed to health failure, leaving him without a legal guardian and turning his world upside down. Thankfully, his time with the Cougars had given him a close-knit network on which to lean.

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Jason Gibson celebrates a banner season with ‘family’

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Jason Gibson honored at senior night with his grandparents

“It was really tough at first, but I had a lot of support, especially from my teammates,” Gibson said. “One thing that she taught me was not to quit at anything. After she passed, I kind of made a promise to myself not to quit, to stick with everything I start.”

During the two or three months their mother was in the hospital, Jason and his twin brother, Justin, lived by themselves. They had spent much of their childhood in the care of their maternal grandparents, who watched over them while their mother – who struggled with drug addiction – was in rehab. After she died, the Gibson brothers remained in their house for about a month. Justin, who had also wrestled with addiction, took the loss especially hard and spiraled, eventually landing in rehab. Jason, however, had sports. Instead of dwelling on his loss, he channeled his grief into getting back on the mat.

“Definitely when it first happened you can’t sit around and mope,” he said. “You have to get on with your life. You can’t ponder on it too long. Think about what they would want for you, and try to make them proud, too.”

For Jason, wrestling has been a way to honor his mother, who always encouraged him to do his best. It has also been a salvation of sorts, a way to keep his life on track and avoid dangerous situations.

“It really helped me a lot,” Jason said. “Especially at home, while my brother was out with his friends, I wouldn’t be able to do that because I had wrestling. It always kept me away from that crowd. When you have a group of athletes and friends, no one really does that stuff anyway, so you’re able to stay away from things that could get you in trouble and keep your goals in line.”Jason’s teammates, in turn, rallied around him in his time of need, closing ranks and providing unwavering support.

“Jason was always the big, tough guy that everyone on the team saw as invincible,” said James Meyer, a fellow captain and close friend. “The night his mother passed away, as we sat in the hospital I saw a side of him I never imagined I would see. The best friends he gained through wrestling rallied around him to help him in the rough time.” “Most of (my teammates) are always there for me if I ever need anything,” Jason said.

As a captain, Gibson is both the head and beneficiary of the Cougars’ tight-knit unit. Boasting a 61-26 career record, he is a two-time Ches-Mont League runner-up, finished second at the District 1 Central Tournament a year ago, and has helped lead East to back-to-back-to-back league crowns.

“That’s something me and the seniors take a lot of pride in,” Gibson said. “Us and a couple classes before us made a name for ourselves as a wrestling school. Every year that I’ve wrestled we’ve won the Ches-Mont, and I believe we were the first Ches-Mont team to qualify for states. I know when you walk through our wrestling room, everybody on the varsity lineup always goes hard. We’ve never had one kid that we couldn’t count on to win a match.”

Just as Gibson counts on his teammates, they in turn lean on him for leadership. Being named captain before the season was a reminder of his role as elder statesman and esteemed member of the Cougar family.

“It meant a lot to me,” Gibson said. “It meant that my coaches and my peers saw me as a leader, and saw that I was able to fulfill it. It meant that for the most part I was doing what was asked of me to better myself as a wrestler.”

Jason’s teammates would readily assert that he has bettered them just as much as he has bettered himself.

“Jason was always the person to go to if you wanted an extra workout after practice,” Meyer says. “His leadership made him an exceptional teammate and friend. He’s made a great impact on the team with his resilience on and off the mat. He set the standard for toughing out an injury.”

Gibson’s attitude and indomitable spirit have permeated throughout the program, giving his teammates a constant source of inspiration.

“Jason has always been our pillar,” East coach Joe Horvath said. “He represents many of the basic principles of wrestling: hard work, loyalty, discipline, fearlessness. All of our younger wrestlers look up to him as the teammate who will sacrifice for the team, no questions asked.”

Battling through his latest injury, Gibson reached the semifinals of last week’s Ches-Mont Championships, enough to qualify for his second district tournament berth despite being forced to forfeit the rest of his matches when his foot flared up again.
Jason_Gibson_6Currently, Gibson is ranked as the district’s sixth-best wrestler in the 182-pound weight class by D1 Wrestling Report. Anyone who has spent time with Jason knows that’s underrating him.

He proved his mettle again at this weekend’s district tournament, reaching the semifinals with a 7-4 decision over Great Valley’s Matt Greco (the fourth seed from the Ches-Mont) and a tight 3-2 verdict over Upper Moreland freshman Harry Green, the SOL American Division champ. What came next was more or less vintage Jason Gibson, a perfect microcosm of his resilience.

After falling to Avon Grove’s Peyton MacNeill in Monday’s semifinals, Gibson found himself in a win-or-go-home scenario in the consolation bracket. Naturally, he chose the former. Faced with the end of his career, Gibson took down Downingtown West’s Basile Bishop to clinch a return trip to regionals, checking off another obstacle on the way to fulfilling his ultimate mission.

“Making states has been my goal since the season started,” said Gibson, who went on to place third and was one of 10 Cougars to qualify for regionals in a dominant team performance. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.”

At the South East AAA Regional Tournament Friday and Saturday at Oxford, Jason won his first round match over Neshaminy’s Noah Kesselback (25-4) before falling to top seeded Gregg Harvey (Boyertown, 40-6).

He’ll need surgery at the end of the season, a minor roadblock in his relentless pursuit of becoming the best man he can be – just as his mother would have wanted. If there is any silver lining to be gleaned from her death, it’s that it gave him a new perspective, the grace to let things go and the ability to overcome whatever adversity he might face.

“When I hurt my foot again and I went to the doctor, it wasn’t as devastating as when I tore my ACL because I knew I’d be able to finish the season, and I knew I had already been through much worse,” Gibson said.
Jason_Gibson_3As Jason’s mother told him, there is undoubtedly someone out there who has it worse than him. Still, Gibson has experienced more hardship in the past ten months than any teenager should have to overcome. But overcome he has, and after the most trying period of his young life, Gibson’s prospects are as promising as they’ve ever been.

Knowing he would have had to change schools if he moved in with his grandparents after his mother’s passing, Gibson wanted desperately to remain in his house. With a fortuitous stroke of circumstance, he managed to do just that. His older sister – from a different father – had just gotten a better job and was looking for a house. So, she moved in – with her 12-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, restoring a family atmosphere to what had been an empty house. And after a stint in rehab, Justin has turned his life around.

“At first, he took it really rough, which is kind of why he ended up where he did, but he’s doing really well now,” Jason said. “He’s in sort of a halfway house, and he’s working to get a job. He was going to have trouble graduating, but he’s getting his diploma now, probably before me.”

Jason will receive his own diploma this spring. After that, it’s on to the University of West Virginia, where he will become the first member of his family to attend college.

“That,” Jason said, “is something I’m very proud of.”

Gibson, who was also a four-year member of the Downingtown East football team, will play club rugby for the Mountaineers. He started playing in seventh grade and has continued with the Cougars, who made the state semifinals his sophomore year. In April, the team will take a trip to Ireland, two years removed from a sojourn to Belgium and Holland.

Jason_Gibson_7“That was really nice,” Gibson said. “It’s kind of expensive, but I worked at Chick-fil-A and saved up enough. That’s pretty much where all my money has gone. Most people in my family haven’t been outside the country, so it’s nice to have those experiences and the opportunity to travel.”

Perhaps more than anything, the upcoming excursion will give Jason a chance to decompress, to leave the stress and hardship of the past year behind – at least for a little while.

And it will. But the place that best helps him to do that is right where he’s been for the last four years.

“I’d say it’s been a big part (of my healing process),” Gibson said of wrestling. “When I’m in the weight room or in practice, all that’s on my mind is improving my athletic ability. My mind doesn’t drift into other things while I’m there.”

And when it does drift, he’ll always have his brothers to fall back on.

“Wrestling is such a demanding sport that teammates must act as a unit to meet the demands,” Horvath said. “They have no choice. Jason is a great example of buying into the family unit of wrestling and, as a result, gaining a support network that acts as his second family.”

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