By Anna Kayser
If you’re on the outside looking in as Brownsburg wrestling approaches the 2023 State Series, you may not know or see that there is a lot different about Leighton Jones now compared to last season.
For one, his bathroom mirror is covered in words written in dry erase marker.
To explain how Leighton has grown into who he is today, we have to go through what happened in the IHSAA State Championships last year.
As the No. 1 ranked heavyweight in the state, Leighton was the odds-on favorite to win the championship after losing his ticket round match during his freshman year and placing third at state as a sophomore. However, the viewpoint was a lot sunnier from the outside looking in on a kid who had high prospects for his future and a solid season on the purple Brownsburg mat.
Internally, he was exhausted.
Following his official, game day visit to the University of Iowa in which they secured a statement win over Indiana University in early September 2021, nothing slowed down for Leighton. His recruitment was peaking, with multiple football and wrestling programs looking to woo him into a commitment.
However, the offers weren’t coming from football programs, not yet. Indiana had offered Leighton a full scholarship package to wrestle for the Hoosiers in Bloomington. So, he had options, but there was only one option that he was really looking for.
“In the back of his mind, he was still wanting football but knew that he was going to have more control over his own destiny with wrestling,” Marshall Jones, Leighton’s dad, said. “So that added much more pressure.”
Leighton’s quiet, describing himself ‘lead by example’ type of figure until his senior wrestling season when he really strived to fill the ‘senior heavyweight’ shoes and instill accountability in his teammates. So, when the stress started creeping up, it didn’t present itself until the toll became physical.
“[Leighton] internalizes a lot, doesn’t say too much, so we didn’t really see too much stress until a tournament up in Crown Point [in December],” Marshall said. “He was just so tentative, lost [by one point] and Leighton should have beaten him, probably should have majored him if nothing else. You could tell that he wasn’t wrestling like Chad [Red] had taught him to wrestle.”
The next weekend, he was beaten again – this time by a takedown with five seconds left in an overtime period.
“You could see in Leighton’s face, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this,’” Marshall recalled.
The pressure from both his sports colliding over the winter months was beating down on Leighton. His schedule was packed, moreso than any normal high school junior beginning the college search. It wasn’t just academics he was looking at; he was reaching for a place that would help him grow toward the next level of athletics. A place that would help him reach his goals of the NFL.
In the back of his mind, Leighton had already found the perfect spot: Iowa City. But without the offer on the table – without many offers on the table at all – he was still an overly active recruit.
“I would come home from wrestling, and I would eat and get on the phone with four different programs,” Leighton said. “By the time I got off the phone every night, it would be 10:30-11 [at night] and I would have to do the same thing over again the next night.”
Leighton was actively texting in the Jones family group chat almost every single day – someone called him, wanted to talk to him, or followed him on Twitter. It was constant.
He was being bombarded from all sides. Schools were calling about both wrestling and football, people around him were continuously reminding him of their expectation for an individual title in February, and his drive diminished with mounting stress placed on his shoulders.
“I just wasn’t having fun,” Leighton said. “I was kind of in my own head.”
In seeing all of the stress and anxiety bubble to the surface in a physical way, the Jones family sought help from a sports psychologist, recommended by a friend whose son was in a similar boat.
For six weeks through the end of the wrestling season, Leighton was taught coping skills to handle all the weight on his shoulders. He was also taught to narrow his focus in on what was right in front of him.
“Just that six-week period that we sought that professional help was huge,” Laurie said. “Leighton is a big picture kid – he would look at the big picture, he would look at the challenges ahead and he would kind of overwhelm himself. We got him seeing someone who had him focus, step-by-step, on what he needed to accomplish things and have that focus and mental strength to handle the stress.”
The family also allotted some down time, a window for Leighton to have no responsibility and hopefully avoid burnout. That free time came in the form of Sundays at home.
“We made sure he had time, especially on the weekends, just to have complete down time because if he didn’t, then he couldn’t have given too much more,” Laurie said. “Just giving him that amount of time that we had on those weekends, we tried not to talk about anything as far as any stress of any sports especially after he was done competing on Saturdays.
“On Sundays after his workout, he had very little responsibilities because we just wanted him to still be able to manage and be a kid.”
They also got Leighton back into the Red Cobra wrestling room, bringing him back to his wrestling roots with something Marshall felt like he was missing.
Leighton had the physical tools he needed to succeed on the mat, but the mentality of wrestling always dominates.
“It was just more of a mental thing of keeping his mind set and getting him to believe in what he’s capable of doing,” Red said. “Me personally, I thought he was a state champion his sophomore year, I thought he was capable of it his junior year and now we’re in his senior year. That’s our plan, that’s definitely his plan, and hopefully we’ll get that job done coming into February.”
Meanwhile, the Jones family watched as other recruits around the Midwest began to collect offers and commit to schools, creating their own timeline in their minds.
They were looking for the shoe to drop, that offer from the University of Iowa that would – finally – solidify Leighton’s future.
“That’s what [Leighton] really wanted,” Marshall said. “He fell in love with the campus the first time we stepped foot on it. Every place we went, he compared it back to Iowa.”
Come January, the official offers began to ramp up: Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Illinois State, Toledo, Miami (Ohio), Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Bowling Green and Ohio.
He already knew where he wanted to go, but he was made to wait for it. Iowa was locked in on him – as was Purdue, which would officially offer him around the same time – but knew he had a state championship run to focus on during the time.
As the influx of offers came in, so did the high-pressure tournaments designed to award only the best-of-the-best with a bid to Gainbridge Fieldhouse in February.
For those around him, wrestling season was leading up to a hopeful heavyweight state title – again, he was ranked No. 1 in the state. For Leighton, it was a countdown.
“I came into state and was like, ‘Alright, I have four matches left.’ And after Friday night, I was like, ‘Alright, three matches left.’ And then it was semifinals, and I was like ‘Alright, two more matches and I’m done.’” Leighton said. “I just wanted to get it over with. I was confident, but I wasn’t having confident feelings just going into the whole thing.”
Leighton won his first two state matches by three and two-point decisions, respectively. He was then defeated in the semifinals by an 8-5 decision and dropped to the third-place match.
“I think he, just like all of us, was devastated. We felt like we were the best heavyweight, and it was hard to watch him lose because I know how bad he wants it,” Brownsburg head coach Darrick Snyder said. “Honestly, I just gave him a hug and we didn’t really immediately talk about it. There’s nothing to be said, especially the guys who have trained the right way and they really want to win it.”
He bounced back from the loss with a shutout of his next opponent for third place, 6-0, adapting his goals to accomplish what ended up being right in front of him.
With wrestling season in his peripheral mirror, the waves of relief came in a rush for Leighton.
“The coaches told him they did not want to offer him during wrestling season because they knew it was hard enough, and once Iowa offers an offensive lineman… that recruit just starts to blow up,” Marshall said. “They didn’t want to do that to him while he was still on the hunt for the state championship.”
On Monday morning, less than 48 hours after his junior wrestling season came to a close, Leighton got the call he had been waiting for from the George Barnett, the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach, with one message: ‘Don’t forget why you liked Iowa.’
As promised, the programs started calling. The Jones family even had a visit set up to go visit Notre Dame, Leighton’s favorite school growing up.
Despite the increased attention and pressure to open his mind to somewhere other than Iowa, the answer didn’t change: Thanks, but Iowa’s the place.
“He was like, ‘I don’t want to go,’ and we were like ‘You don’t want to go to Notre Dame? You don’t just want to go see?’” Laurie said. His answer was the same, as his mom remembers it: “No, I don’t. I feel like I’m lying to these people pretending that I’m interested. I’m not interested.”
On Feb. 26, mere days after receiving his call from Iowa and tons other from programs now eyeing him, Leighton announced his commitment with a tweet saying, “Iowa City, I’m coming home.”
From the beginning, he knew that’s where he wanted to be. On Dec. 21 when he signed his national letter of intent, he officially became a Hawkeye.
“Every place we visited just never quite checked all the boxes like Iowa did,” Laurie said. “It’s got this feel that makes you want to go back.”
It goes back to the list of accomplished Iowa football players who wrestled in high school, too. Iowa has a strong resume of building former wrestlers into forces to be reckoned with on the offensive line and seeing the success of Hawkeyes in the NFL was a sticking point for the Brownsburg heavyweight.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the NFL – that’s always been there,” Leighton said. “And then when I got offered to Iowa, I was like ‘Alright, I can make this happen. If it’s anywhere, it’s here. Right when I committed, I realized I could be something special, and they told me that too.”
Now, that eight-, nine-year old kid who Chad Red called “NFL” has a real shot at continuing to make his dreams come true – as long as he doesn’t look too far ahead of where his feet lie.
Although Leighton is now removed from regularly seeing a sports psychologist, he still puts into practice coping mechanisms to keep his stress and anxiety at a low level. The things that stuck with him will also take him through to his first year as a student-athlete at Iowa.
One of the biggest things he learned is to write all his goals on his bathroom mirror, so he has a visual each day of what is in front of him and can see all that he’s accomplishing each day.
“Once he started to focus on the small things, it was so much better,” Laurie said. “That’s going to be a tool he’s absolutely going to have to use next year and we see him still using it now. I mean, his bathroom mirror is all covered up and written on with everything he wants to accomplish this year in wrestling.”
It’s not uncommon for football players to forgo their second semester senior year to join their college programs for spring practice. That wasn’t an option on the table for Leighton, and the Iowa coaches wanted to see him accomplish his goals on the wrestling mat.
“There are a lot of kids that wouldn’t be wrestling right now – he’s on a full ride to go play football at Iowa,” Snyder said. “It would have been real easy for him to say, ‘I’m going to Iowa,’ but he wants to help us win and wants to try to win a state title.”
So, that’s where he’s headed. He’s received his meal plan and workout program in the mail from Iowa, but the first step is to tackle what awaits him at sectionals, regionals and then state at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
“I can definitely tell I’m embracing it this year, my last season,” Leighton said. “I’ve put in so much work since third grade to get to this point, and I just want to finish it out on the right note.”