‘I wrestle for him’: Iowa’s Alex Marinelli motivated by the death of Wisconsin wrestler Eli Stickley
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The sunlight streams through the window inside a Carver-Hawkeye Arena conference room, illuminating Alex Marinelli’s black hat. In a large cursive script, lettering on the hat reads “Eli” on its left side, with the phrase “live passionately” printed below.
On a Friday in late January, Marinelli, a star sophomore on the Iowa wrestling team, reminisces about his late friend, Eli Stickley, a former wrestler at Wisconsin. One of Marinelli’s final memories with Eli came during last year’s Big Ten Championships.
Marinelli had just lost to Michigan’s Taylor Massa in the quarterfinals, marking the first defeat of his collegiate career. The crowd erupted over the result. With Iowa coach Tom Brands in his ear, offering immediate advice, Marinelli walked off the mat and saw Eli.
“You’re good, man,” Marinelli recalls Eli saying. “You’re good.”
Two weeks later, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, Marinelli bounced back and finished sixth at the NCAA Championships, earning All-American honors as a redshirt freshman and helping Iowa to a third-place team finish.
Four months after the season, on July 5, Eli died in a car crash not far from the Iowa-Illinois border. He was 21. Marinelli vacillates between the pain of his loss and his commitment to honor his friend.
“I want to impact people like he did,” Marinelli says. “He truly opened my eyes to what really matters. Wrestling is a huge part of my life, but now, you know, let’s impact my teammates for eternity, not just for four years.
“I feel like I’m wrestling the way Eli would want me to wrestle. I wrestle for him because he can’t.”
Eli’s death has served as motivation for Marinelli this season. He is currently 17-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally at 165 pounds. On Sunday, when No. 3 Iowa wrestles at No. 20 Wisconsin, he will wrestle third-ranked Evan Wick in a rematch of returning All-Americans.
When he’s not on the mat, Marinelli often wears that black hat, a small way of keeping Eli’s memory alive, but also a reminder of his lasting legacy.
“He wrestles for a lot of reasons,” Iowa coach Tom Brands says, “and one of them is that reason.”
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‘We have to keep the main thing the main thing’
Marinelli and Eli grew up wrestling alongside one another in Ohio. Eli’s dad, Todd, wrestled at Ohio State, and his uncles are Jim and Jeff Jordan. Jim won two NCAA titles for Wisconsin in the 1980s and is now a United States congressman. Jeff was a two-time All-American for the Badgers before leading the Graham high school wrestling program to national prominence (he retired in September).
But the two didn’t officially meet until middle school. Marinelli met Eli’s twin sister, Moriah, the night before the junior high state tournament. He won, and they’ve dated ever since.
The first time Marinelli went to the Stickley home, Eli was ecstatic. Todd Stickley told Marinelli, “You’d think the President was coming to town.” A friendship was born, and they bonded through wrestling.
They were on some of Graham’s best teams together. The Falcons won the 2015 national prep championship. Marinelli won 200 career matches and four state titles. Eli, a year older, won 185 and a state title as a junior.
“He wasn’t the most talented individual, but he always tried his hardest,” Todd Stickley says. “We had a saying that we still try to maintain: We have to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing was our faith.”
This manifested itself in numerous ways. One day, Marinelli struggled cutting weight and was upset over it. Eli noticed, walked over and, according to Marinelli, said, “Hey man, Jesus died on the cross. He went through way more pain than what you’re going through.”
Marinelli didn’t say a word the rest of practice.
“That put it in perspective,” Marinelli says now. “I wanted to feel bad for myself, but he was like, ‘No dude. He paid the ultimate price. This doesn’t even compare.’
“Sometimes I would get mad at Eli because he was so optimistic about everything. If you want to be mad at a situation, he would tell you to find the good in it.”
‘It’s your biggest nightmare’
Eli went to Wisconsin to wrestle for Barry Davis, a former Iowa star, and alongside Isaac Jordan, his cousin. He qualified for the 2018 NCAA Championships at 141 pounds. Moriah chose Iowa. She’s a team manager and works with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
This summer, Marinelli decided to propose to Moriah. He decided on early July, and coordinated with Eli, Todd and Hope, their mother. He wanted them all in Iowa City to surprise Moriah with a celebration afterward. He wanted Eli to be his best man.
The night of July 5, Marinelli picked up his phone and had missed two calls from Hope. He found that odd. Hope never called him twice. He called back and heard sirens. Hope told him that Eli couldn’t breathe.
Around 8:19 that night, Eli was driving westbound on I-74 in Henry County, Illinois, about 35 miles southeast of Davenport. He drove a 2004 Nissan Titan pickup off the roadway. When the truck turned to try to re-enter the road, it flipped multiple times.
Marinelli froze as he listened to Hope’s voice. He told Moriah, and they, along with cousin Justin Stickley, began driving to the scene. Moriah called Brands as they headed off. He told them to pull over, and Brands and his wife Jennifer picked them up and drove them the rest of the way to Illinois.
“It made me feel really good when we had them,” Brands said. “When I saw them, it was quite emotional …”
He paused for 10 seconds.
“Moriah’s voice betrayed the fact that her brother wasn’t well. She’s the one that called me. ‘He might not make it.’ The pain in her voice is what kills me.”
Eli was pronounced dead at the Illini Hospital in Silvis, Illinois, that night. The cause of death was a traumatic head injury. The airbags in the pickup did not deploy.
“It’s your biggest nightmare,” Moriah says now, “and it happened in the blink of an eye.”
‘The ones that hurt the most’
The next day, Brands arranged for Moriah and her parents to fly back to Ohio to be with family. Marinelli went to the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex for an early workout. He ran for 20 minutes and then collapsed into tears.
“He did a great job being a strong pillar for the people that needed him to be a pillar,” Brands says, “but also for grieving the way that he needed to grieve without being ashamed of it.”
Marinelli went to Ohio soon after to be with Moriah and her family. They spent many days gathered in the living room, telling stories. At last year’s Big Ten Championships, Eli wrestled Iowa’s Vince Turk for fifth place. Turk won, 4-1. Moriah sat mat side but could hardly watch.
In high school, Eli stashed an assortment of drinks under his bed for the offseasons. He and Marinelli would go to Walmart for smoothies and Gatorade chews for after weigh-ins. His junior year, he turned the volume to 13 during practices, “because he wrestled 113,” Marinelli says.
Todd takes a moment to gather himself in a recent conversation with a reporter. He and Hope struggled having kids years ago, and turned to in vitro fertilization. As a result, they later welcomed Eli and Moriah into the world. The day of the crash, Eli made a workout video for his parents. It’s seven minutes long.
Todd still hasn’t watched it.
“I’ll never forget what (Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands) told me,” Marinelli says. “He said, ‘The ones that get left behind are the ones that hurt the most.’”
Eli’s funeral was a week later. Many wrestlers and coaches made the trip. Those who couldn’t wrote. Iowa’s Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer, Kaleb Young and Paul Glynn all went to support. Terry Brands has sent Todd and Hope a text of encouragement every day since the accident.
“Until you go through something like this, you can’t appreciate the wrestling family,” Todd says. “We’re out here beating each other up and trying to win matches, but when it’s all said and done, there’s a relationship there that you can’t explain.”
Iowa crossed paths with Wisconsin at the Midlands Championships in December, where many Badger wrestlers sought out Marinelli and Moriah. This year, the Badgers have “Eli” on the back of their singlets. They also had “bELIeve” printed on their home mat.
Marinelli won the Midlands, beating Wisconsin’s Evan Wick in the finals. He wore his “Jesus Trained” shirt before every bout. Prior to Sunday’s final round, Marinelli walked by the Wisconsin camp, where he saw Wick and thought of Eli.
“There were Gatorade chews around everybody’s bags,” Marinelli says. “I was like, ‘Hey, Eli loved those.’”
“He laughed and was like, ‘Oh I know.’”
‘He lived passionately’
Wrestling season brought routine, with practices and competitions filling everyone’s schedule. But Eli’s absence has been tough. He was in Wisconsin’s starting lineup as a redshirt freshman. Todd didn’t miss a match, racking up about 20,000 miles on his car.
Throughout the season, wrestlers have approached Marinelli to talk about Eli. After the Midlands finals, Northern Iowa’s Josh Alber showed Marinelli his headgear. Eli beat Alber in a dual two years ago. But Alber wrote ‘Wrestling for Eli Stickley’ and ‘Warrior in Christ’ on the inside.
Marinelli was speechless. He told Todd, who had a similar reaction.
“We had no idea the impact Eli had on Josh’s life,” Todd says.
Eli’s death made Marinelli consider his own mortality. Growing up, he admits to being concerned with how other people perceived him. But the accident forced him to measure his own lasting impact.
“He’s living and practicing and wrestling with freedom, with no borders,” Moriah says. “There’s nothing holding him back. That’s been really cool for me to watch.
“Eli’s scope was just so much broader. His wrestling accolades may not have been as good as Alex’s, but he had that perspective. And I’ve noticed that same thing in Alex now.”
Marinelli has considered what Sunday’s dual against Wisconsin will mean. He will go back to where Eli made a home. Back in the conference room on Friday, he thinks about their recruiting visit to Iowa, and how Eli nearly became a Hawkeye — and how that might’ve changed things.
He adjusts his hat and shares one final story.
Last season, Eli lost to Indiana’s Cole Weaver at the NCAA Championships, eliminating him from the tournament, and as the two walked off the mat, Eli wasn’t sulking. He encouraged Weaver to keep going.
“He made the most of every situation,” Marinelli says. “Just like these hats, he lived passionately.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.