With dad’s ALS battle in mind, Willie Miklus gives his all for Iowa State wrestling team

Cody Goodwin
The Des Moines Register

AMES, Ia. — The tattoo covers most of Willie Miklus’ right bicep.

It reads “FAM1LY” in big block letters filled with the American flag. A circle of thorns surrounds it with his family’s names weaved in — his three younger siblings, Tim, Ernie (for Erin, his sister), and S.A.M (for Sean, his youngest brother), as well as “Mom,” and “Dad.”

It is a reminder, he says: “You know, family first.”

Miklus, a redshirt senior, joined the Iowa State wrestling program in August. The meaning behind his tattoo spurred the former Southeast Polk star to transfer home for his final collegiate season. His father, Garry, has had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for almost three years.

“It means a lot being home,” Miklus says. “To him, I know it means a lot because I’ve been able to see him more.”

Iowa State's Willie Miklus celebrates after winning his match against SIU-Edwardsville's Christian Dulaney at 197 during a dual between the two schools on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames. Iowa State won the meet 37-3.

In that time, Miklus has balanced the internal struggle of knowing his father is battling a terminal disease as well as the commitment to honor him. Garry was diagnosed just 16 days after Miklus earned the second of his three All-American honors at Missouri. With Garry in the stands, Miklus stormed to the semifinals at 184 pounds before finishing in sixth place.

The addition of Miklus immediately fortified the backend of the Cyclones’ lineup, giving them a national title threat at 197 pounds. Iowa State, ranked 18th nationally and 10-3 overall, is a young team, but Miklus, at 25, provides experience. He owns 96 career wins entering Sunday’s dual against No. 6 Missouri.

This season, Miklus is 18-2 and ranked No. 5 in the country, according to Trackwrestling. He has helped lead Iowa State to 10 dual victories for the first time since the 2015-16 season. Four other Cyclone wrestlers are ranked at their respective weights, and all 10 could advance to the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh next month.

Iowa State’s taken some giant leaps forward this season, and Miklus has played a small role in the team’s development.

“It’s been really good for them,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser says. “They see a guy that’s accomplished.”

“Just seeing how he works and seeing how he goes about his life really caught my eye,” heavyweight Gannon Gremmel says.

“That dude is a frickin’ bull,” starting 184-pounder Sam Colbray says. 

To Miklus, those qualities stem from his father. Garry was a conference champion wrestler and state medalist for Saydel in 1979. He worked full-time as a firefighter and as a plumber on his off days. He’s provided constant counsel for his oldest son throughout his wrestling career.

Iowa State's Willie Miklus sits with his father, Garry, after a wrestling dual against Northern Iowa on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at the West Gymnasium in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Garry introduced Willie to wrestling when he was 6, and he lost his first nine matches. After one tournament, he figured they gave out fourth-place medals only because he was being a good sport. Garry then asked Willie “if I wanted to be good.” Yes, Willie said. He was tired of losing.

So Garry bought a wrestling mat. He put up bars in the basement, where Willie and younger brother Tim logged thousands of pull-ups. Garry hung a vertical rope in the garage for more workouts. He made them push four-wheelers and lift kegs filled with water above their heads. Willie made the state finals every year from second grade through his senior year of high school.

“We’ve always believed that whatever you do, you do it with everything you’ve got,” says Luann, Willie’s mother. “For Willie, wrestling was just a natural thing for him — and he hates to lose. He probably hates losing more than he loves winning.”

Southeast Polk senior Willie Miklus celebrates his 220-pound match win over Joe Scanlan of Johnston in the Class 3A semifinals on Feb. 17, 2012.


Wrestling also provided many teaching moments. Garry preached the value of good sportsmanship to all his kids. One time, Willie lost to Michael Moreno, a 2010 state champ for Urbandale and two-time All-American for Iowa State. As Garry comforted him afterward, Willie accidentally dropped his headgear.

Garry thought he threw it. He became irate. We don’t do that, he said.

“Looking back, that was a good lesson to learn,” says Willie, who won back-to-back state titles for Southeast Polk in 2011 and 2012. “Even though I didn’t throw my headgear then, I’ve never lost a grip on it since.”

His dad received the diagnosis on April 4, 2016. There is no cure for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Luann informed Willie a few months earlier that Garry was getting tested. In 2008, Garry’s mom, Velma, died of ALS, so Willie immediately turned inward.

“It’s brutal, man,” Willie says. “It’s basically a death sentence. It’s hard to explain to people. I don’t mean to be blunt, but I sometimes say, ‘Dude, he’s dying,’ and that stuns people.”

Willie’s junior year was cut short due to a knee injury. He bumped up to 197 when he returned, and earned All-American honors for a third time last season. Before the postseason began, the NCAA notified him that he had received a sixth year of eligibility.

After the semester, Willie came home. One day, he helped Garry change the oil on his car. Willie watched as his dad struggled for five minutes to climb out from underneath the car, using only his right side because ALS had robbed him of his muscles in his left hand and arm.

The moment had a profound impact on Willie. With one year of eligibility available, he looked into transferring closer to home to be near Garry and to help with Luann and Sean. Iowa State had an immediate need for a 197-pounder. 

“A lot of sports and a lot of life is timing,” Dresser says, “and we were in the right place at the right time for Willie.”

Missouri's Willie Miklus celebrates his 9-5 decision over South Dakota State's Nate Rotert at 197 pounds at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday, March 16, 2018.

► FROM THE SUMMER: Willie Miklus to transfer from Mizzou to Iowa State

His homecoming came as a surprise to Luann, but she has been comforted by his presence. He has provided an extra hand at times, too. In the fall, Luann burned her hand. Willie dropped everything and drove her to the University of Iowa’s Burn Treatment Center in Iowa City.

Garry has also enjoyed Willie’s return. He’s made it to every dual at Hilton Coliseum this season. Luann and Garry also drove to Cedar Falls to watch the Cyclones wrestle Northern Iowa. They sat mat side, and before the dual began, Panther coach Doug Schwab ran over to say hi.

“If we could have all our kids home, that would be great,” Luann says, “but they still have their lives to live. Willie’s decision to come home was strictly his choice.

“But it means the world to Garry.”

Iowa State's Willie Miklus sits with his father, Garry, after a wrestling dual against Northern Iowa on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at the West Gymnasium in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Willie always planned on coming back home once his wrestling career wrapped up. Dresser has hinted that he hopes to keep Willie around the Iowa State program after this season, either as a member of the Cyclone Regional Training Center or as part of the coaching staff.

Sunday’s dual against the Tigers was originally scheduled so that Willie could wrestle near home one last time. Missouri coach Brian Smith tries to do this for his seniors each year. Willie says “it’s kind of nuts” that his last collegiate dual will be against his old team.

Garry will be there, of course, sporting his cardinal and gold. Willie will find him afterward, like he does after every dual, and he’ll smile and realize why he came back home.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

No. 18 Iowa State vs. No. 6 Missouri

Where: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Watch: Cyclones.Tv/Flowrestling.com ($)

Probable Lineups

125: Alex Mackall (ISU) vs. No. 23 Dack Punke (MIZ)
133: No. 7 Austin Gomez (ISU) vs. No. 11 John Erneste (MIZ)
141: No. 10 Ian Parker (ISU) vs. No. 4 Jaydin Eierman (MIZ)
149: No. 8 Jarrett Degen (ISU) vs. No. 4 Brock Mauller (MIZ)
157: Chase Straw (ISU) vs. No. 19 Jarrett Jacques (MIZ)
165: Logan Schumacher (ISU) vs. No. 13 Connor Flynn (MIZ)
174: Marcus Coleman (ISU) vs. No. 2 Daniel Lewis (MIZ)
184: No. 14 Sam Colbray (ISU) vs. No. 18 Dylan Wisman (MIZ)
197: No. 5 Willie Miklus (ISU) vs. Wyatt Koelling (MIZ)
285: Gannon Gremmel (ISU) vs. No. 23 Zach Elam (MIZ)