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Fifteen-year-old Malik Stewart remains puzzled by his instant celebrity. He's been featured on the "Today" show, is an Internet sensation and on Thursday was nominated for a national Wall of Fame — all after losing the biggest wrestling match of his young career.

After his defeat in the 120-pound state title match last week, Malik approached his opponent's father, who is battling cancer in his lungs and chest, and gave him a hug. The crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul cheered as enthusiastically for Malik, a sophomore at Blaine High School, as for his victorious opponent, Mitchell McKee of St. Michael-Albertville.

"I told him to stay strong and congratulated him," Malik said he told Steve McKee. "It wasn't something I planned."

Nor could he foresee the reaction to a gesture that has taken on heavyweight proportions.

Olympic Choices, a two-year-old national program dedicated to developing moral and ethical character in young people, announced Thursday that Malik was its first Wall of Fame nominee. On Monday, the "Today" show ran an 88-second segment on Malik, using still photos taken of the hug that has gone viral.

His story has been published in newspapers coast to coast. The e-mails keep coming.

"I'm shocked," Malik said.

You'd think he had won the state tournament.

"At first I thought it was going to be a handshake," Steve McKee, 50, of Hanover, said of the hug. "Now, I couldn't have been prouder at the moment of my son, Mitchell. But after Malik gave that hug, I said to the guy I was sitting next to, 'That's a class act right there.' "

Among the witnesses in the crowd was T.J. Anderson, an assistant wrestling coach with Dassel-Cokato Middle School. In an e-mail to Blaine High administrators, he said that Malik "understands what true sportsmanship is" and called him "a model wrestler that we can all use in our examples of what a true athlete is."

Blaine High School decided to highlight Malik's gesture on its Facebook page — and news of his action spread from there.

Malik says he stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall, but clearly he plays big. A cornerback, he was named the top defensive player on Blaine's football team. He also plays rugby and jokes, "I like to hit people."

He's taken his share of hard knocks. His father died of a heart attack when Malik was 7. There are 10 kids in his blended family, and his mom, Tammi Halsey, said that when Malik began wrestling, the family couldn't afford to buy him wrestling shoes.

"When he hugged that man, I started crying," Halsey said.

Rivals and teammates

Malik and Mitchell McKee, 16, have known each other for years and were teammates on a national youth wrestling team that competed in Illinois and Indiana. When Mitchell learned of his father's cancer, he contacted Malik.

"I don't talk much about what happened to my dad, but me and Mitchell were teammates," Malik said. "I know what it's like. It's hard. I wanted to wish him well."

Steve McKee says he has lived with the cancer for about a year. He says he hasn't given up hope, but now lives his dreams through his sons, Mitchell and Patrick. And through kids like Malik.

Malik has dreams, too. He hopes to one day study at the University of Wisconsin and become an anesthesiologist. He says he relies on the role models in his life — his mother, stepfather and coaches — for inspiration.

Steve McKee suggests Malik glance in the mirror next time he's looking for inspiration.

"Quite a gesture," McKee said. "He had us both in tears."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419