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A wrestling family revisited

The wrestling world, and for that matter, the world is full of stories. Without a good storyline, there really isn't much of a reason to tune in. In Minnesota, we all want to know who will be the next team to knock off Apple Valley. Or will anyone ever win six state titles like Mark Hall pulled off this season? The storylines and how we describe them are what make life interesting and fun. Sometimes the narrative is heartbreaking and personal, and we can't help but want to lend a hand.

McKee family
Twenty-six months ago I asked Mitch McKee if he would allow me to follow him through the state tournament and write his story. He was gracious and politely agreed. He took a stunning upset loss the year before in the semifinals to Taylor Venz and found out the next day his dad, Steve, had cancer. It was the beginning of some of the darkest moments of his life. The following year, everyone in the stands knew about Steve's diagnosis, and there was hardly a person who wasn't pulling for Mitch to win. The pressure was immense, and he reminded me of the statue of Atlas with the world balancing on his back. He would go on to capture his first state title that year and subsequently went on to have the best wrestling success of his life over the next few months. He became the national folkstyle and freestyle champion that summer.

A love story

Nina met Steve McKee the old fashioned way, having a fun time at a line dance in a sports bar in St. Cloud, Minn. They dated for four years and were married on April 19, 1997. Like most couples they had to adjust to some opposite traits. Steve was fun loving and embraced the lighter side of life. Nina is more serious and goal driven. They were madly in love and set out to make a life together. They settled in Becker, Minn., opening a "gently used" sports store for Nina to run and manage while Steve worked in the wholesale oil business. They had a busy life. Steve dabbled in sports photography and coached at all levels of soccer, football and wrestling. Nina was busy with the store and raising two active little boys born 20 months apart. Soon it became apparent the store would have to close, and later they moved to St. Michael.

Mitch McKee hugs his father Steve after claiming a state title in 2014 (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Wrestling came into their lives more by accident than design. Both Steve and Nina were athletes in their younger days. Nina (under 5 feet tall) was, of all things, a pretty good volleyball player. No, she wasn't a spiker but was a pretty good setter. Steve wrestled two years in high school. When the boys were around 5-7 years old, it was clear they were going to be very good wrestlers, and later they dropped other sports to focus on what they did best. Steve and Nina decided to expose the boys to as many tournaments as possible and they soon developed friends all over Minnesota and the nation.

Steve found out he had a health problem after looking at an X-ray taken by a friend, Andy, a chiropractor. These films were sent to a radiologist, and it didn't take long to realize this was a serious problem. An exhausting and thorough exam was done at Mayo Clinic, and the news was not good. He had cancer of the spine, and it was in stage 3, the highest number. Steve did everything a young man could to stay alive. He traveled countless trips to Rochester and took every treatment recommended. Along the way, he would lose his hair, his weight, but never his spirit. He decided to live out his life with courage and vulnerability. These lessons haven't been lost on Mitch and Patrick.

Patrick, Nina and Mitch McKee
Losing a father at a young age is not normal. Most of us get to live a long time before we face the ugly truths about death. Steve and Nina made it a point to ensure the boys are able to keep living with their dad's memory. They recorded videos to be played at significant moments in the future. Mitch will be able to watch his dad congratulate him at his high school graduation this month. If Patrick gets married, there is a video clip of Steve talking to him and his future bride. If grandchildren come along, there is a warm and loving message waiting for them. Steve hasn't gone away in spirit, only in body.

While Steve was near the end of his journey, life became especially hard. He wasn't able to walk, and he needed to be lifted out of bed into a wheelchair. This was helped along by an army of St. Michael parents, as well as a few other wrestling communities. They were called the "lift train." Meals were arranged and delivered on a timely basis. This was called the "meal train." Steve and Nina's extended family were seemingly always there to lend a hand. There was a lot of love to go around, and some of it was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to help, and this became a job in and of itself.

Patrick McKee celebrates after winning a state championship at 106 pounds (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Steve died on December 7, 2014. He was 51 years young. He leaves behind a pair of boys that loved him more than life. Mitch is a semi-stoic and serious 18-year-old senior. "I miss playing catch with my dad. He was a lot of fun, and he taught me how to enjoy life. If I had another day with him, I would spend it playing in the yard tossing a ball, tackling each other and laughing. Patrick is an emotional and fun-loving 16-year-old sophomore. He shows emotions like others flash their cell phones. He's often misunderstood as volatile and angry. It's far from reality. Patrick is a happy young man and his only spot reserved for aggression is the wrestling mat. He's the defending 106-pound state champion. "If my dad was here for a day, I would just want to be his son. I miss my dad, and I'm proud of how he raised me. I love him." When Nina is asked what she misses most, she doesn't hesitate. "I miss his friendship. I want to wake up in the morning and feel him next to me. I wish I could kiss him goodnight. I want to feel him next to me." The day he passed she remembers the long and lonely absence of the oxygen tank. It used to bring her comfort to hear it day after day. It stung to listen to the silence.

In a small town with a high profile family, there isn't a church big enough to fit all the mourners. Somehow Mitch and Patrick had enough reserve to get up and sing to the crowd that cold December day. Later, there was a service at the cemetery with pheasant feathers left behind on the burial site. There was an enormous chili feed and plenty of good story time. Mitch would go on to win two more state titles and become one of the nation's most sought-after recruits. He will join his friends at the University of Minnesota and likely will wrestle 133 pounds. Patrick will be alone with his mom starting in the fall, and his future looks bright. Both of these young men are stellar students, hunters, and singers in the all-male choir.

McKee family and their dogs
Recently Nina visited a medium. Steve was waiting for her and had plenty of messages. He congratulated her on adding a few dogs to the family and admitted he was wrong in advising her to, "Please don't get a dog when I'm gone!" Thirty years earlier Steve's sister Suzie died in an auto accident, and she was with Steve on this day. Nina is a complete believer in hearing these messages and doesn't have any doubt it was Steve and Suzie visiting that day. She hears his voice all the time in her home and feels blasts of love at the most unsuspecting moments. She's learned to stop and take them in and remember. "He was the love of my life. I'll never forget him."

The McKees live a good life. Fortunately, Steve had the foresight years ago to purchase some life insurance before he became sick. This allows the family to live a comfortable life and pursue the dreams they all have. It's comforting to know they are doing well and are happy. Do they miss Steve? Oh yes, more than they can accurately describe. But, he's there. Their home is warm. The dogs love the boys and Nina. The wrestling community is nearby to lend a hand as they should. It all works, and life just keeps moving. Until they meet again.

This story also appears in the May 6 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.

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david1212 (1) about 2 and a half years ago
Wonderful story about a tragedy and triumph of the human spirit! These boys are what is right with America. That will be their dads lasting legacy far beyond wrestling. I do not cheer for many kids not from PA in wrestling but I will reserve a spot to cheer on the McKee boys.