Read on ChicagoTribune.com.
When you walk into the Evanston wrestling room and look to the right, 10 framed pictures stare back at you. Each is an image of a Wildkits great, an individual state champion on the mat.
Ramin Abraham wants to one day see his face on that wall.
The sophomore made it to the Class 3A state tournament at 220 pounds after finishing second at the Conant Sectional. At state he lost his lone match, 3-1 in overtime to Quincy senior Tyree Williams. Williams was one of 13 seniors in the weight class, and the other two wrestlers were juniors. Though he lost, Abraham was the only underclassmen to qualify at 220 pounds.
It’s not just that Abraham is young; he never wrestled before last year, and this season was his first experience on varsity. Abraham said that early in his sophomore season, he didn’t even enjoy the sport and even thought about leaving the team.
“I missed practices this year because I didn’t like wrestling,” Abraham said. “In the beginning of the season I didn’t work hard. I hated it, I hated wrestling.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a wrestler who went 35-4 and was his team’s lone state qualifier. But Abraham’s primary sport is soccer: He grew up playing it, first in his native Syria, then in Lebanon where his family moved to avoid war. His family immigrated to Evanston more than a year-and-a-half ago, and Abraham joined the junior varsity team as a goalkeeper.
Abraham said he didn’t know much about wrestling growing up, and that it’s far less popular in Syria than it is in the U.S. His parents didn’t attend one wrestling match this season, and he said his mom is scared he’ll hurt himself in the sport, though she also has made fun of him for wearing a singlet.
Evanston wrestling coach Rudy Salinas said he believes Abraham agreed to wrestle out of duty to the school and the program: The team needed someone to wrestle at 220 pounds, and Abraham was its best option. He went through the motions of training, but his heart wasn’t fully in it. When it became clear that Abraham had the chance for a special season, Salinas had a talk with him.
“After that, things started to click,” Salinas said. “Part of it is he’s a competitor and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s really difficult to have a perfect season in wrestling. Once he endured his first couple of losses and we talked about how it wasn’t about the losses, it was about improving, he embraced that.”
Abraham asked Salinas if he was capable of being all-conference. When that was in reach, he asked if had the potential to win conference. Then the regional tournament. He did all three. After Abraham clinched the trip to state, Salinas told the team during a practice to “face the champs,” where they all look at the wall of photos. It helps to organize the team for drills, but also reminds them of what they’re working toward. Abraham joked with his coach that the next time he told someone to face the champs, they’d be looking at him.
“I’m class of 2019,” Abraham said. “I want to come back in 2020 and see my picture on the wall. That would be amazing.”
The most recent addition to the wall is Jeffrey Brown, who won the Class 3A 285-pound title in 2010. Brown first met Abraham in the summer of 2016 at a soccer camp where Brown’s brother and Abraham were attending. Wildkits soccer coach Franz Calixte introduced Abraham to Brown as a wrestler with big potential.
In December, Brown was home for the holiday break from Winona State, where he is working on his undergraduate degree. He spent a week working with the Evanston wrestling team, often wrestling against Abraham. He helped Abraham with technique, telling him to focus on perfecting a few moves instead of learning many. He also shared his own story: He was a football player first who found a passion for wrestling.
“I wanted to help him realize his potential in the sport and how good he can be,” Brown said. “It was similar to my situation: Football was my forefront but wrestling went hand and hand with it.”
Brown talked about Abraham’s big performance in the soccer state playoffs in the fall when he came off the bench just for the shootout in both the sectional semifinals against New Trier and the sectional final against Glenbrook North. Abraham made two saves each time and helped the Wildkits win both games. Brown wanted Abraham to see he’s got the potential to be great in both sports.
“I would tell him, ‘Those are things you can do in wrestling, you can have those moments in wrestling,'” Brown said. “This doesn’t mean he has to give up soccer, because he can also be good at wrestling.”