DEL CITY — Josh McNaughton, like almost every kid, thought his dad would always be there.
“You always hear about those kids and never think that could happen to you,” the Del City 220-pound senior wrestler said. “My dad was going to be there forever.”
Until he wasn't.
Jason McNaughton was staying at a motel with his wife not far from their Topeka, Kan., home in September 2008.
Just before midnight, he stepped outside of his room to smoke. When he didn't come back in, Cathy McNaughton went looking for him. Jason was gone.
Nearly a month later, a pedestrian crossing a bridge over the Kansas River spotted a body in the water. It was Jason.
When Jason's body was found, Topeka police said there was no evidence of foul play and a preliminary autopsy showed no signs of obvious trauma to his body.
“After he passed away, I didn't want to do nothing. I needed something to motivate me. I think about that stuff every day and what would happened if this would've happened or that would've happened or if they wouldn't have gone out that night, stuff like that,” Josh said. “There's nothing I can do about that now. I'm just trying to make the best out of everything.”
He's doing that now, as a senior on the Eagles' wrestling team, a state title contender in 5A just a little more than two years since he took up the sport.
After Jason's death, Cathy moved her family from Topeka to Del City, where she grew up.
In Kansas, McNaughton hadn't played sports much or even thought about it. Jason had sometimes pressed him to wrestle, something he'd done himself in middle school. Josh's uncle, Jason Grandstaff, had wrestled at Del City and hoped his nephew would take up the sport.
One of the first people he ran into when he registered for classes at Del City was Eagles football coach Nick Warehime.
Warehime talked McNaughton into giving football a try.
McNaughton was also in Del City wrestling coach Ronnie James' weightlifting class.
“You could see the work ethic that he had when he was in the weight room,” James said. “So I asked him if he'd ever wrestled.”
When McNaughton answered no, James said, “Let's give it a shot.”
Cathy was surprised when her son told her he was going to take up the two sports.
“I wasn't expecting this to happen, not at all,” she said. “It's been really cool watching him though.”
McNaughton was winless his first season, then came within a point of advancing to state as a junior. This year, he's a state-title contender at 220 in Class 5A.
“I'm the proudest parent that can be out there right now,” Cathy McNaughton said. “It was pretty rough on him losing his dad and then having to move away from his friends. He came through it really well.”
Josh is getting college looks in both sports but would rather wrestle if he had his pick.
“I feel like I'm going to get so much better with some more time,” he said. “I haven't been doing this very long and I still have a lot to learn.”
Cathy said she sees a lot of Jason in Josh now.
“His dad was our rock, and Josh had to step up and be the man of the house and he did it tenfold,” Cathy said. “He's tried to be strong for me.
“He's actually going to be something and do something with his life and he's making it happen for himself. He's not just sitting around. He got that from his dad.”
For Josh, his dad is never far from his thoughts.
“In big matches, I'll think about it. ‘You wanted me to wrestle and here I am. I'm out here,'” McNaughton said. “I know in my head that he's with me, I know he's watching over me and I'll be all right win or lose.”