Josh Davis straddles a bench inside the Des Moines East wrestling room and begins to tell his story.
The most unlikely state wrestling title favorite speaks matter-of-factly about the day his mother kicked him out of the house, about the time his uncle went to prison and about his biological parents who haven’t been around to see the man he’s become.
Sure, they’ve told him every now and then they’d come watch him wrestle, but the hollow promises became logs he tossed on an internal fire.
“It gives you a resentment and an anger to keep pushing,” he said. “I’ve had that all my life.”
When Josh enters Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday, the top-ranked 152-pounder in Class 3-A won’t be alone. The family he’s built — the one that matters to him most — will be in his corner every match as he aims to become East’s first state champion in 53 years.
“It’s not going to destroy me if I don’t get it,” the high school senior said. “It’s not going to make my life if I do.”
He paused and continued: “Honestly, I just want people to know I have the ability to do it. There’s so many people out there who doubt me for whatever reason. I just want to show them what I’ve got.”
East wrestler Josh Davis, top, wrestles with Indianola’s Kade Kolarik during a 152-pound semi-final bout at the Class 3-A district 7 wrestling tournament on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015, at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa.
Josh was in seventh grade. He admits there were times when he struggled to follow his mother’s rules. On this day, he was 30 minutes late and failed to call home. He knew she wouldn’t be happy.
She kicked him out of the house.
“I was late coming home from the swimming pool, and she escalated the situation,” Josh said. “I was 30 minutes late, and my phone was dead so I couldn’t call to tell her I was going to be late. When I got home, she was freaking out.”
Josh’s uncle, Norm Davis, came to get him. Four years earlier, Norm had introduced Josh to wrestling, and they went to tournaments together every weekend in the winter.
The wrestling mat became Josh’s sanctuary, where his sole concern was manhandling the guy across from him. And he was pretty good at that.
Norm was the father figure in Josh’s life. They lived together for two years before Norm was sentenced to prison in 2012 on a drug conviction.
“He’s a good man,” Josh said. “But he made bad decisions.”
So did Josh. He quit the baseball team in the middle of his freshman season after his uncle’s arrest. He started skipping class. His grades suffered.
He lived with his aunt, who worked three jobs to pay the bills. Nobody was around to make sure Josh went to school.
“He got lazy,” East coach James Giboo said. “His sophomore year didn’t start so great. That was also the same time his uncle came up to me and told me, ‘I got into some trouble. I’m going to need you to look after Josh.’ “
The relationship between Josh Davis and James Giboo started four years ago as a punch line inside the Des Moines East practice room.
Josh looks a little bit like James with his short, dark hair and chiseled physique. Throw in some of their identical mannerisms and personality traits, and it’s easy to see why the upperclassmen started cracking jokes that Josh was Giboo’s son.
“Same work ethic,” former East wrestler Chase Reynolds said. “They’re both ridiculously ripped. They instantly clicked. It was actually kind of scary. The whole year it was the Giboo and Josh show in practice. They would work together. They would butt heads in the practice room.”
They realized they shared more than just wrestling. Both came from broken homes. Giboo’s parents split when he was young. He lived with his father, an over-the-road truck driver, in upstate New York. Most times, though, Giboo was left to look after himself.
“My mom was into drugs and things like that, so I totally quit talking to her,” Giboo said. “I still don’t talk to her because of that. I was totally against everything she was into. I think (Josh) relates to that with what he’s gone through with his family.”
The more he bounced around from one family member to the next, one thing became clear to Josh Davis: He didn’t want to struggle to get by like other relatives had. The desire “to get away from the lifestyle the rest of my family lived” fueled Josh to do well in school.
“I think maybe two other people on my mom and dad’s side of the family have even graduated from high school,” he said. “Just seeing how they lived their life, it’s not what I want. I don’t want things to have to be so hard later in life.”
Yet Josh overslept on what turned out to be the most pivotal day of his high school tenure.
It was an October morning during his junior year. He rolled over in his dark basement bedroom at his aunt’s house and peeked at the clock. He was three hours late for his first class.
He skipped school — again.
“I made him come to my classroom, and we had a long talk about throwing your life away and making poor choices,” Giboo said. “When it was time for his uncle to go to prison, Josh kind of held it all in and he started getting depressed. I think that led a lot to him not coming to school. On that day, I just told him: ‘This can’t happen. I made a promise to your uncle. You might as well come live with us.’ “
One problem: Giboo had yet to clear it with his wife, Kelly, and their two children (Desean, 14, and Keiana, 11).
Giboo went home that night and began recounting the conversation he’d had earlier in the day with Josh. Before he could tell his wife he’d already invited Josh to move in, Kelly interrupted him: “He can come stay here. Problem solved.”
“I know what Josh meant to James,” she said. “I know he’s a good kid who’s had a rough past, and he just needed that consistency, support and guidance.”
“From the time he walked into our house, I told him, ‘You are part of this family. You will be treated like our son. You will be treated no different than Desean or Keiana.’ “
The transition wasn’t that simple, though.
Josh had grown used to coming and going as he pleased. Kelly wasn’t accustomed to seeing her kids leave without asking for permission.
It bothered her, too, that Josh failed to open up and isolated himself in his room.
“It was challenging because Josh had one feeling — it was anger,” she said. “Everything came out in anger.”
It took time for Kelly to let down her guard as well.
“She was a hard ass on him for a long time,” Giboo said. “She didn’t want to let him in all the way in case it didn’t work out.”
Kelly chipped away at the wall Josh put up. She shared stories about her life, telling him about the time another family took her in and put her on a better path.
“I was very raw, very open, very honest, and I shared everything with him,” she said. “I think once I got him to start trusting me, it all came out.”
Her biggest fear now: In less than seven months, Josh will leave for college.
“I’m scared,” she said, her voice cracking. “He’s going to go away, and I don’t want him to forget who his family is.”
Josh insists that won’t happen. He refers to James and Kelly as his parents. He calls Desean and Keiana his younger brother and sister.
“It’s tighter than family now,” he said. “I’d do anything for them now. It’s unbreakable.”
On a Wednesday night in early February, Giboo — a retired mixed martial arts fighter — is doubled over in pain. A herniated disc in his cranky back is forcing him to crawl from one end of the East wrestling room to the other.
Kelly later helped her husband hobble from practice into a nearby emergency room, where he received four shots to numb the pain. Before the trip, though, there’s a 10-minute stretch where he stopped to tell a few practice room guests about his oldest — and newest — son. And it seems you could club him in the spine with a crowbar and fail to knock the ear-to-ear grin off his face.
On the day they met, Josh told Giboo he wanted to become a Division I college wrestler. He achieved that goal when he signed a letter of intent in November to compete for Northern Illinois.
Josh is a 3.7 GPA student who speaks up if he sees a teammate or friend making bad choices. He hopes to go into sports management and dreams of being a sports agent one day.
“He’s turned his life around,” Giboo said. “I have teachers all the time tell me what a great young man he is, so polite, so smart and that they wish they had more kids like that in class.
“It makes me proud because he wasn’t always that way. He was just a hard-nosed kid when he first started here. Now he’s the kind of person a lot of kids look up to.”