Loss off the mat changed Iowa wrestler Alex Marinelli's perspective

 

IOWA CITY — Scrawled across Alex Marinelli’s water bottle is a simple message.

“Believe.”

It is much more meaningful to him than any run of the mill adage or motivational tool.

The word is a reminder of his faith, how he lives life, his approach to wrestling and the loss of the person who served as a constant reminder of what he strives to be.

After all, right in the heart of the script is “Eli,” representing his late friend, Eli Stickley, and twin brother to his fiancee and University of Iowa wrestling manager Moriah Stickley.

“He did everything passionately,” said Marinelli, wearing a baseball hat that dons Eli’s name and the “Live Passionately” phrase. “He put his whole heart in everything. He was never lukewarm. He was full-go on everything.

“He was full of life and energy. He was bringing out the good in everything.”

There are wristbands, shirts and images that provide regular reminders of Eli, who died in a July car accident traveling to celebrate Marinelli’s surprise wedding proposal to his sister. Marinelli and Moriah have demonstrated strength and faith, dealing with tragedy and adversity that is a tribute to his memory.

“I’m wrestling for the now and I’m living life in the moment,” Iowa’s second-ranked and unbeaten 165-pounder said. “I’m making the most out of it.”

 

Celebration becomes devastation

The day of July 5, 2018 was expected to be a celebration. Marinelli had secretly planned the proposal, arranging for Moriah’s family to drive in from Ohio and arrive a half-hour after he asked for her hand.

Marinelli convinced Moriah it was a simple date night, getting dressed up so they could take respectable photos to document the occasion. The evening started with friends, hanging out and dancing in the living room.

Moriah didn’t have her phone available to answer multiple calls from her mother, Hope. Marinelli sensed something was wrong immediately when he noticed two missed calls from Hope.

“I called her back and she was yelling,” Marinelli said. “There were sirens in the background. It was vivid. What she was telling me, I could just picture it all.”

Eli, a 21-year-old at the University of Wisconsin, where he was an NCAA qualifier for former Badgers head coach Barry Davis, had been driving separately from his parents and was accompanied by his girlfriend. Hope and Todd Stickley were leading the way when they realized their son’s car was no longer visible in the rearview mirror.

They turned around and came upon the accident. Eli’s car veered off the road and rolled multiple times as he tried to re-enter the driving lane.

Moriah said the phone call with the fateful news resembled something from a movie that you think will never happen. It happened and she knew it was severe.

“My mom is at the scene with Eli, but I’m just thinking she’s a nurse, so she’s just preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Moriah said. “It’s happening but the worst hasn’t happened. There’s still hope.”

Marinelli and Stickley headed toward the crash site in Illinois, just 10 minutes from the Iowa border. They didn’t make it far before Iowa Coach Tom Brands called and instructed them to wait until he and his wife, Jenny, could pick them up and drive the rest of the way.

“It was tough to tell her,” Marinelli said. “It was a weird situation I’ve never been in.

“I told her and then I tried to drive to the hospital. I was shaking and stuff. It was bad traffic, I remember.”

Moriah added, “We were devastated. In that 10-minute window, my mom had called and said he had died.”

The first reaction was to accept blame for the incident. Moriah briefly had that cross her mind since the family was traveling to see them.

“For me, it was a very initial thought,” Moriah said. “I remember that was one of the first things I said to my dad when we got to the hospital and he was like, ‘Moriah, you can’t go there.’ For him to say that was a huge thing. It would be so easy for him to go there, too, but he was strong.”

The entire day remains a blur to Moriah, who was less than two weeks shy of her 22nd birthday. She spent the next 24 hours talking to medical personnel, the coroner, law enforcement and individuals reaching out about organ donation. She still had to deliver the news to Eli’s friends. The pair also spent a sleepless night with Eli’s girlfriend, who survived and was alone as her family was driving from Minnesota.

She went into survival mode, relying on her “fixer” mentality to handle things she never imagined she would have to.

“Moriah was stronger than a lot of people in her family,” Marinelli said. “She was like the rock.”

 

Special relationships

Moriah and Eli Stickley were born July 18, 1996. According to Moriah, Eli was one minute older. The pair was extremely close, spending the majority of their first 18 years together with Hope home-schooling both.

“We pretty much did everything together,” Moriah said. “We grew up. We did life together. When you’re a twin, every new thing, every stage, you’re doing it at the same time. Naturally, we were just together.”

Moriah recalled Eli’s passion and compassion. He was energetic and fun with an adventurous spirit. Moriah said Eli’s ability to unconditionally love other people helped make him special.

“As a human, we think we love and we love somebody unconditionally, but do you live that way?” Moriah said. “I know I don’t. I like to think I do but I fall short. In my eyes, I feel he loved pretty hard and unconditional most of the time.”

Wrestling was a family affair for the Stickleys. Eli’s cousins wrestled, including Justin, who is a sophomore for the Hawkeyes. Eli had a solid high school career as a four-time Ohio state medalist with a state title in 2014.

He seemed to be able to separate his caring and competitive natures, especially in his transition from high school to college.

“In wrestling, you do have to have a switch,” Moriah said. “I think he learned how to do that, but I think he had a higher level of thinking about that kind of stuff. I learned a lot from him in even the past year about just how to go about things.

“He was so selfless. He was always putting everybody else before him.”

Wrestling was the catalyst to bring Marinelli and the Stickleys together. Marinelli remembered the moment when a young girl in the Graham section at a junior high tournament caught his eye. He was familiar with the Stickley name and knew of Eli, finding out it was his twin sister.

Marinelli reached out on Facebook and the teenagers exchanged numbers and began to talk. Of course, their first face-to-face meetings were centered in wrestling. The families went out to eat after weigh-ins and the conclusion of Ohio’s junior high state meet.

During the tournament, they spent most of the day talking in the stands between matches. They meshed immediately.

“There was something automatically comfortable,” Moriah said. “We were really good friends and dated. It is how it’s been since then.”

Marinelli added, “We were just hanging out and having a good time. Moriah and I started dating right after I won in the finals.”

The tournament was the moment Marinelli started to get to know Eli as well. He was around most of the time as the young couple hung out together. Eli was supportive from the start and was eager for Marinelli’s first visit to the family’s house and daylong trip to the mall in Columbus.

“Eli was always excited and that’s how I always remember him,” Marinelli said. “Eli was always welcoming and bringing people in, loving them and always bringing out the best of them.”

Eli still served as an older sibling. He was in favor of his sister and friend being together, but made sure Marinelli had Moriah’s best interest at heart.

“He was a huge supporter, but he was a brother,” Moriah said. “He was protective and made sure he was in line, but at the end of the day he had nothing but love and support for us.”

As much as Marinelli and Moriah hit it off, so did Eli and Marinelli. They got to spend time together, studying virtual classes provided by St. Paris Graham.

Marinelli said he always wanted to be outside playing sports or roughhousing, but many of his previous friends tried to avoid it. Eli shared that love of being active.

“I was just with Eli all the time,” Marinelli said. “We were doing everything together and with his family.”

They played sports. They even made trails with their own hands to ride around on four-wheelers. The desire was to always do something productive.

“Eli never wanted to sit,” Marinelli said. “He was always up, walking around. That’s what was cool about being home-schooled for him. He could get his work done and then go have fun and play.”

The dynamic changed slightly when the twins left for different colleges, while Marinelli still was at St. Paris Graham. After 18 years, it was time for the twins to experience life separately. Interestingly, Moriah said they actually grew closer after being apart. Marinelli said Eli was always still there for him, too.

“I always knew he was looking out for me,” Marinelli said. “It was different. I was glad he met the people he did and impacted them in a positive way.”

The greatest example came at the Big Ten Championships last season. Marinelli suffered his first loss, falling in overtime to Michigan’s Logan Massa, who postured at center mat for about a minute after the upset. The crowd was in a frenzy and cheered against Marinelli and the Hawkeyes.

This was a different experience. As he stepped off the mat on his way to the tunnel, there was Eli. He was there with encouragement, telling “The Bull” he would bounce back and be OK. Marinelli will never forget that moment.

“Eli was like an angel,” Marinelli said. “It’s not a coincidence. Eli was there for a reason. You can’t make that stuff up.”

 

Faith formation

Marinelli is anchored in his faith, participating in Athletes In Action at Iowa. His faith has been a key in processing the tragedy.

He battled the thoughts of why it happened to Eli, who lived a strong spiritual life. It seemed unfair that it happened to a good person and not someone more nefarious.

“If you don’t have that sense of hope it’s going to be very hard to make sense of a lot of things that happen in life,” Marinelli said. “So, that gave me an outlook on this whole thing. Eli died and was ready. I know where his faith lied and it made it easier for me.”

Shortly after the accident, Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands called to offer support. He told Marinelli that in moments of loss, those left behind suffer the most hurt. The message provided some clarity.

“Obviously, humans are going to be sad and experience pain,” Marinelli said. “That’s because we’re human and it is human nature to be selfish. We want him here but he’s back home where he’s actually supposed to be.”

Faith hasn’t been as solid in Marinelli’s life. He lived in a family that attended church sporadically, going together for large religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

Marinelli witnessed the impact faith had on the Stickleys and wanted to incorporate that into his own life.

“I was like, ‘this is awesome,’” Marinelli said. “They love through Christ and they love everyone.

“Their family is built on Jesus. So, my family has a lot of dysfunction and that’s because our family wasn’t built on Jesus. It wasn’t. In the Bible, it says if you’re a family and your house is built on sand it will fall, but if it’s built on a rock it will be stable. That’s what I’m trying to do is break the cycle.”

 

Aftermath

After the accident, Tom Brands and the Iowa staff helped Moriah and Marinelli return to Ohio for the services. The Stickleys’ extended family had gathered for a wedding the previous week and remained together.

Moriah had been a source of strength throughout the ordeal and helped write her brother’s obituary instead of planning her wedding. At times, she said it feels like she still hasn’t processed the situation. She definitely couldn’t during the blur of the first day, first night or first week.

Her return to Iowa City gave her a chance to mourn.

“It’s unbelievable,” Moriah said. “It just let me be able to let loose and sit in it for a little bit. It let me do it organically and nothing forced but it just really helped grow and get though it in a really healthy way.”

Both received a lot of support from the Hawkeye wrestling family. A number of wrestlers and Tom Brands attended the services in Ohio. Terry Brands and assistant Ryan Morningstar were there for her parents in time of need. She said Tom Brands’ guidance and mentorship helped her.

“It’s just been continued support from everyone here,” Moriah said. “Just down to every single person. It’s just crazy.

“It’s just been a huge blessing.”

Being able to cling to Alex and lean on him was important.

“He was more of a quiet rock,” Moriah said. “Alex was there. He may not have said or did anything in particular, but I just knew his presence. His presence for my parents, too.”

After the initial time with family at home, Moriah and Marinelli decided they need some time alone. allowing themselves to have fun and regain some normalcy.

The pair went to Chicago, attending a Chicago Cubs baseball game and staying in a condo owned by Iowa teammate Paul Glynn’s parents. It was there that Marinelli decided to officially propose in a home decked out in flowers by Glynn’s mother.

Moriah accepted.

“It was real nice up there,” Marinelli said. “We just went out to eat and tried to enjoy time.

“Made it a happy time out of what is going on. It was a good time.”

 

Remembering Eli

Eli left an indelible impression on many, especially Moriah and Marinelli. Their memories of him are easily triggered, whether it’s country or Gospel songs he liked to listen to regularly or “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack that seemed to stir his emotions.

“Every time you hear those songs you want to cry because that’s like who he was and then he liked happy songs, too,” Marinelli said. “I remember driving home one day after practice and he put on Katy Perry or something like that, saying we need a feel-good song and all this seriousness needs to go away for a second. That’s how Eli was.”

Electronic media conjures up good times. Like the video of Eli trying to teach Marinelli how to fish and calming him down after dropping a bass on their boat. Snapshots serve as reminders of the fun they had together, including the twins’ 21st birthday when they went home to surprise their parents.

They appreciate those moments even more now.

“We have so many dumb videos and pictures on my phone,” Moriah said with a laugh. “There are nights we will go through our phones and just show each other videos or look at pictures.”

Eli’s death didn’t stop him from making a difference for others. In a way, he lives on as an organ donor. Some of Eli’s body tissue and part of his spine were donated. Coincidentally, he was studying to help people by becoming a chiropractor.

“Later on, we kind of looked at what he did donate and we were like, ‘that’s insane,’” Moriah said. “He wanted to work on people’s spine.”

Sharing their story has been therapeutic for the couple. They hope Eli’s zest for life and loving attitude serves an example for others to follow.

For Marinelli, he remains inspired to be live like his friend, who worked hard to accomplish his goals but wasn’t defined by results.

“As I grew up, I thought wrestling (and my sports) defined me,” Marinelli said. “I was living through my sports and what people thought of me. But, then I met Eli. He didn’t have the most accolades. He was always the hardest worker, but he never won state until his junior year. That to me was like he’s not as good as me, but not how Eli was.

“He was like I’m going to work hard and if I accomplish my goals that’s awesome, but I don’t, it won’t define me. That impacted me and it still is impacting me today.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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