Navy signee finds solace on wrestling mat in pursuit of title

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY– It didn’t take long for Payton Thomas to work his way into the stands. Despite the State Fair Arena being packed with wrestling fans, the Moore High senior knew exactly where to go to find his mother Feb. 25 at the Oklahoma State Wrestling Championships.

Thomas had just ended his high school career with his first state championship and finished the campaign with an unblemished 35-0 record. The 190-pound athlete scrambled into the stands and found his mother sitting in her wheelchair.

“I told her I love her and gave her a big old kiss,” Thomas said. “Couldn’t have done it without her.”

Thomas had dedicated his season to his mother, Christy, who had suffered a brain aneurysm in December of last year. With her sidelined as she recovered, that put more responsibility on Thomas and other members of his family.

“She was in the hospital for two or three months. It was just me taking care of my sister. I focused on wrestling,” Thomas said. “It was hard, but I really thought about wrestling for my mom.”

Despite that, Thomas refused to let that be an excuse to fall off the path he had set for himself. He respected the sport too much to give anything less than his best.

“Wrestling was my way out,” Thomas said. “Wrestling was everything I’ve grown up doing. It’s my safe place. It’s where I feel 100 percent in control and I love it. I love every bit of it.”

Thomas rolled through the competition during the postseason. At the regional championship, he even had time to give the cameras a big smile before pinning his opponent.

The domination continued at the state tournament as he picked up pins in his first two matches.

However, in the championship bout, Thomas faced off with Stillwater’s AJ Heeg, who has signed with Oklahoma State. The two had met earlier in the season at the COAC Conference Championship with Thomas pulling out a dramatic victory.

At that point, Thomas knew he would have to face Heeg at state in order to claim his prize. And he was ready for another titanic brawl.

In a match that went down to the wire, Thomas pulled out a 3-2 victory to claim the 190-pound title. He then jumped into the arms of his father, Tim, who has coached him since he was 8-years old and gave Washington.

Thomas he also thanked Heeg for bringing out the best in him and making his final match memorable.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to wrestle a great opponent like AJ,” Thomas said. “I thank him for a great match. Thank him for pushing me to that third period and pushing me to work.”

Thomas got another surprise when the tournament concluded. He was named the Most Valuable Wrestler of the tournament in class 6A. He beat out other stalwarts like Cael Hughes (40-0), Christophe Kiser (34-1), LaDarion Lockett (40-1), Landyn Sommer (33-0) and Jersey Robb (38-2).

Moore coach Robert Washington attributes his success to his mentality.

“He’s got that mindset. He’s a dog, as we say,” Washington said. “He got that dog in him and he’s relentless. He’ll just keep coming at you regardless of what the score is.”

While winning state was always a goal for Thomas when he first joined the Moore wrestling team he was nowhere near where he needed to be to even contend.

Yet, Washington has watched Thomas put in the work during the past four years to become the grappler that he is today.

“Boy, it’s a big 180-degree change,” Washington said. “Because his freshman year, I don’t think he even had a winning record. So he’s going from that to not placing, took third as a junior and he’s been set on the mission. He’s like, I want to win a state title, I’m going to make it happen this year. He dedicated himself to doing it. I love it.”

That same dedication enabled Thomas to garner some of the top college wrestling programs in the nation.

But for someone who loves to be challenged, Thomas saw only one real option. In February he signed a National Letter of Intent to continue his career at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I’m super excited. I’m ready to continue the next steps in my life,” Thomas said. “It was the coaches and the academics. The coaches believe in me and that I could present a national title to the academy. The academics are top-notch, the best you can get. That’s what I need to do.”

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Photos: Michael Kinney

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