Illini of the Decade: #14 John Lockhart

Catching a sight of former Illini heavyweight John Lockhart at work may raise a few eyebrows.

Lockhart, who is serving his pediatric residency at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation Hospital, often hears comments — and even giggles — when people catch a glimpse of him holding a small child.

“I’ve heard people whisper and say, ‘Oh, look at that big doctor with that tiny baby!’” Lockhart said. “I guess it may be an awkward sight at first.”

But before he was cradling newborn infants, the 285-pound Lockhart was taking down real-life Goliaths during his grappling days at Huff Hall from 1998-2002.

The heavyweight from Mahomet, Ill., may not exactly fit the role of a David, but Lockhart went from being an unknown, small-town wrestler to the third heavyweight in Illinois history to win a national title.

Relatively new to the sport of wrestling, Lockhart spent most of his high school days starring on the football and baseball fields. A state wrestling champ his senior year, Lockhart only received one initial wrestling offer — from Division-III Chicago State.

But after then-Illinois head coach Mark Johnson and then-assistant and current head coach Jim Heffernan watched Lockhart at a holiday tournament, Illinois offered him a scholarship.

“I remember watching him at that tournament,” Heffernan said. “Mark thought he was pretty good, and I thought he was really good. He was a kid who had never really concentrated on wrestling before, but he was really athletic. We both thought he could be a good heavyweight and make a lot of noise.”

But Lockhart, who moved from population-6,000 Hoopeston to population-5,000 Mahomet his senior year, mostly faced other small-town wrestlers, and no one knew how he would fare on the collegiate level.

“I remember when we were recruiting him and his father asked me if I really thought John could wrestle at the collegiate level,” Johnson said. “I was sitting in their living room, and I told them I wouldn’t be there offering scholarship money if I didn’t think so.”

Lockhart’s first two years on campus were spent on an individual training regimen tailor-made for him in order to instill sound fundamentals and technique.

“He never really practiced with the team,” Heffernan said. “He had a lot to learn early on, but he was really athletic and a hard worker.”

In his first season as a starter in 2000, the then-redshirt sophomore compiled a 32-7 record en route to a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

The successful sophomore campaign would provide the momentum needed to propel Lockhart to a junior season that culminated in a national title.

Following a 27-7 regular season and a second-place finish at the Big Ten Championships, Lockhart earned a No. 4 seed for the NCAA Championships.

Narrow victories marked Lockhart’s path to the final match, as he began the tournament with two overtime victories. After a close 3-2 win against Michigan’s No. 5 Matt Brink, Lockhart squared off against Minnesota’s top-seeded Garrett Lowney, who had just won a bronze medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics, in the semifinals.

The two exchanged escapes in regulation, and after an initial overtime period failed to break the 1-1 tie, the match headed to double overtime.

Although both wrestlers start on their feet in the first overtime period, the second overtime calls for a coin toss to determine which wrestler starts out on the bottom.

“If you start out on the bottom, you basically have the match won,” Johnson said. “Especially for these heavyweights, all you have to do is just fall down, and you get that escape point and you win the match. So really, whoever wins the toss, wins the match.”

The coin toss rolled around, circling the mat before appearing to tip over in Lowney’s favor, only to flip over to give Lockhart the advantage.

“We all just looked around and said, ‘Did you just see that?’” Johnson said. “We couldn’t believe it. It was the craziest thing.”

Lockhart chose to start in the down position and only needed two quick seconds to notch an escape and a championship berth.

Awaiting Lockhart in the finals was Ohio State’s No. 2 Tommy Rowlands, and the match nearly mirrored the semifinal.

Again, an escape from each wrestler led to a 1-1 tie, forcing two overtime periods. And again, Lockhart won the toss and fended Rowlands off his back for an escape to win the national title.

“It may have come down to a little bit of luck, but he certainly deserved it,” Johnson said. “He was a guy that came in every day and worked his tail off to get better. He was a stud, and a stud of a person.”

Lockhart would go on to place third in the nation his senior year, and his .826 career winning percentage is the sixth-best in Illinois history. He is only the second Illini heavyweight to be a three-time All-American.

And in the midst of his success on the mat, the Kinesiology major was busy pursuing his medical school aspirations off of it.

“Whatever he was doing, he had the ability to make that the most important thing at that time,” Heffernan said. “He got a lot of practice every day. But after that, he was able to drop it and then turn all his focus and energy to school, and obviously he’s had a lot of success.”

Lockhart was the recipient of the 2002 Big Ten Medal of Honor, which recognizes student-athletes who excel in scholarship and academics.

“It wasn’t easy,” Lockhart said. “After four, five hours of being drained physically and mentally at practice, it was hard enough just to stay awake after, let alone have the energy to study.”

After graduating with a 3.43 GPA, Lockhart attended Rush Medical College in Chicago. He will serve as the Cleveland Clinic Foundation’s chief resident next year and will take on a Sports Medicine Fellowship after that.

“He is the epitome of a student-athlete,” Johnson said. “Here’s a guy from small-town America who went to school to wrestle, and now he’s a doctor.”

But Johnson and Lockhart’s teammates weren’t exactly calling him ‘doctor’ back then.

“Nobody ever called him John,” Johnson said. “Everyone just called him Farmboy.”

Heffernan claims to be the originator of the nickname, when he heard the conditioning coach ask Lockhart to pick up a heavy weight-lifting tire.

“I just told him to pick it up and move it like he was at the farm,” Heffernan said. “And the nickname grew from that. We would always poke fun at him, tell him to move things like he picks up and moves a tractor when he’s at home.”

Lockhart said he has grown to embrace the moniker and his small-town roots, even having ‘Farmboy’ on his license plate for a while.

“To look back on it, it’s kind of surreal,” Lockhart said. “In retrospect, all this success would have been such a lofty thing to think. It was definitely a rewarding experience.”