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Sports Reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.

MERRILLVILLE — Sometimes we all seem to forget what high school athletics are all about.

I do.

And be honest, you do, too.

We get caught up with who is in the state's Top 10, what athlete is going to what college and almost blindly believing that what the scoreboard says is all that really matters.

In a great moment of awakening, let me introduce you to Merrillville senior Justin Setzer.

I met this inspirational young man Thursday afternoon inside the Pirates' wrestling room. He has called this tough-and-sweaty place his home for the last two winters.

Setzer is a special needs student-athlete at Merrillville. When he was 2 years old, doctors found a tumor on his brain. He eventually had surgery to correct the challenge. And not long after that, seizures came and went without notice.

And not long after that, another tumor was found in his head.

That didn't take his dreams away. He longed to participate in high school athletics. He tried baseball. He tried football.

But the physical and mental challenges were too daunting.

So heading into his junior year on Broadway, Setzer walked into the wrestling room and said hello to coach David Maldonado.

"I can beat up kids without getting in trouble," Setzer said with a smile when asked why he went out for one of the IHSAA's toughest sports.

Teammate Malik Hoover, a senior 160-pounder, said that Setzer had a little grappling bravado before his first practice with the Pirates.

"Justin likes to talk a lot of stuff," Hoover said with a smile. "He told me he was coming out for the team. Then, he came out. He stuck with it. He never quit. That made me very proud of him."

At Merrillville's senior night recently, Setzer wrestled in his first varsity match. His teammates cheered him on like it was a state final inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Or honestly, maybe they cheered even harder.

And louder.

Setzer, who had wrestled junior varsity until the match against Michigan City, got the win at 126, as his teammates erupted with joy and chills touched every spine inside the building.

"It was so exciting. What a great way to finish off our Senior Night," senior 152-pounder Aaron Griggs said. "He proved that he's one of us. He's a wrestler at Merrillville High School.

"He got the respect from all of us."

Maldonado has built one of the Region's top programs and has coached nine state champions. But he is almost certain that Setzer is Merrillville's first wrestler who finished his career undefeated.

Not that it really matters.

"He came out for conditioning and he came back every day," a proud Maldonado said. "His mom was a little nervous at first. She wanted to know if it was safe. But we let her know we wouldn't put him out there unless we were sure he was ready.

"And he was."

Setzer said he was nervous walking out for his varsity match. Maldonado said he did the things he learned every day at practice and did them well.

His mother, Thameenaa Julks, was there, too. The joy her son brought to her could be seen in her eyes as she talked about it.

She recalled what he said, after a bout with chemotherapy pills and surgery, when he was told another tumor had been found.

"I wanted to break down," Julks said. "But he looked at me and said, 'Mom. I beat it before. I'll beat it again.'"

So the next time you get all worked up about who is in the Top 10, or why an official made a call against your child or why your kid isn't getting as much playing time as you think they deserve, think of Justin Setzer.

Let his story inspire you.

I know it has for me.

This column solely represents the writer’s opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

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