Why wrestling is so important to Iowa Hawkeyes football recruit Griffin Liddle
BETTENDORF, Ia. — Carver-Hawkeye Arena received a face-lift in 2011, a $43 million renovation that, among other things, enhanced the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. Knutson Construction, which originally built the arena in 1983, led the project.
John McElroy, a union carpenter, worked on the wrestling room. Before they finished, he walked into the head coach’s office, lifted a ceiling tile and wrote his grandson’s name on it — Griffin Liddle — thinking (hoping?) he might be an Iowa wrestler some day.
“It’s probably still there,” says Josh Liddle, Griffin’s dad and a former Hawkeye wrestler himself, “because they haven’t renovated it since.”
Griffin Liddle was 8 in 2011. He’ll turn 18 in April. After he graduates from Bettendorf, he will, in fact, attend the University of Iowa — but on a football scholarship rather than for wrestling.
That, for football fans, is awesome. Liddle is a powerful, destructive defensive lineman, at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds. He’s a three-star prospect and a top-40 recruit nationally for his position
But for wrestling fans, it's bittersweet, because Liddle is also one heck of a talent on the mat.
The senior is Class 3A’s returning state heavyweight champ. He’s a three-time state medalist, two-time finalist and an All-American. He’s ranked 17th in the country by MatScouts, and is considered a top-100 wrestling recruit in the 2021 class. He’s 19-1 overall this season and 121-24 for his career — which has less than a month left.
“It’s weird,” Liddle says. “Time flies.”
Liddle’s story is not unlike the many football-first wrestlers that have come through the Iowa football program over the years: Tristan Wirfs, Austin Blythe, Mark Sindlinger, Matt Kroul, Riley Reiff, Doug Benschoter, John Oostendorp and so many more.
For a time during the 2019 college football season, all five starters on the Hawkeye’s offensive line were successful high-school wrestlers. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz covets multi-sport athletes, especially those who spend their winter months on the mat.
“The theory I developed,” Ferentz told HawkCentral last year, “was that if a guy was a great wrestler, it didn’t mean he was going to be a great football player, but rarely was he a bad football player.
“It’s not a dealbreaker necessarily if a guy isn’t a wrestler, but boy, I tell you, it’s certainly a bonus.”
Where Liddle’s story differs is that, at least right now, his wrestling career is twice as old as his football career. He started wrestling in kindergarten, football in sixth grade. He will take lessons from both into the next chapter of his athletic journey at Iowa — then, hopefully, into the NFL.
That’s a long ways away, so for now, Liddle is enjoying the final month of his wrestling career — which, he says, is also bittersweet. Still, he’s determined, because a second state title later this month would not only put him in rare wrestling air, but it would also be the rubber-stamp on one of the state’s finest high-school careers.
“We’ve had a lot of big guys that have been tremendous wrestlers,” Bettendorf coach Dan Knight says, “but I don’t know that we’ve had one that’s been as good as he is at both sports.”
'He's already won it, but he wanted to leave his mark'
Knight produced one of Iowa’s most decorated prep wrestling careers: a four-time state champ for Clinton, a 128-0 career record, a three-time Junior national champ. He earned All-American status as a redshirt freshman at Iowa State, finishing behind fellow Iowans Terry Brands and Jason Kelber, at the 1990 NCAA Championships.
He knows a thing or two about hard work, and he sees many of those same traits in Liddle. There’s a story Knight loves to share. He arrives at Bettendorf High School each morning around 5:30 a.m. to unlock the wrestling room for practice — and Liddle is usually already in the parking lot when he pulls in.
“He always wants to do more of this or one more of that,” Knight says. “That’s not a coachable thing, but that’s a big reason why he’s been able to do what he’s done.”
That mindset, Liddle says, comes from his father, Josh. He also grew up a wrestler and football player. He was a two-time heavyweight state medalist at Camanche and reached the state finals as a junior in 1996. He went on to wrestle at Iowa and was a three-time letter-winner from 2000-02 under Jim Zalesky.
Josh always planned to introduce Griffin to wrestling, but more for the larger life lessons that wrestling teaches. Josh was drawn to wrestling because of its one-on-one nature, because he wasn’t allowed to hide from his opponents, because it was on him to figure out how to win. He wanted Griffin to reap those same benefits.
“Wrestling helped him grow,” Josh Liddle says. “It taught him to be competitive and independent. Even at a young age, it helps with your mentality — to compete, to get better. Wrestling teaches that more than anything else.”
Griffin Liddle was drawn to wrestling for the same reasons, and often sought counsel from his dad. Josh shared many stories of his successes — like the many lessons learned from guys such as Mocco, Hand, Zalesky, and even Dan Gable and Tom Brands — and defeats, like when he lost to Clarke’s Tom Van Dyke in the state finals.
Those stories fueled Liddle in his own career. He grew determined to do what his dad could not. He took fifth at state as a freshman, second as a sophomore, became a 16U All-American the next summer, then won it last year.
Afterward, surrounded by cameras and recorders, Liddle pointed to a spot underneath Wells Fargo Arena, where he cried the year before after losing in the finals. He mentioned Josh, and how he played such a critical role in his wrestling life.
“He’s always told me about his runner-up finish, and everything he regretted about it, and his senior year, taking third, and everything he regretted about it,” Liddle said then. “He wanted me to be better.”
Then he smiled.
“This is the best moment of my life,” he continued. “By far.”
Another title this year would put Griffin Liddle in rare air. He would be just the sixth Bettendorf wrestler ever to win multiple state titles, joining Brian McCracken, Logan Ryan, Jacob Schwarm, Fredy Stroker and Jack Wagner.
Even more, since Iowa expanded to three wrestling classes in 1969, only 15 wrestlers have ever won back-to-back heavyweight state titles. Iowa City Regina’s Jared Brinkman did it last, in 2016-17 in Class 1A. Only four have done it in 3A:
- Xavier’s Mike Shedek (’00-01);
- Urbandale’s Jeff Koeppel (’85-86);
- Charles City’s Mark Sindlinger (a three-timer, ’81-83);
- and Waterloo West’s John Bowlsby (’73-74).
“He’s already won it, so he didn’t need to wrestle this year,” Knight says, “but he wanted to leave his mark.”
'I don’t think I’d be as good at football if I didn’t wrestle'
Another trait Griffin Liddle inherited from his dad was the competitiveness. Josh likes to joke that the whole family “hasn’t been able to play a board game for years” because everybody wants to win so bad.
So when Liddle came home during his freshman year and told Josh he was starting on the defensive line in Bettendorf’s season-opener against West Des Moines Valley? Josh wasn’t all that shocked. Liddle played well that game, too. Finished with 1.5 tackles.
“He more than held his own,” Josh recalls. “I saw that and was like, 'Man, he’s pretty legit.'"
That was about the time Josh knew hi son's wrestling days were officially numbered. Iowa offered after that season (Pat Angerer, another Bettendorf alum, actually tipped off the staff), and Griffin ultimately picked the Hawkeyes over the likes of Iowa State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan State.
But many of the same traits that have made him successful on the wrestling mat translate well so well to the football field: gaining leverage, hand and feet movement and positioning, tackling/takedown technique and so much more.
“He’s going to be a handful because he can hand-fight, he can run his feet, and he can move people,” Knight says. “I’m excited to see what he does at Iowa. It’ll be fun to watch.”
Griffin Liddle thought about possibly trying both in college, like Sindlinger, Benschoter and Oostendorp all did, but felt his future would be better served focusing solely on football. He received many calls from wrestling coaches during his recruiting process, but the financial benefits of a football scholarship were too good to pass up. He said choosing wrestling over football was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever made.
But he’s keenly aware that a successful football career can shine a bright light on wrestling. He watched Wirfs go through the NFL Draft process last year and saw how folks raved about his wrestling background. He’s now playing in the upcoming Super Bowl and is an emerging NFL star. The same went for Blythe, too, who played in the Super Bowl two years ago.
Nick Allegretti, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, warmed up for this year's divisional round playoff game against the Cleveland Browns by shadow-wrestling in the end zone. He was also a standout high-school wrestler, going 45-2 and taking third at the Illinois state tournament his senior year.
“All these football players that wrestled, they all got better from it,” Liddle says. “It just shows that wrestling is a great sport for football and vice versa. Seeing guys like that advocate for the sport of wrestling, it’s huge. It’ll make other people want to wrestle, too.
“I’ll always support wrestling. It’s one of my favorite sports. I don’t think I’d be as good at football if I didn’t wrestle.”
Josh learned that lesson, too. He was an all-state offensive lineman for Camanche before his Iowa wrestling career. And because he’s competitive, he does not concede when asked if he or his son was better at football.
“I don’t know,” Josh says through a smile. “We might have to line up and see.”
He thinks for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what,” he continues. “I probably wouldn’t enjoy going against him, but I would.”
What about wrestling?
“Oh he’s way better than me,” Josh says and laughs. “Way better.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.