LaPhonso McKinnis is standing on the tallest of three wooden boxes, a “1” emblazoned on its front. A first-place medal draped around his neck, the high school wrestler from Shawnee holds a white placard showing the 170-pound weight class bracket for the Dick Burns Mat Classic tournament. His name is written on the placard as champion after a long January day of wrestling in Bonner Springs.
The 16-year-old is smiling as he stands for photos, in contrast to many young athletes’ instincts to sport a gruff face in front of a camera.
Less than a year ago, McKinnis stood before his Shawnee Mission Northwest wrestling teammates one afternoon at practice, choked with regret. It was the Monday before the district tournament. Just one month into his first varsity season, the 170-pounder couldn’t help his team.
Days before, the life he led had caught up with him. He had turned himself in for stealing items from the team’s locker room. Coach Howard Newcomb suspended him from the team.
“I used to steal a lot,” McKinnis says now, sitting not far from where he first delivered the news to teammates. “Just anything and everything I could get my hands on. I’d just … I’d steal it.”
The suspension was a pivotal moment for McKinnis. Without him, the team fell just short of winning a close district tournament. Realizing the effect his actions had on others, McKinnis returned the stolen items and apologized to his coaches and teammates. Newcomb agreed to give him a second chance.
In the year since, McKinnis, now a junior, has worked to earn back trust and improve his performance in the classroom and on the wrestling mat. In the process, he has become recognized by wrestling coaches statewide as one of the best in his class — all while outracing the demons that once haunted him.
‘I just want to succeed’
McKinnis was just 3 when cancer took his mother, Darlene McKinnis, and 4 when diabetes claimed his father, Larry McKinnis.
He loved them both but remembers little. What he does know is his father didn’t take care of himself.
“He was kind of a bad role model,” McKinnis said. “I remember the stuff he did — I mean, I love him, but he just … the stuff he did I would never do.”
McKinnis said he could remember his father dealing drugs. He remembers seeing addiction at an early enough age to recognize it when, years later, he started hanging out with those afflicted by the disease — the same crowd he’d be with when he’d steal.
“I just don’t want to end up like that,” McKinnis said. “That’s why I stay away from the people that do it … I just want to succeed in life.”
McKinnis is the youngest of nine siblings, the whereabouts of some he no longer knows. One brother was Henry Owens, who wrestled at SM Northwest and advanced to the state tournament in his first varsity season.
McKinnis figures the seeds for his wrestling career were planted in the living room of his foster mother Carla Doran’s home. There, he’d wrestle with his brothers, twisting and dodging, grappling and giggling.
By his freshman year, when he met Newcomb, McKinnis began to wonder about taking on the sport for real.
From the start, McKinnis’ raw talent was clear to Newcomb.
“We saw a lot of athleticism then,” the coach said.
Each day at practice, inside the dank, humid wrestling room in the bowels of SM Northwest, McKinnis and his training partner, senior Mario Galvan, try to solve the puzzle that is the other’s skill set. They stalemate, then one gains an advantage before the other escapes to take control. Through all of this they stop to joke, slap each other’s head and revel in the physical misery that is practice.
“We try to make the best of it because practice does suck, yeah,” Galvan said, laughing.
As is the case when they help one another warm up before their matches at tournaments, McKinnis and Galvan often look like two kids wrestling around after school.
Looking to the future
McKinnis is spending this year improving his grades at Horizons High School in Mission, while still wrestling for Shawnee Mission Northwest. And it is becoming time to think about college, where McKinnis wants to continue his wrestling.
Last spring, not long after McKinnis came clean to his coaches and teammates, he accompanied Newcomb and assistant coach Mike Wall to Wall’s alma mater, the University of Missouri, to watch the Tigers wrestling team take on the University of Oklahoma.
McKinnis relished the opportunity to watch wrestlers of a higher caliber that day, taking notes and forming opinions of his own.
Earlier this month, after winter break, McKinnis returned to Horizons for a second semester, where he will continue to improve his grades, with an eye on returning to SM Northwest for his senior year. He likes math and biology and is warming up, at least as much as a teenager can, to homework.
The memory of past mistakes are still fresh like an unhealed wound, and McKinnis’ sport — not to mention his teammates and coaches — has helped keep him away from falling back into the wrong crowd.
Not that there would be much time for that anyway. When he gets home from practice, all McKinnis wants to do is to eat, shower and sleep. And besides, he’s got more tournaments to win. He has a state championship on his mind.
And how can he not begin to think grand thoughts? Through wrestling, McKinnis has been given a compelling argument for working for what he wants. Through hours spent sweating after school and pushing through pain at all-day tournaments, the benefits have been tangible.
Working for it
Thoughts of more championship placards and medals cause McKinnis to light up, a smile crossing his face.
“Working for something is a way better feeling than stealing it and trying to hide it from somebody,” McKinnis said. “The stuff I’ve earned I can show everybody.”
McKinnis is also working to build and maintain the trust of his foster mother.
“Me and my personal choices caused her a lot of trouble,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the Kansas high school wrestling community, McKinnis isn’t under the radar anymore. Back from winter break, he entered Bonner Springs’ annual Dick Burns Mat Classic as the No. 1 seed. Ahead on points with just seven seconds left in his semifinal match, McKinnis tweaked his knee on the mat, writhing in pain. He returned to his feet long enough to finish, and win, the match.
Though clearly in pain, McKinnis wasn’t about to end his day prematurely.
“I’m going for number one now,” he said, before searching for a knee brace to wear during his title match.
And that would be where McKinnis finished, winning his second straight tournament en route to the medal stand and a win-loss record that now stands at 20-3.
Inside Bonner Springs’ gymnasium earlier this month, when he stepped down from the medal stand, still holding his tournament bracket placard and wearing his medal, still smiling, McKinnis quoted one of his favorite wrestlers, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs.
“All I see is gold,” he said.
Everyone else could plainly see what LaPhonso McKinnis had earned.