Recent Montague graduate Braeden Kahl didn’t like the way he was heading as a freshman. His family had lost mom Jennifer when he was in seventh grade, and his father Michael wasn’t always available, so home life was shoddy and inconsistent — older brother Preston often had to take on the role of dad to Braeden and their younger brother Corbin.

As a result, Braeden was aimless and, in his opinion, lacking in moral values — he felt he was becoming a “user” of other people. By the time high school hit, he had left home and was living with a friend, but by his own admission, “I kind of botched that relationship,” and he had to find somewhere else to go.

As fortune would have it, that led him to the Maddox family, a productive career on the wrestling mat, a collegiate spot, and a relationship that has changed both him and the family for the better.

“My wife (Star) says he was the missing piece we didn’t know we were missing,” Montague wrestling coach Kris Maddox said of Kahl. “There’s a pride for both Star and I. He’s one of ours.”

“I’m much better off than I was before,” Kahl said. “Because of wrestling and because of Kris and Star, (and their sons) Gavyn and Chayse, I was able to have a restart in my life. That was amazing.”

It all started in Braeden’s freshman year. While preparing for the football season, he caught Maddox’s eye in the weight room. Preston had wrestled as well, and Maddox thought the second Kahl boy had the sport in him too.

Braeden, though, couldn’t have been much less interested.

“I didn’t like wrestling at that time,” Kahl said. “It just looked stupid. That’s what everybody else in my grade thought, and that’s what my thought process was.”

However, Maddox kept after him, and eventually Braeden conceded that if he didn’t make the basketball team, he would wrestle, reasoning that he “didn’t have anything better to do”.

Wrestling didn’t immediately pan out — Kahl wasn’t a regular starter and won only seven matches as a freshman, although Maddox noted his fearlessness on the mat.

“His skill set wasn’t there right away, but you could tell he had a spark in him,” Maddox said. “He wasn’t afraid to wrestle the juniors and seniors on the team. He pushed the pace. He really bought into our process.”

However, something far more important happened leading up to that season when Maddox, who of course knew Preston from his wrestling days and was aware that Braeden wasn’t at home, got in touch to offer the Maddoxes’ spare room and a couch.

“He stuck around once after practice and kind of asked, ‘How does this work?’” Maddox said. “Two days before Thanksgiving, he moved in. I had to go to work and I called my wife and said, ‘You’re going to have a kid moving in the house.’”

It wasn’t completely out of the blue — Kris said he and his wife had talked before about being foster parents someday — but it certainly seemed like it.

The holiday season isn’t the easiest time to break in a new family member, especially considering the Maddoxes had three other children in the house at the time, daughter Kyarra Foster (who graduated in 2017) and sons Gavyn and Chayse, now nine and eight respectively. The younger boys, though, took to Braeden almost immediately, and Braeden took to his new surroundings as well.

“When you go through the holidays right off the bat, it’s tough because you don’t know how someone’s going to take that,” Maddox said. “But he just jumped right into the routine. The kids started calling him brother right away. They didn’t hesitate.”

Of course, it isn’t all fun and games; Braeden has assigned chores around the house, and attending Evangelical Covenant Church with the family is a must. However, Maddox said none of that fazed Braeden.

“Star held down the fort,” Maddox said. “(She said) ‘You’re going to have a bedtime, a curfew, chores,’ and he immediately (said), ‘Yep, I’m good with that.’”

Things improved on the mat, too. Kahl won 28 matches as a sophomore, despite still being very inexperienced compared to most of his opponents, and earned a first-round bye in the individual districts. It was his second-round match in that tournament that changed his ceiling.

Wrestling against Tri-County’s Ethan Rose, Kahl fell behind 15-3, he said, and was being worked over in the final minute of the match, on the verge of losing by technical fall. Suddenly, though, he broke out of a hold, flipped Rose onto his back, and with 23 seconds left on the clock, scored a pin. It was a stunning reversal and one that signaled how much talent Kahl possessed, even though Rose would beat Kahl later that day in the third-place match.

“That was probably the one I referred to a lot with a lot of people, so they can realize, you’re never out of a match,” Kahl said. “There’s always a chance to come back.”

Braeden, battling a sickness that he said cost him close to 10 pounds, bowed out of regionals with an 0-2 record the next weekend and decided then and there to rededicate himself to the sport and do more off-season work, something he hadn’t done as much, and certainly hadn’t enjoyed, to that point.

“I realized I needed to invest in this more,” Kahl said. “Through that, I realized wrestling was my passion...I was trying to train more than just my body. I was trying to train my mind.”

As a junior, Braeden improved even more, winning 39 matches, but fell in the blood round at regionals to barely miss out on the state meet. That gave him a renewed focus as a senior. Even more than that, though, his continued progression as a young man, buoyed by his more structured home life, drew attention from many at the school.

“I was really able to get connected with more friends,” Kahl said. “It just completely changed. One of my teachers, Mr. (Curt) Hansen, was like, ‘You’ve made a lot of progress from middle school until now, and I can see that when you started living with Kris and Star, that things changed, you changed, and you’re better off for it.’”

As a senior, fully immersed in wrestling — although he did play soccer, as well as football, in the fall to keep up his conditioning — Kahl said he was able to just enjoy the ride and bask in his newfound love of the sport. He won 34 more matches, including his 100th, and found himself in another regional blood round match in February. This time, though, he wasn’t going to be denied, pinning his opponent and advancing to the state meet.

At state, Kahl reached the blood round, but lost 11-1 to eventual fifth-place finisher Aidan Peterson of Hillsdale, falling short of his goal of placing. It was an emotional moment, and it was tempting to let negativity creep in, but after a short while, Kahl realized he had done everything he could do to reach his goal.

“At first I was like, what did I do to not get the results I wanted?” Kahl said. “All that negative stuff started getting into my head. Kris started talking to me about how proud he was and he said, ‘You did everything you could do.’ I started thinking back, and I thought, I did. Once I started realizing this could be my sport and this is what I really love...I did everything I could. But sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”

Besides, Braeden learned that weekend that he wasn’t done wrestling. While in Detroit, he received an offer from Division III Heidelberg University, in Ohio, and he accepted it. In the Heidelberg program, both Braeden and Maddox found what they knew Braeden would need in a college home.

“The first thing the coaches assured me of at Heidelberg was, (they) don’t always recruit off performance,” Maddox said. “(They) recruit off character. (They) want to help build character and make men. It’s not just about the wrestling. Instantly, I think Star and I looked at each other and said, yep, this is the place.”

Whatever happened on the wrestling mat, though, Braeden’s emergence as a big brother figure for Gavyn and Chayse has been the thing that stands out.

“He’s a great role model for both my sons,” Maddox said. “I couldn’t ask for a better person to be in the household and help guide them.”

“It’s just been really cool to be a big brother,” Braeden added (Corbin and his dad left the country, he said, so he doesn’t have much of a relationship with either). “It’s awesome that, as I achieve things, they see me do good in my sports, and they want to be like me. It’s a cool thing to be a role model for them, to help them see somebody succeed and want to be successful like me. It’s really cool.”

Braeden calls the Maddoxes his “guardian angels” — for all practical purposes, they’re his family now.

“It’s a one of a kind feeling,” he said. “I went from being poorly taken care of, a poorly moral person, to being turned into a great person with great structure.”

Maddox doesn’t take all the credit, saying he and his family had help from the Montague community. He pointed out that Eric Scott, who was involved with the Montague program before passing away in an accident last month, bought Kahl his first pair of real wrestling shoes. The structured environment of team sports, too, helped, something Maddox hopes sticks out to other Montague students who could use something to do in an off-season.

“It takes a village, and there were a lot of people in the community that stepped in and helped in different aspects,” Maddox said. “I hope Braeden was able to inspire some other kids...We want to see kids out competing. He ended up being a three-sport athlete that contributed to his team. That’s outstanding.

“(Montague basketball coach) Dave Osborne and I have many conversations about that. I don’t care if you play basketball, but if you don’t do that, wrestle. We want you to go out there and compete for your school.”

As for Braeden, his goal is to become an All-American at Heidelberg, and he said he “definitely” wants to coach someday. And if he has the chance, he would love to fill the same void for someone else that the Maddoxes did for him.

“Once I settle down and do my bucket list things and achieve what I want to achieve, I want to come back somewhere and coach, and once I’m financially stable, I’d love to take someone in that could need it,” Kahl said. “I can see how much that changed my life, and if you can do that again, you keep impacting other people, keep doing that, it will exponentially change the world eventually.”