By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited from the original version to omit some personal information.
Jacob Lightner is a young man with a strong sense of purpose, who has worked hard in his short 18 years to achieve a level of success in not one, but two sports – wrestling and football – that many only dream of. But how he managed to attain it, in the face of adversity, is even more impressive.
A descendant of the Maxwell clan on his mother’s side, who traversed from Oklahoma to Kern County via Route 66 during the dust bowl years of the 1930s, and strong-willed grandmother Holly Lightner, who left her entire family back in Pennsylvania to venture to California at the age of 18 “looking for a new life,” Lightner comes from a bloodline of focused and determined people. Perhaps this helps explain where Lightner derived some of the strength and tenacity that have propelled him forward.
Lightner credits his uncles, Dylan, Miah and Chess Maxwell for getting him into sports early, beginning with soccer when he was just 5 years old. “Actually, my dad always wanted me to get into sports, because my grandma had never let him play when he was a kid,” says Lightner, “but it was my uncles who really got me started.” From soccer, Lightner branched out into T-Ball for a couple years, and then picked up wrestling, a sport that would alter the course of his life, when he was just 8 years old. “One of my best friends, Conrad Miller, was a wrestler. I thought the sport was super cool. So, I decided to try it.”
Lightner wrestled in the Kern Valley for a year and progressed so rapidly that he wound up transferring to Foothill for two years, advancing yet again to wrestle for the Frontier High School “Elite Force Wrestling” Club. While at Frontier, Lightner made friends with Jaden Abas, whose father, Gerry, was a former CSUB wrestling coach and currently heading the Rancho Bernardo wrestling program, and uncle, Stephen, an Olympic silver medalist in Freestyle Wrestling influenced him greatly. After making it onto the California State All Star Team, Lightner travelled to Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Virginia and Texas, won six state titles, four regional titles, four national titles, and the “Reno World Championships,” all before he turned 14 years old.
But while Lightner was achieving monumental success as a wrestler, he was experiencing a turbulent home life that at times, threatened to derail him. When Lightner’s parents divorced, the young boy moved with his father and stepmother to Tehachapi, a move that did not turn out well. “Between sixth and eighth grade, I started getting into some trouble. I liked going to school, because I was having turmoil at home, but I hated school. My dad went down the wrong path, and I moved in with my mom.”
For some people, that experience may have driven them down a wrong path of their own, but not Lightner. “I knew drugs weren’t the answer. I got into sports. I decided to focus my energies in a positive way, and I started thinking about wanting to help others.” Since wrestling is a year-round sport, Lightner found he could take breaks to branch out. He stopped wrestling for the Frontier Elite Force to focus on High School sports at KVHS. He easily won a spot on the Varsity Football team as a freshman, playing both Running Back and Defensive End all four years for the team. Of course, Lightner continued wrestling, continuously being a star on the squad, and qualifying for the CIF State Wrestling Tournament three out of his four years there. He also dabbled in shot put and discus for the Track Team as well as playing both Pitcher and First Base for the KVHS Baseball team his sophomore year, all while maintaining a 3.5 GPA.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Lightner’s High School sports career was when he was told he’d been selected to play in the 18th annual U.S. Army All-Star Bowl this year, a staple in Kern County sports and the only indoor high school football all-star game played on an arena football field dimension in the country. “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid,” says Lightner. “Coaches for the game are picked from a mix from all over the area, and they pick 56 kids total based on stats. You’re either drafted to the gold or black team, and then you get two weeks to practice. It’s kind of like a pro bowl – just a fun open game. We’re even allowed to celebrate in the end zone.” Based on his impressive stats, Lightner was drafted to play both Running Back and Defensive Back for the gold team, and the only player to be drafted from Kern Valley. And last Friday at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, Lightner had quite the game, scoring the first touchdown run for his squad, a touchdown that turned the tide of the game and eventually led to gold defeating black by the narrow score of 20-19. He was also voted “Strong Man of the Game.”
That wasn’t the only highlight of the night for Lightner, who was one of about 70 Kern County locals to be sworn in for their upcoming enlistment into the Armed Services during halftime.“It was incredible to be out there and starting my enlisted career in front of so many friends and family,” Lightner said. “What a special moment.” Lightner graduates from KVHS on May 30, and will waste no time, reporting to Fort Benning in Georgia on July 15.
Lighter made the decision to sign his three-year commitment to the Army partially due to family influences – uncles Chess and Miah are both Army veterans – and partly to help prepare him for his ultimate career goal of becoming a Highway Patrol Officer. “I joined the Army to help prepare me for being a cop, and I want to be a police officer because I want to help people,” he says. “I thought about becoming a counselor for awhile. I counsel kids at school now. I like to help people out. That’s my goal.”
As he gets ready to branch out and move forward in his life, Lightner reflects on his past. “I’ve gone through a lot for an 18-year-old, but I don’t play the pity card. Most people don’t know my story because I don’t share and I don’t dwell on it. I probably don’t have it as bad as it could have been. A lot of that is because of my grandma, Holly. She was always there for me. I’m closer to her than anyone else in my family. All those years when I was wrestling, she drove me everywhere, put thousands of miles on her car. And now, she comes to the arena practice every single day. I turned my negatives into positives. I’m not going to let failure be an option, or if I do fail, I take it as a chance to learn from it so I can be successful.” Lightner is also quick to give kudos to his mother, Jessica, his stepfather, Junior, and the rest of his Maxwell family, as well as his best friend of 12 years (and counting) Conrad Miller, and his father Ed, who have been a positive influence and supported him all along. “I still talk to Conrad every single day.”
The future looks bright for Lightner, whose optimistic attitude, drive and determination have always, and now continue to keep him on that bright path to success. “I chose Highway Patrol because I want to venture outside of the valley, to see what life’s about. There’s a lot of culture to explore everywhere. I want to see what life’s about. I could come back to California, maybe even retire in the valley… or not. Let’s see where I end up.” One thing is for sure, wherever Jacob Lightner lands, it will be in a positive, powerful place, just like the young man himself.