Making the Right Choices
Battle Lake’s Malik Gill
by Tomi Thompson
Photography by Thru Him Photography
At first glance, Malik Gill is your average high school athlete that loves sports. When asked about it, his answer is relatively simple.
“Sports are kind of my life.”
Get to know Gill a little more, and he proves to be a true competitor. Playing football, basketball, and running track in high school, he’s a well-rounded athlete.
Only in his second season of high school track, Gill is a strong performer in the 100 meter dash, and has some high goals for his final sport in his final season.
“My goal this year is to break the state record, or tie it, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Take an even deeper look at Gill’s life, and it’s not your average back story.
“Who would ever expect that I went through all of that just by meeting me face to face? If you met me face to face, you wouldn’t even know that until I told you.”
The sociable and charismatic senior at Battle Lake High School didn’t grow up in the most typical environment and has overcome some obstacles. Gill has grown into an example of how hard work, passion, and some help along the way can transform tough situations into positive outcomes and create positive individuals.
Gill’s story starts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was born and lived the first part of his life.
“I actually made bad choices when I was a little kid living in Milwaukee, and I never was really into sports,” Gill said.
Sports came into Gill’s life after he lost a cousin in 2006. Gill said at the time, he was more into hanging out and playing video games, but sports became the link to memories of his cousin.
“I didn’t know how to cope with that right away, I had a hard time in life struggling with that, and so I started playing sports to kind of feel like a connection,” Gill said.
The first sport that Gill took to was basketball.
“That’s literally the only reason why basketball is my favorite sport is because I enjoy the game now, but I also felt like I get that connection with my cousin.”
Eventually, Gill’s family made the decision to leave Milwaukee and move to Minnesota.
“The city life and this life is different. It was just rough times in the city, and it really wasn’t safe for me to grow up there.”
Coming to Minnesota came with different opportunities and challenges. Gill explained that in the city, there wasn’t an opportunity to play multiple sports, and in Minnesota he had an opportunity to play different sports in different seasons.
Gill bounced around between Detroit Lakes and Frazee when he first moved, and said it was tough being the new guy in sports making transitions between teams and programs.
“It can be really hard to deal with, but after a while you become accustomed to it,” Gill said.
In September, 2014, Gill moved again to live with a family in Battle Lake. When Gill made his transition to Battle Lake, he met Theresa and Ross Ukkelberg.
“We came to understand the foster situation he was in did not offer a permanency option and that was something he talked about,” Theresa Ukkelberg said, “He wanted to be able to graduate from Battle Lake High School and go to college and really did not want to have to move again.”
The Ukkelbergs have four sons of their own, the youngest, Tony, a standout Battle Lake athlete was the same age as Malik and the only one left at home.
“Raising boys, it’s what we know, we’ve had lots of practice,” Ukkelberg said, “We talked as a family about offering to become Malik’s permanency option so he could have a chance at stability.”
After lots of prayers and family discussions, on December 31st, 2014, Gill became a part of the Ukkelberg family.
“Theresa was already in the process of getting her foster care license, and I had no clue. Just randomly came over one day and Theresa asked if I would like to be a part of her family,” Gill said.
Gill believes that the timing and opportunity to become a part of the Ukkelberg family was a progressive step towards a stable life.
“I feel like it couldn’t have come at a better time because I literally have never really had stability in my life. I feel like it was just a blessing, it was just out of the blue and they were able to give me that stability that I never had, and they’re there for me all the time, even when times get tough. I’m really grateful and blessed.”
Now finishing his senior year at Battle Lake, the three-sport athlete says sports have been a motivator to stay out of trouble and keep going, as well as bringing him to another world.
“It’s an outlet, it’s just another zone, it’s just another world that I can go to. When it’s practice and when it’s game days it’s just like a whole other world. I don’t have to worry about the stuff that’s going on in life,” Gill said.
Gill says overall, he is really competitive, but he brings a different element of his personality to every sport.
Football is Gill’s favorite sport to physically unleash.
“I like lighting people up, and being very physical. I really like to deliver the hit and the football mentality. If you make a good play I’ll congratulate you, and it’s just going to motivate me to come harder next time.”
Basketball brings out Gill’s competiveness.
“Basketball I have my game face, I’m really competitive, I work hard, floor dives and stuff like that.”
Currently in Track season, Gill is running a strong 100. Last season his fastest time was an 11.02, and this year, he hopes to beat the state record of 10.81. Gill says he likes to win, but he thinks track is a social sport and is able to crack jokes at meets and keep a light mood.
Gill also believes that sports are something he will be able to appreciate his whole lifetime. “It’s something that’s always there and a skill that I’ll always have. It’s something that I can always feel a connection with.”
Gill describes his personality overall as determined.
“I feel like a lot of things in my life have made me stronger and stronger, after going through so much it feels like you can tolerate more and more.”
Besides his athletic talent, Gill says the most unique thing about him is his ability to talk to anyone and it is always his goal to brighten someone’s day.
“I hang out with a lot of different groups; I’d say that’s probably the most unique thing about me. I’m not afraid to do anything, so at track meets; I just go up and start talking to random people. I enjoy conversation and just getting to know people”
Gill says he values his ability to reach out and give support to his friends. “I feel like I’m a really big support system for some people, and I’m always there, I’m a really great friend I believe.”
Both Theresa Ukkleberg and Gill speak highly of the benefits that living in Battle Lake has brought to Gill’s life.
“I love Battle Lake, the atmosphere is good, the teachers are amazing, it’s just easier to connect with people. It’s a really good support system throughout all sports and not just sports, but everything we do in our community,” Gill says.
Theresa says the community has given Gill the tools to grow and the necessary support.
“I think Malik now believes he is capable of college and of being a contributing member of society. He’s also had some really great mentors and coaches in the staff at Battle Lake.”
After high school, Gill plans include going to M State in Fergus Falls and playing football and basketball there. Once he has completed two years in Fergus Falls, his plans include going to Minnesota State University Moorhead and pursuing a degree in Elementary Education. Beyond college, Gill can see himself staying in Minnesota.
“It’s been good to me, it’s Minnesota nice, so why not?” Gill laughingly says.
Before Gill could set out to live the life he’s living and achieve his dreams, he is thankful for the people that got him there, which of course, includes Theresa Ukkelberg.
“My mom, Theresa, she’s just so nice and kind and giving; she always puts everything in for everyone – it’s hard to be someone like her,” Gill said, “She’s always there for you when you need it, she’s always a helping hand.”
Gill said Frazee High School Principal Rob Nudell was another one of his biggest inspirations. Nudell met Gill when he attended Frazee Schools in 2010-11. Nudell describes Gill as having a great smile with lots of charm and fitting in quickly with the students. Nudell had the opportunity to coach Gill in 7th and 8th grade basketball and watch his talents develop. Gill and Nudell’s son Parker had a close friendship, through that Nudell learned about Maliks personal story, and got a feel for how far Gill has come in life, all with a courteous and positive attitude.
“After spending time with Malik, I learned that he had overcome some very difficult things in his past that were out of his control. His resilience and willingness to do things better is commendable,” Nudell said.
Gill says he also finds inspiration in a true underdog story.
“I like hearing people’s stories and stuff and I like the people who have had it really rough and then they made something out of nothing, those are the people who inspire me, the people that can constantly go, even when the odds are stacked against them.”
Ukkelberg knows that Gill’s story is similar to the stories that Gill finds inspiration in.
“Malik understands others made decisions that have greatly impacted his life and talks often about wanting to make better choices and have a better future. People want to see him succeed, especially when they understand where he has come from and how far he’s had to go.”