By JEREMY HINES
Nathan Critchfield was down – but he sure as heck won’t allow himself to be counted out.
Critchfield wrestles through pain each and every day. He doesn’t complain. It has become a way of life for the Evansville Mater Dei senior.
Critchfield wrestled his first three years of high school in Illinois. His best finish was third in the state meet in 2020. Then he got the news that would ultimately change his life – he had a tumor on his spine.
“My back was hurting all year and moving into freestyle season I got it checked out that May,” Critchfield said. “They just did a physical exam and I kept at it and kept wrestling. Then, in August of 2020 I was still in pain and I got checked out again. They told me I had a tumor on the inside of my spinal cord.”
The news rocked Critchfield. He knew he was going to have to endure a grueling surgery and a long road to recovery. They wouldn’t know if the tumor was cancerous until after the surgery. The diagnosis was devastating – both physically and mentally for Critchfield.
“Hearing about the tumor was shocking, to say the least,” Critchfield said. “It came at a time that was so crucial in my life. I was going into my senior year. That’s an important time in your social life and in your academics. Then hearing that you’re probably not ever going to wrestle again, that was a big hit.”
Critchfield ended up sitting out his entire senior year to deal with his medical issues. He would have graduated in 2021 but will now graduate in 2022.
His first back surgery was a 12-hour ordeal. The next week he ended up getting a MRSA infection in the incision that required another surgery. He wasn’t out of the woods yet. The first surgery had caused his legs to not work properly. That required yet another surgery.
“Between my legs and my back, I couldn’t walk for a few months,” Critchfield said.
Critchfield tried to do a little drilling in wrestling in February, even though he says he wasn’t supposed to. His legs still weren’t working the way they were supposed to work In April he had another surgery to relieve the pressure in both of his legs.
In the end, the tumor was not cancerous. And, although he’s still in pain, it’s something he has learned to live with.
“This whole ordeal has made me a different kind of person,” Critchfield said. “I have really grown in my faith. I get reminded of it all every day when I go to practice. Both of my legs hurt and my back hurts. Wrestling really sucks with the pain – but I love doing it. I put myself through it because I don’t know what else I would do.”
Critchfield doesn’t care if his opponents on the mat know about his bad back, or his issues with his legs.
“People tell me not to let others know I’m hurting,” Critchfield said. “They say to not let your opponents know you’re not feeling your best. I don’t think that would give them an edge on me though. I think it gives me a little edge, actually. They are going to wrestle a guy knowing he’s going to feel like crap and he’s still not scared. They are about to wrestle a guy that has went through hell but is still out there ready to go. That’s got to mess with them more than it does with me.”
Critchfield is currently ranked No. 2 in the state at 220 pounds. He joins a Mater Dei team that is loaded with ranked wrestlers this season.
Mater Dei has two wrestlers currently ranked No. 1 in their weight classes, both are returning state champs in Brody Baumann and Gabe Sollars. Crtichfield is No. 2 at 220. Hunter May is No. 3 at 152 pounds. Isaiah Schaefer is No. 4 at 106. Evan Seng is No. 5 at 113 pounds, Ashton Hayhurst is NO. 8 at 145 and Reed Egli is No. 13 at 120 pounds.
“This is my first year at Mater Dei and it’s been pretty fun,” Critchfield said. “It’s an interesting atmosphere and it’s a lot different than other schools. They put a lot of emphasis on wrestling for your school instead of for yourself. They have built a program and the whole community gets behind it. When you hear about the culture at Mater Dei, you never imagine how it really is until you’re a part of it.”
Mater Dei coach Greg Schaefer is glad to have Critchfield on the squad.
“Nathan is just a genuine, hard-working, hard-nosed kid,” Schaefer said. “He’s one of those guys that will be hard to outwork. He has a great attitude and seems to be extremely grateful doing what he’s doing.”
Schaefer said a lot of the kids in the Mater Dei program don’t even know what all Critchfield has been through.
“You wouldn’t even know that there was anything going on with him,” Schaefer said. “He doesn’t talk about it, and he doesn’t act like there’s any issues. It’s pretty incredible to think about what he’s been through and that he still maintains the attitude and desire to chase after his dream.”
As far as Critchfield’s wrestling abilities, Schaefer describes him as a big guy with the skill set of a little man.
“He’s very skillful,” Schaefer said. “He’s not like some of the guys that are just big bruisers. He’s more technical than most big guys. He wrestles more like a little guy.”
Critchfield has wrestled for Mauer Coughlin since he was very young. He parents used to drive him to the practices over an hour away, three times a week. There he made friends with a lot of the guys on the team and a lot of Indiana wrestlers throughout the state.
This year his goal is to go out on top. He’s seen the Indiana state finals and wants nothing more than to wrestle under the spotlight.
“My No. 1 goal is to win a state title,” Critchfield said. “I like to go as hard as I can and put it on people. I keep the pace up and make people want to quit. I make them tired, and I ride hard. I’m real tough on top – but nobody holds me down either. And I don’t quit. That’s my biggest strength. I will not ever quit.”