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Wrestling icon and Oak Lawn resident Jim Craig dies

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 JIM CRAIG 12 281                                                                                     

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Wrestling icon Jim Craig stands at attention during the “Star Spangled Banner” before a January match at Shepard High School in which he was honored.

One of the biggest names in amateur wrestling history, Dan Gable, was speaking at the University of St. Francis in Joliet in 2002.

This legend had the attention of everyone in the room, including Oak Lawn resident Jim Craig’s.

Eisenhower’s Bryan Barham, who coached with Craig in the past, said that Gable’s focus after the speech was on Craig.

“What was amazing to me is that when it was over, everyone was trying to go see Dan Gable and Dan was leaving the other side of the gym to get to Jim Craig,” Barham said in January. “I think that shows the legendary criteria and all that he has accomplished in his outstanding career. But his accomplishments pale to what a great person he is.’’

Craig died on Saturday at age 80.

He retired in February after 64 years in the sport, including 55 as a coach. His last job was as a Shepard High School assistant from 1993 through February.

Craig was honored for his retirement during a home match in January and kids who were several generations removed from Craig sang his praises.

“He’s the best of the best,” then-Astros senior Robert Muhammad said to the crowd. “Without him, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. He’s like a father figure.’’

A couple of the coach’s traditions were to hand out sticks of gum after his wrestlers competed and to always wear suits to matches. He said he owns 50 suits and sometimes he brought hats — including cowboy hats — to wear during the action.

“When I started out back in 1959, coaches wore ties and suits,” Craig said in January. “I wore a bow tie back then, by the way. Wrestling is such a tough sport. It gets a hard rap sometimes. If I can literally dress it up a little bit, I feel it’s important. Dress up and step up.’’

Prior to coaching at Shepard, Craig was a head coach and dean of students at Oak Lawn High School and helped build up grade school wrestling in the area. He also was a D218 board member. He has had an impact on thousands of people over the years.

“Basically, kids are the same but they have some adjustments they have to make to me because I don’t adjust real well,” Craig said. “They have to understand I’m doing this because of them, not because of me. I enjoy working with them.’’

He is not only a local and regional icon, he has made an impact on national and international wrestling as a referee and official.

He was a site coordinator for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and was presented with a rare banner that was at the Olympic facility. He donated the banner to Shepard and it is in the Palos Heights school’s gym. The only other banner of that kind is in Turkey.

Details on his wake and funeral arrangements were not available at this paper’s deadline.