Craig Engels finished his career as an Ole Miss Rebel track runner as a 6-time All-American, but the Ole Miss track and field star’s career almost never happened.
Engels was born in Pfafftown, North Carolina, and is the son of Todd and Dawn Engels. He initially had a passion for playing soccer, but due to early behavior issues, he ended up choosing a different path in track.
“I actually hated running,” Engels said. He said running is still not the most fun part.
“I didn’t make the middle school soccer team, and I should have,” Engels said. “I was really discouraged with it, and I went out for middle school track, and I basically did it to kill time, because I wasn’t good or anything. In high school I didn’t make varsity because of disciplinary actions. So I was like ‘I’m going to go try something else,’ and I went to running and it was probably the best mistake.”
Engels had a history of behavior issues during his time in school in Pfafftown, and was removed from his high school soccer team due to his behavior. In high school Engels was on ADHD medication and felt as though it held him back in his performance both in class and outside of class and kept him from furthering himself as an individual.
“I know when to have fun and when to be serious. Back then I was still on ADHD medicine, and now I’ve realized that running is a really good alternative to taking those medicines that alter your body for the rest of your life,” Engels said. “A lot of college students think it’s an advantage to take ADHD medication, but that stuff messes with you and I hated it. I finally found my natural remedy, and it was running, and I’m very thankful for that.”
Engels used this newfound focus on track to set multiple records at Ronald W. Reagan High School in the 800-meter, 3,200-meter and the open mile. He recorded his best high school mile time at the 2012 Adidas Grand Prix Dream Mile, where he ran 4:03.96.
Engels credits his high school track coach, Chris Catton, for much of his early success.
“My high school coach knew I was good at running long before I did. I stay in constant contact with him and he’s actually the reason I went to Ole Miss,” Engels said. “I was at North Carolina State and I wasn’t doing too well, and I kept getting hurt and was frustrated with the sport and he said ‘Give it one more shot, transfer to Ole Miss and try it out’ and I did and the rest is history.”
Engels initially ran for N.C. State upon his admittance in 2012 and quickly made a name for himself. Engels won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter at the 2013 Pan American Junior Championships in Colombia, and was even Team USA’s captain at the championships. Engels continued his international success when he won a silver medal in the 1,500 at the 2013 USA Junior Championships.
Despite all of his international accolades, Engels was unhappy with his situation at N.C. State due to chronic injuries and did not compete for N.C. State during the 2013 or 2014 outdoor seasons or the 2013 indoor season.
Engels said he nearly gave up on the sport altogether.
“A lot of people in running have these superstitions that they do before their races, but when you go international you can’t really do all of these premeditated things,” Engels said. “It teaches you to accept what happens because a lot of running is mental and that’s one leg up I’ve got on a lot of people.”
After being guided by his former coach, Engels ended up an Ole Miss Rebel in the year 2014 and quickly regained his passion for the sport. Over the course of his three years with the Rebel program Engels developed an impressive resume.
Now a 6-time All-American at Ole Miss and a 5-time SEC Champion, Engels finished 4th in 800-meter and 5th in the 1500-meter at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. Engels also holds the school records for the 1500-meter (3:37.66) and DMR (9:30.48). He was the 2017 NCAA Champion in the indoor distance medley relay and is currently ranked world No. 73 in the outdoor 1500-meter (3:37.75).
“Ole Miss has given me my life back. I probably would’ve been a stoner sitting on a coach somewhere in North Carolina had I not continued running,” Engels said. “I have a chance to run professionally, so it’s given me an income as well. The greatest moment was when we got fourth as a team at cross country nationals. We came in ranked 11th, and we thought they were highballing us, and we got fourth and we beat Arkansas and we were the first team in the SEC to finish at nationals. Everyone was in the tent, and it was a very emotional moment; it was nuts and everyone went crazy.”
Engels finished his career with Ole Miss at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon. He competed in the men’s 1500-meter and finished third and set a new Ole Miss record with a time of 3:43.54.
“We went into the NCAAs with pretty high goals. We were hoping to win,” Engels said. “I went for the win, I didn’t go for second, I didn’t go for third. I didn’t even see the guy coming I was so focused on first. It was a pretty sad ending to my Ole Miss career.”
Despite not performing up to his expectations, Engels did become a social media star due to his unique mustache and mullet combination that he donned during the championships. He states that he used the hairstyle and championships as a platform to bring attention to the sport.
“I don’t really know what inspired it, but I wanted to stand out in a world where no one really knows running as a sport, and I thought I’d bring it into the light a little bit,” Engels said. “I feel like a lot of runners conform to a look in some certain way. I feel like if I can bring something different to the sport then common folk will get into it.”
Engels has a clear passion to change the sport for the better and wants to draw attention to a field that he feels is underappreciated.
“I want to change the sport of running to where people care about it and to where it’s an interesting sport and not where ‘oh running’s on ESPN.’” he said. “That’s hard to do, but I think the mullet and mustache helped a little bit.”
Leaving his Ole Miss career behind, Engels is now preparing to compete in the U.S. Championships in Sacramento, California, in the 1500-meter and plans to finish in the top three in order to to compete in the IAAF World Championships. Engels competed at 10:44 p.m. on June 21.