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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Class 3A state high school wrestling championship at the Xcel Energy Center this week ended with a standing ovation and few dry eyes. The match for the final 120-pound contenders already began with much emotion.
St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee wanted to win the state for his father, who is battling terminal cancer and was given months to live.
"I prayed 'God help me win this match' so I can go win a state title for my dad," McKee said.
McKee pinned opponent Malik Stewart, a Blaine High School sophomore, around 1:22 into the face-off. Losing the state title, Stewart could have walked away, but he chose to do something that would stun many in the arena.
"He won," Stewart said. "He was pretty proud, and his dad was pretty proud. So I went over there and I shook his hand, embraced him a little bit, and told him to stay strong and everybody loves him."
Stewart didn't stop there. He shook the hands of McKee's coaches and then ran over to McKee's dad, Steve, again offering a handshake and an embrace.
"He took that upon himself, knew Mitchell's father was over there, gave him a hug and congratulated him," said Josh Prokosch, the Blaine Bengal's head wrestling coach.
He won. He was pretty proud, and his dad was pretty proud. So I went over there and I shook his hand, embraced him a little bit, and told him to stay strong and everybody loves him.
Stewart said the emotions of greater loss settled in.
"I got a little teary because I lost the match, and I knew the hard times he was going through. The crowd went wild and I heard a couple people say after I did it — that was pretty classy — but I just did it straight from the heart," Stewart said.
When it was McKee's turn to hug his dad, onlookers cried, stood and clapped. Stewart said he deeply understood the emotion behind the embrace.
"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, who said his dad died when he was 7 years old.
"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," McKee said. "Really respectful."
Other coaches in the audience that day took notice.
"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," said T.J. Anderson, assistant wrestling coach, Dassel-Cokato Middle School, in a letter to the Anoka Hennepin School District.
Two opponents are now bound by greater loss, and the strategy of heart created more than one champion that day.
"You see kids, they lose and throw their headgear, they sit and pout, first thoughts through his mind are to congratulate Mitchell, congratulate the coach and shake the dad's hand so that was fantastic. For a sophomore in high school he can see a lot of the big picture, which is pretty rare nowadays," Prokosch said.
Stewart says it was simply the right thing to do. He knows he will face McKee in future matches and plans on focusing on the next step in his wrestling career with a goal of two state titles.
"When you go out there, you want to win, but if you don't win, you have got to be a good sport and you be polite," Stewart said. "That's the biggest part."