Roy Exum: Behold The Runner-Up

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There are not a lot of black kids in “Minne-SNOW-da” and there aren’t many sophomores who make the varsity wrestling lineup at perennially-tough Blaine High School, where over 2,800 students compete in a plethora of different sports. So sound the trumpets, beat the drums and turn the spotlight on Malik Stewart, who just lost in the finals of the state wrestling tournament. He has just become the latest member of my personal Hall of Fame

Yes, he lost in the finals of the 120-pound weight class and, for that matter, was pinned by one of the best wrestlers in the state. But it was what Malik did after the referee slapped the mat, signaling Mitchell McKee as the winner, that caused a huge crowd in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center last weekend to erupt into a long and thunderous standing ovation.

Malik, fighting away tears as champions sometimes must do, congratulated McKee as his opponent’s arm was raised as the winner, and then our Blaine sophomore walked to where McKee’s coaches stood applauding their champion to add his praises, shaking the rival coaches’ hands. And then in something of a signature moment that I hope will accompany Malik for the rest of his life, he ran towards Mitchell McKee’s father.

Mitchell’s dad, who is struggling mightily and is in the final stages of terminal cancer, had been allowed to sit close to the mat to watch his son compete in the finals. So Malik runs up to Mr. McKee, took the ailing man’s hand in his own and then hugged his opponent’s father in what could be one of the most memorable moments in a shaken family’s life.

“He won,” the runner-up explained. “He was pretty proud and his father was pretty proud. So I went over there and shook his hand, embraced him a little bit, and told him to stay strong and that everybody loves him.”

Oh my goodness! “I got a little teary because I lost the match,” Malik said, “and I knew the hard times he was going through. The crowd went wild and I heard a couple of people say after I did it – it was pretty classy – but I just did it straight from the heart.”

Our runner-up also told Minneapolis TV station KARE, "I went through the same thing when I was younger but my dad didn't pass by cancer. It was by a heart attack, so I know what he is going through," said Stewart, whose dad died when he was seven years old.

The champion, McKee, had told a local TV station he wanted to win for his father, since he didn’t know if his dad would see him wrestle again, but Malik’s action meant a lot. “It was a big match for him and to be able to hug my dad like that, and not be mad and storm off like a lot of kids do, was really respectful.”

Josh Prokosch, Blaine’s head coach, told reporters, it wasn’t scripted. “You see kids, they lose and throw their headgear, they sit and pout … first thoughts through his mind are to congratulate Mitchell, congratulate his coach and shake the dad’s hand so that was pretty fantastic. For a sophomore in high school, Malik can see a lot of the big picture, which is pretty rare these days.”

Stewart, a guest on “The Today Show” this week and now heralded in the sports world, played down the incident. “I was just trying to do the right thing. When you go out there, you want to win,” he said after compiling a 23-2 record this season, “but if you don’t win, you have to be a good sport and you be polite. That’s the biggest part,” he said.

Mitchell, on the other hand, credits his father’s great determination for his victory. “Dad’s a fighter. When we see him fight, it makes it tough for us not to stay positive. I prayed 'God help me win this match' so I can go win a state title for my dad," said the champion who attends St. Michael Albertville High School.

But in a January interview, Steve McKee admitted each day, each wrestling match, each family function are all so precious. “I’m still fighting,” he said. “It’s something I’ve said to the kids in everyday life: you keep fighting, you don’t give up. They can see when I am doing pretty well, and it bothers them when I’m doing poorly. But I keep plugging away.”

His wife, Nina, admits, “We pray a lot and we have a lot of people praying for us. Every wrestling match we go to, it’s been hard not to think this might be Steve’s last one. Each is a milestone, and I can see how proud Steve is of his boys, and that makes me happy. We are taking it one day at a time,” she said, “because that’s all we can do. But we still see that fight in Steve. That helps us get through the day.”

Those who attended last weekend’s state tournament in St. Paul will remember that Mitchell McKee won the 120-pound title for his dad but they’ll also remember the role the runner-up in the match played.

T.J. Anderson, an assistant wrestling coach at Minnesota’s Dassel-Cokato Middle School, wrote this in a letter to the school district. “The whole crowd gave a standing ovation, not just for the STMA wrestler and his father, but for Stewart, who understands what true sportsmanship is. Thank you for making your athletes into what they are today, Mr. Stewart is a model wrestler that we can all use in our examples of what a true athlete is.”

Thus, it is with great honor I announce that Malik Stewart is the newest member in my personal Hall of Fame and may just be the greatest runner-up that has ever been.

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