VALLEJO — A brown belt was better than most black ones.
Entering the World Police and Fire Games last month in Belfast, Northern Ireland, John McNitt was just one of four brown belts on the planet to enter the judo competition, battling all the way to a silver medal in the over 100 kilograms (220 pounds) category, the super heavyweight division.
McNitt’s only defeat came at the hands of Chinese Taipei’s Chia-Jung Chang, a third-degree black belt.
“I would have been a lot happier with gold,” said McNitt, who attended elementary school and junior high in Vallejo before returning to graduate from the now closed Hogan High in the same city. “But for the first time fighting in a tournament this big – I’ve only fought in local tournaments here in the Bay Area – getting to go over to Northern Ireland and compete was a great experience.
“Even with all the athletes there, they were very friendly. The guy that beat me (in the finals), afterwards we exchanged some stuff. We traded our national flags. He gave me some jewelry, a tie bar and some patches. It was pretty friendly.”
To say McNitt, a student at Solano Community College who was awarded his black belt Wednesday, fit into the super heavyweight category would be an understatement.
Standing 6-foot-8 and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, there isn’t another category that McNitt could even be considered for.
He didn’t hesitate to point a finger at who was behind his success.
“Dr. Tanaka, his teaching,” McNitt said of Dr. Jimmy Tanaka, his instructor of nine years at Solano. “I’ve done all my training with Mr. Tanaka. It was just hard work. You can’t go in there fighting on the world stage like that and just expect to just walk in (and do well). You have to prepare.
“I think it is his teaching style. You can go to some martial arts dojo and it can be very intense, lots of yelling and very intense. With him it’s a very laid back class. There’s joking and laughing. He communicates with us a little more than being demanding. His teaching style makes it easy to learn judo. It makes it fun to learn judo. That’s why I’ve stayed with him so long.”
Tanaka chimed in on why McNitt is as good as he is.
“He works very hard to attain an objective,” Tanaka said. “He is well-coordinated and powerful. He follows instructions to the letter. John has ‘Konjo,’ a Japanese term for fighting spirit, an innate natural quality.”
Tanaka was also proud of McNitt, who basically did the planning for the trip.
“The fact that he did this pretty much on his own – he raised his own travel funds and expenses – he went alone without a coach, family or supporters to fight in a strange country,” Tanaka said. “He did his very best and most importantly he did not get injured fighting on the international stage against more seasoned and experienced judokas (judo experts).
“I applaud his courage, dedication, discipline, loyalty and humility. The fact that he garnered a silver medal is secondary.”
Judo wasn’t even on McNitt’s mind after he graduated high school. He kind of just stumbled on it.
“When I came here to Solano College, I needed P.E. credits and I saw the self-defense class,” McNitt said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an easy A. I’ll walk through this class and be done with it.’
“(Tanaka) wouldn’t let me. I showed up and he said ‘What are you doing here? You’re 6-8, 340 pounds, you don’t need self defense.’ He asked if I’ve ever done judo and I had no clue what judo was. He said ‘Drop this class and come back in an hour. You’re going to do some judo.’ And that was it. I’ve been with him ever since.”
Being the big man that he is, McNitt is still humble and thoroughly enjoyed his recent trip to Northern Ireland, especially all the nice people.
“Even without the fight and competing in the tournament, it was an awesome trip,” he said. “I would go back in a heartbeat. The people in Northern Ireland were incredibly friendly, very helpful, a very kind people. There was one time when I was walking the city of Belfast with absolutely nowhere to be, just kind of wandering around and I got myself lost.
“I just kind of standing there looking around and a random women came up and said ‘Hey, are you OK? Do you need some help? Do you know where you’re at?’ Being 6-8 and 340 pounds, people usually don’t come ask me if I’m OK or if I need help a whole lot of help. It was just nice to meet somebody that was willing to help like that. It was like that everywhere that I went.”
When McNitt isn’t commuting to Solano on Wednesday nights to attend Dr. Tanaka’s class, he’s keeping prisoners in line at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, where he was recently promoted to sergeant after working at Folsom State Prison.
The job was another thing McNitt kind of stumbled on, though his father had also been a correctional officer.
“When I started coming to Solano College, I was like most kids, fresh out of high school having no idea what they wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted for a career. I thought about being a teacher, thought about being a nurse. I really had no idea. So I just started taking random classes.
“One of the classes was the Intro to Criminal Justice. That was taught by Mike Goodwin, who is a retired sergeant from the Concord Police Department. He was an excellent teacher, so I started taking every class that he offered. Pretty soon, I was almost done with a criminal justice degree. I didn’t have much desire to become a street police officer, so going into the prison system was a good alternative.
“I got hired with the state of California in 2007,” McNitt said. “I had to go through a four-month training academy. That was in Galt. It was para-military style, living in dorms, up at 5 or 6 in the morning. My father was in the department also. He did 28 years, somewhere around there.”
Dealing with issues inside a prison took McNitt a little getting used to. But being a man of his size, it didn’t take long.
“It’s not normal to kind of deal with that stuff, the gang politics that goes on inside of a prison,” McNitt said. “You just kind of have to get used to it. You don’t really have a choice. . . . There is violence inside of prisons. You don’t have a choice. You either get used to it (and deal with it), or you find another job. You have to learn to adapt to it.”
Even with all the potential problems that can arise, McNitt hasn’t had to deal with too much so far in his career.
“Only one time I would say I’ve really had to be hands-on with an inmate,” he said. “I had an individual who had his hands on the wall doing a search, patting him down. I went to place him in restraints and he kind of came off the wall and pushed away and spun toward me. I had to redirect his body a little bit and get him on the ground so he couldn’t try to fight us.”
He also believes his judo training is nothing but a benefit when it comes to his job.
“Police officers and correctional officers, we do get some very basic self-defense kind of stuff,” he said, “but if we had some sort of introduction to something like judo, I think it would make all of us a lot safer in our jobs, to have that confidence that you know how to protect yourself so if someone attacks you, you’re going to know how to respond, rather than standing there and being a victim. Nobody wants to be a victim.
“The state gives us all these tools to help us (baton, handcuffs, etc.), but sometimes that doesn’t always work. If you’re just three feet way from each other and someone decides they want to assault you, you’re not going to have time to pull one of the tools out. It’s going to be a hands-on confrontation. The better I am prepared to respond to the situation, the safer I’m going to be.”
Even though he’s now a sergeant, McNitt doesn’t want to stop there. That’s why he’s still in school.
“I don’t have my bachelor’s degree yet,” he said. “It’s something I want to get. I can only get so far (in the prison) without having it.
“I can make lieutenant, which is one more rank above where I’m at now. But If I want to make captain or go any higher, I need that bachelor’s. That’s the plan, to go up the chain of command as high as I can.”
As for his judo career, McNitt has his sights set even higher.
“I would like to keep going as high as I can with this,” he said. “I’m young, I’ve got a lot of time. Sensei Tanaka is almost 80 years old and he’s an eighth-degree black belt. It takes about that long to get there.
“The higher the degree, the longer you have to wait (to get promoted). It’s definitely my goal to keep going. . . . In most martial arts, you’re always considered a student until you at least hit a fourth-degree black belt. I would like to at least get to that level.”
Big goals for a big man.
Reach Brian Arnold at 427-6969 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/barnolddr.