This story appeared in the Greater Philly edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
Evan Craig hugged his father, Dane, and stuffed his face into his dad's chest as tears welled up in his eyes. Craig had just accomplished one of his lifelong dreams by winning a state title, but the only thing he could think or say was, "I wish mom was here."
Craig is, and always has been, bigger than most of his peers. The Abington Heights (Clarks Summit, Pa.) senior may have looked young growing up due to chubby cheeks and a baby face. But under that young exterior was enough muscle to lift his 160-pound wrestling coach in the air when he was only 8 years old.
By the time he was 9, Craig was deemed too big to compete against kids his own age and started wrestling older, more developed opponents. In fifth grade, Craig was wrestling seventh- and eighth-graders. In seventh grade, he was taking on members of the Abington Heights varsity team. And there supporting him throughout was his mom, Ellen.
When Craig had to lose weight to play midget football, Ellen ran around the track with him and made sure he stuck to his diet. When Craig didn't want to attend a wrestling practice, Ellen kicked him off the couch and dropped him off at the gym. She never missed one of his wrestling matches and always made her presence known with shouts of support. If another parent said something about Craig's weight, Ellen was quick to defend her son.
"She was always very defensive over her children," Dane says. "She would do anything to protect them."
In truth, Craig didn't need protecting. It was the older kids who typically got slammed to the mat.
"Evan was a seventh-grader, and this one kid that he was sparring against had placed in states that year at 215 pounds," Abington Heights wrestling coach Keith Youtz recalls. "Evan looked like a little kid, but he was going toe-to-toe with him. I saw this young kid, and I was like, 'This kid is going to be good.'"
Good, it turns out, was an understatement.
As a junior, Craig went undefeated (41-0), led the state in pins (31) and won the PIAA Class AAA heavyweight state championship -- the first Abington Heights wrestler to win a state title. He has won two cadet Greco-Roman national crowns and was rated the nation's No. 4 285-pound wrestler by InterMat and No. 2 by W.I.N. Magazine at press time, though he wants nothing more than to claim the No. 1 spot.
"A bunch of friends bust my chops and say, 'You're only No. 2,'" Craig says with a chuckle. "That motivates me. I want to be ranked No. 1. I finished last season ranked No. 2, and I want to move up."
Craig despises being second in anything. After losing in the state finals as a sophomore, he lay face down in the back seat of his family's minivan and cried for an hour on the drive home. The next day was his 16th birthday, and Craig couldn't even crack a smile. Instead, he walked around the house with an angry look in his eyes.
"It was quite possibly the worst birthday ever," Craig says. "It took me a month and a half to get myself back together. But I finally settled in and told myself that I'm just going to work my butt off and win."
With the state finals loss in the back of his mind throughout the summer, Craig trained for his junior year with renewed purpose. As a side benefit, he earned All-State second team honors as a defensive lineman during football season.
And when he returned to the state wrestling tournament, Craig got revenge in the semifinals by beating Clearfield senior Sean Owen -- the wrestler who'd beaten him in the finals the previous year -- then completed his perfect season with a 3-1 decision in the final over Abington's David Osei.
With that triumph, Craig made good on a promise he'd made to his mother 10 years before.
Ellen Craig passed away from complications of pneumonia when Evan was in eighth grade. He dedicated the rest of his career to her and credits his state title to her, "100 percent." He plans on getting a memorial tattoo of his mom on his left arm ("Hopefully not until he's 18," Dane says) and also wrote her initials, E.C., on the headgear he wore during his undefeated junior season.
It's not easy for Craig to talk about his mother and all she meant to him. Ellen was his closest confidant, the person he sat with at the kitchen table for hours sharing all of his greatest hopes and dreams.
"When others would doubt me, she would assure me that I could do whatever I set my mind to," Craig says. "She always believed I could accomplish my goals."
When Craig was 7, he told his mother he would win a state championship. Making good on that promise motivated him ever since. Now that he's accomplished that goal, he wants to fulfill another promise he made to his mom: making the U.S. Olympic Team.
Since he was 12, Craig has competed in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling -- the two disciplines contested in the Olympics -- in addition to the high school brand of wrestling known as folkstyle. In 2007 and 2008, Craig won Greco-Roman national championships at 285 pounds. He added a second-place finish in the freestyle competition in '08.
At the 2009 competition, Craig injured his left knee and placed seventh in Greco-Roman before withdrawing from the freestyle competition due to the injury. But over the past four years, he has undoubtedly proven himself to be among the nation's best in all styles of wrestling.
"I talked to my mom about making the Olympics," Craig says, "and I would love to do it for her."