For Sue Atria, sports were important because they were important to her husband, Joe, and son, Anthony.

"She was the artistic one. I was the athletic one," Joe said. "She was more interested in being a Tony fan than a sports fan."

On Jan. 6, the Atria men lost their biggest fan, a wife and mom when Sue died at the age of 61, the day after Anthony, a Merrillville junior, won the Lake County tournament.

"She was really squeamish about contact sports," Anthony said after Saturday's Hobart Regional. "She didn't always come to watch, but she always cheered me on. We'd always talk afterward."

Anthony is a chip off the old block, a young man of imposing stature at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds. Like his dad was, he is a lineman in football who wrestles heavyweight, now known as 285 pounds. A Pirates assistant coach in both sports, Joe has had the joy of seeing his son progress as an athlete and a person.

"I'm sure she's watching and I'm sure she's proud of her little boy," he said.

In their time of grief, both men found strength and support from their teams, one of the many benefits of sports.

"With his dad as an assistant coach, they share a common thread," Merrillville wrestling coach David Maldonado said. "There's a certain brotherhood you have when you work that hard as a team."

The following Wednesday, Anthony didn't wrestle in the Pirates' dual meet, but served as a captain.

"They went out for me and dominated," he said. "That meant a lot to me and my dad."

Wrestling and football teammates came to the wake that Friday by the bus loads, a virtual wave of support.

"David was very sensitive to the situation," Joe said. "Anthony has been in club with a number of these kids since he was 4 years old. It's his wrestling family. David sending him out as captain, the solidarity with his buddies, that was a really important part of the healing."

Joe never doubted Anthony would finish the season, though Maldonado was compassionate to whatever choice he made.

"At the end of the day, if he decided not to wrestle anymore, I would've understood," he said. "You don't want him there if he doesn't want to be there. He decided he wanted to come back and finish what he started. It showed a lot. The hardest part was, how hard do you push him? You don't want to push them too hard and push them over the edge or not push them hard enough and they're not ready."

For both Atrias, wrestling provided a cathartic outlet.

"Having that sense of normalcy for a little while, that was huge for him," Joe said.

Not that it was easy for Anthony in a sport where there's no place for frailty.

"I took that week off and thought I needed to be in the room," he said. "It's frustrating sometimes because it's hard, wrestling and dealing with that, but it's helped in getting rid of pent up feelings,"

It's been bittersweet the last two Saturdays, Anthony winning the sectional and the regional, and not being able to share his success with his mom like he did before. The hugs with dad coming off the mat have meant more, much more.

"I'm very, very proud, the way he's progressed as a wrestler, his attitude, his courage," Joe said.

"He's worked pretty hard throughout the year," Maldonado said. "When things like that happen, you don't know how a grown man's going to handle it and he's dealing with it as a teenager. He figured it out. He decided to use it as motivation. He's taking a tragedy and making something out of the situation."

Anthony hopes to make it to the state finals and earn a medal. Two wins at Saturday's E.C. Central Semistate will give him that opportunity.

"I want to place at state and the way to do it is to listen to the coaches," he said, "Coach Maldonado was a great wrestler and he will point me in the right direction, I'm pretty happy with how I'm doing. I'm in a good position."

Just in case Anthony needs a little more of a push, he won't have a problem finding it. All he has to do is look up.

"After she had the seizure, I told her, 'You have to be better in time for state,'" he said. "I'm definitely working harder for (my mom). I always try to think, what would my mom do? I think a lot more before I do stuff now. I'm much more motivated. I'm sure part of her is talking to me from up there."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.