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Northern State University wrestler remembered by coach, team

November 3, 2018

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — One hundred and forty-one pounds, give or take a couple of tons more.

That’s what Northern State University lost when Curtis LeMair died suddenly Oct. 17.

The 18-year-old LeMair was a freshman wrestler with the Wolves and he competed in the 141-pound weight class. But it takes just a half-second talking to those who knew him to learn he was so much more.

“I don’t know if I really needed to know him very long to get to know what the kid was about,” said Rocky Burkett, LeMair’s head wrestling coach at Northern State.

The two had been in contact since the spring of the wrestler’s junior year of high school in Shakopee, Minnesota.

“I got an email from him, and the email just jumped out,” Burkett recalled. “The kid was excited about wrestling, about possibly being at Northern State ... we were emailing back and forth and every time he’d respond that he was just excited.”

Burkett wasn’t disappointed when he got LeMair on campus.

“Curtis was a kid — he believed,” Burkett said.

It seems too perfect, but Burkett’s hopes for LeMair were about as high as a wrestling coach’s hopes can be. He invoked names attached to faces on the walls of the Barnett Center when he talked about what he thought this kid could have become.

“Everybody loved this kid,” Burkett said. “Minnesota is a pretty tough wrestling state, and you talk about the best wrestlers in Minnesota, they all love Curtis LeMair. He was going to be our ambassador.”

He was already impacting his teammates in the few short months he was on campus.

Unanimous recollections were twofold: LeMair’s work ethic; LeMair’s smile.

“His smile,” said freshman teammate Adam DeBoer. “I don’t know, he had the ability to turn one of the worst days into one of the best days.”

That smile was the first thing remembered by fellow freshman Brandon Sharkey — someone who’d have had to compete with LeMair, being in the same weight class.

“I could go on for days,” Sharkey said. “He had a smile on his face everywhere he went. He could bring a light into a room.”

And then, there was the wrestling.

“Hardest worker I ever met in my life,” Sharkey said. “He really loved the sport of wrestling.”

DeBoer echoed those thoughts.

“He’s always pushing other people so they push to their fullest potential,” DeBoer said. “He was always trying to reach his full potential, working extra hard after practice, getting stuff on the bike. I only knew him a couple months, but we were together probably every day since stepping foot on campus. Every day was great with him. He was always making other people smile.

“Seeing him go so quick — that’s not a smile you can forget about. His attitude toward life, not just wrestling, he always had good, positive vibes toward everything.”

Initial autopsy findings point to an undetected genetic heart condition as the likely cause of death, Aberdeen American News reported.

The Wolves are down a 141-pounder, yes, but someone like LeMair doesn’t disappear without a trace.

“Everything we do now is for him,” DeBoer said. “We knew that he was 100 percent Northern State. He was here to wrestle hard. He had respect from the community and he gave respect to the community, and everything we do this season is for him. We wouldn’t want to do it for anyone else.”

The team hung up a pair of LeMair’s wrestling boots on one of the pull-up bars in the wrestling room.

“I was struggling a couple days back,” Sharkey said. ”(The team was) saying, ‘Let’s get back in the room and get going, that’s what Curtis would want.’ And I believe 100 percent that’s what he’d want. But I was struggling in practice, and I looked up and saw Curtis’s wrestling shoes hanging up in the room. That gave me the extra go. Knowing Curtis would want us to go as hard as we could, that’s going to take us to the next level.”

Burkett, incredibly, spoke to LeMair at length on the phone the day before the wrestler was found dead in the Great Plains East residence hall on campus.

Traveling to visit a recruit, Burkett called his relatively recent signee, LeMair, and asked him why he came to Northern State and what Burkett should tell this recruit who was waffling in his commitment decision.

“I talked to Curtis that day, just talking about what makes Northern special,” Burkett recalled. “He just kept talking about — his parents have a hunting lodge in Hoven — he loved the community. He said I should call his dad, and I’ve talked to his dad before, but his dad was talking about the community support, Northern, how special it is, and how people treat their student-athletes. That’s what’s so special. I got (back to Aberdeen for) the end of practice that night, talked to Curtis, seeing how he was doing. So weird.

“The next day, I’m going into practice that morning, his roommate called me, he’d called 911. I’m going into his room, seeing him there, talking to 911, and he’s dead. Why did I talk to him that day? I don’t know.”

It’s hard to overstate the loss to the team, both from a wrestling and a personality standpoint. It’s visible on Burkett’s face and audible in his voice how much the wrestler meant to his team and to his coach.

But it’s not hard to understand the size of the impact his brief arrival and sudden departure leave on the members of the program.

“He had a huge heart,” Burkett said. “And that’s what took him. Heart was too big. But he lived life with a huge heart.”

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com