PRATTVILLE, Ala. — The unexpected death of John Hayden Countryman remains a difficult subject to discuss within the wrestling community.
And with the high school season in full swing, it’s even more difficult at Prattville High School.
It’s impossible to have an in-depth conversation about Prattville wrestling without mentioning Countryman. The winner of five consecutive 6A state championships and an All-America selection makes him the most decorated athlete in the program’s 44-year history.
“To me, Hayden is Prattville wrestling,” Countryman’s older brother Jordan said.
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During Tuesday night’s three-way match with Tuscaloosa County and rival Stanhope Elmore, Prattville officials took a few moments to remember Countyman with a video and song tribute in front of a crowded gym at the city’s junior high.
“He was such a big part of our wrestling history here at Prattville,” Lions coach Trent Miller said. “I don’t think anyone will achieve what he did. He was such a good person. … It’s always good to remember your local heroes and he was certainly one of them.”
The tribute song “Waiting on a Champion” brought tears to the eyes of some in attendance. It was written and performed by freshman wrestler Tristan Powell.
Countryman — who died at age 22 in late September — was more than just a dominant high school wrestler who compiled an impressive record of 267-9. He was truly an ambassador for the sport throughout the River Region, holding countless clinics for the youth.
“He wasn’t just big at Prattville, he was big at our school and over in Wetumpka also,” Stanhope Elmore coach Brian Bradford said. “He did camps for the kids all the time. He came over to our place I don’t know how many times to do free camps to help grow the sport.”
Tuesday’s tribute seems to be just the tip of the iceberg in preserving Countryman’s legacy. On Saturday, there’s a youth tournament at Prattville High that will bear his name and his family plans to create a scholarship fund as well.
The season has presented its share of ups and downs since the untimely death. The biggest challenge came a week after as Jordan faced the harsh reality of resuming his coaching duties and returning to the same practice room where John Hayden perfected his craft.
“This year has been kind of emotional for me,” said Jordan, an assistant at Prattville. “It’s been really, really hard. But the more that I go there it becomes more like a sanctuary — it’s like therapy because that’s what me and Hayden did every single day, every single week.
“It hurts sometimes when I am in there because it reminds me of him, but at the same time it’s so good to go in there and think about him and all those good memories we had together.”
The daily physical interaction with his younger sibling may be lost, but Jordan still has the series of wrestling journals to thumb through. John Hayden left behind roughly six notebooks filled with notes, personal thoughts and goals from practices and meets.
“It’s really amazing to read,” Jordan said. “We’re really blessed to have those left behind. You can look back and see what he was thinking, see the things he wanted to talk to kids about and see the things he really wanted to do with his life. It brings back a lot of good memories.”