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IOWA CITY — Six hours before the Iowa State-Iowa football game, the corner of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue was the crossroads of the state.
Hawkeye fans dominated the population, of course, but a considerable representation of Cyclone people could be seen. Strange as it may seem to some, some members of the two camps don’t necessarily hate each other.
In fact, there were many mixed groups, cardinal mixed with black, most hopped up about the evening’s contest. Judging by the frequency with which people would pass by toting 12-packs of domestic beer, at least a few folks were en route to getting hopped up on hops.
In the middle of it all, standing behind a table set up in front of the Iowa Book store that has been part of downtown Iowa City since 1920 was Dan Gable, 67 years old and still a magnet for fellow humans. He is the two-time NCAA champion wrestler at Iowa State and 15-time NCAA championship coach at Iowa.
Gable had a stack of copies of his book “A Wrestling Life,” and autographed them for anyone who would take into the store and buy it. He moved some product on this afternoon. And, as he always does, he engaged the public.
“The wind might affect the game,” Gable told someone. “It doesn’t affect our sport.
“I wrestled in an outdoor stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria at the World Championships (in 1971). It started raining and blowing. They had to stop the match for a half-hour to wipe it all up, then we went back at it.
“Of course, I won.”
To which one of the men he was speaking with somberly replied “Of course.”
But to counter the bit of braggadocio, several minutes later Gable said “Well, that’s debatable,” when someone told him he was the greatest wrestler ever.
Karen Keithley of Bennington, Neb., came upon Gable by chance and was thrilled.
“I had to pull over and get a picture of him for my son,” she said. “He wrestles. I’m sending this to him. Best mom ever.”
People kept passing by. Some stopped. Gable had more questions for the public than it had for him, and it had many.
“You work at a sawmill?” Gable asked a young man. “Is that a tough job or not? What do you do specifically? You watch Hawk wrestling?”
“Every now and then,” the man told him.
“You’ve got to start to change that and say ‘All the time.’ Of course, we’ve got to get a little better, too. When we get second-place, we’re down.”
To which a woman who said she was from 20 miles north of Milwaukee remarked “I like that.” That began a brief conversation Gable would later describe as “unique.”
The woman had looked at his book, with his photo on the cover, and said “Is that you? Oh, that’s awesome. You’re the wrestling guy. Do they have a wrestling team here?”
“Did you just say that?” Gable answered in semi-shock. “I’ve never been asked that before around here. We have 23 national championships.”
“Are you the coach?” the woman countered.
“I was for 15 national championships,” he said.
The woman said her daughter is considering coming to Iowa and joining the university’s women’s swimming team. Gable told her he was a swimmer before he was a wrestler. In fact, as a seventh-grader he won the YMCA state 50-yard backstroke championship.
(“Then I had to make a decision,” Gable said several months ago. “I didn’t like to be on my back.”)
The woman came back with “I was a mat maid in high school.”
Which caused Gable to say “Wow, even more amazing (that she didn’t know Iowa had a wrestling team).”
“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” she joked.
She went on her way, and Gable told others who standing nearby “Can you believe she asked me if we had a wrestling program?”
That got a good laugh, and it put a grin on Gable’s face. But then he gave a more-typical reaction.
“We need to do a lot of work yet.”