Before each of his wrestling matches, Northwestern senior Chad Nkang vanishes from sight. Sometimes he will find an empty hallway, a corner of the locker room or an empty classroom.
He sits down, closes his eyes, puts the palms of his hands together and clears his mind. He's not praying so much as thinking about two relatives, both guiding influences in his life who have died in recent years. He wonders what advice they would offer, how proud they would be of his accomplishments and how much he wishes they were in the stands.
Nkang's sister, Aritma, died nearly two years ago at age 20 after complications from surgery to help her deal with spina bifida, a congenital defect in which a portion of the spinal cord pokes through the spinal column and often results in neurological impairment. Two years before that, Romeo Wilkins, a man whom Nkang called his "father," died of lung cancer.
"I remember going to the hospital every day after school for two weeks to visit my sister," Nkang said. "And then one day I didn't go -- I don't even know why -- and that night when my mom came home, she told me my sister died. I'll never forget the day: January 11, 2000.
"It's hard when you grow up and you lose two of your best friends, two people who looked out for you and were always there. I want to show them where I am now. The last thing I remember both of them saying to me is to just do the best I can, and be the best I can be."
Nkang is off to a 6-0 start with six pins in the state's new 215-pound weight class, with only one of his opponents making it past the first round and four lasting fewer than 35 seconds. Nkang wrestled in the 189-pound class last season, going 31-1 with 30 pins en route to winning the county and 4A/3A South Region championships and placing third at the Maryland 4A/3A meet.
"Chad's a source of inspiration for our team," Northwestern senior Tommy Priestley said. "I remember seeing Chad win third place, and I thought to myself: That's where I want to be. I want to be up on that pedestal."
Though Nkang hopes his high school wrestling career ends with him becoming the county's first state champion since Oxon Hill's Adrian Belcarris won the 171-pound 4A/3A title in 2000, its beginning still amuses Nkang and Northwestern Coach Ed Ladd.
"I remember Romeo and I would watch wrestling on television and Hulk Hogan would tell me to say my prayers and eat my vitamins, and Hulk Hogan was a hero of mine," said Nkang, who still has a poster of Hogan on his bedroom wall at his Hyattsville home. "My freshman year I came out for practice and I thought I would learn how to clothesline people and body slam them and leg drop them just like I saw Hulk Hogan do on television. Coach Ladd told me this a different kind of wrestling, and the first day I practiced, it was so hard I wanted to quit."
But Nkang didn't, and three years later he has a legitimate chance to become the school's first state wrestling champion since 1979. Nkang's combination of speed and power -- he made 55 tackles playing linebacker on the Wildcats' football team this fall -- has been his formula for success on the wrestling mat.
"When you have what Chad has, you're going to be a good wrestler, and Chad was good last year," Ladd said. "What gives Chad the chance to be great is that he's learned technique. Last year, he would go for a headlock and take them down. This year, he can attack any part [of his opponent] and take them down. . . . He's a lot more complete wrestler this year than he was last year."
Nkang's also more of a complete student-athlete, too. He has already qualified academically to compete as a college freshman. Nkang said he set his goal of attending college when he was in the seventh grade, and hopes he will rack up as many scholarship offers as wins this season.
"I'm going to get to go to college, I just know it," said Nkang, who is waiting for his first scholarship offer. "I've come too far and been through too much to not make it because I've wanted this for a long time. There have been people who have believed in me for a long time now, and I'm not going to let them down."