Willie Miklus cherishes family time at Iowa State

 

AMES — Willie Miklus handed his dad a plastic grocery bag on June 3, 2018.

Garry Miklus was understandably confused, but Willie told him to open it. Garry put his hand in the bag and pulled out a T-shirt.

“You’re kiddin’ me,” Garry told his son.

“No, I’m not,” Willie responded, knowing the joy he just brought his dad.

“Well, you got the wrong size.”

Willie got his dad an Iowa State wrestling shirt (which he did exchange for a larger size that fit).

“Whenever (my dad) had good news or anything like that, he would think of a cool way to tell me — he always came up with his own way,” Willie said. “So, I bought an Iowa State wrestling shirt to let him know I was transferring to Iowa State.”

Willie, a 197-pound wrestler, decided to transfer to ISU from Missouri after he was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Willie loved everything about Missouri, but there was one thing missing.

It wasn’t close enough to home.

The Miklus family hails from Altoona and Garry was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig’s disease — on April 4, 2016. His condition has slowly worsened through the years. ALS is a disease that slowly breaks down the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Willie needed to be closer to home so he could spend more time with his dad and help out his mom, Luann, and youngest brother, Sean, who still is in high school. Iowa State provided that opportunity.

“A lot of sport is, and a lot of life is, about timing,” Iowa State Coach Kevin Dresser said. “We were in the right place at the right time for Willie. He’s fit in really well. He likes the team and the team loves him.”

Dresser, the staff and the team like having Willie around so much, they’ve already made arrangements for Willie to stay on board as a graduate assistant.

Sunday at 5 p.m., No. 11 Iowa State hosts No. 5 Missouri at Hilton Coliseum. Missouri Coach Brian Smith originally scheduled the dual so Willie, a three-time All American for Missouri, could have a homecoming for his last dual. Smith knew of Garry’s condition and thought it was the right thing to do for his star senior.

But as Garry’s conditioned worsened, Willie had to cut his Missouri career short and, now, the homecoming meet has turned into a meet against his former team.

“If things work out right (on Sunday), the plan is to start the dual at heavyweight and finish at 197,” Dresser said. “Coach Smith and I had a brief conversation about that and if he still feels the same way Sunday as he did a couple of nights ago, that’s probably what we’ll do to give him a farewell, last match of his dual career.”

 

'Ornery little turd'

It was Palm Sunday and 5-year-old Willie and his Sunday school class all had palm branches.

Like most churches, the kids waved the branches as they made their way to the front of the church. As the class stood at the front of the church, Willie’s brother, Tim, was one row in front of Willie.

Willie decided it would be funny to torment his brother, who’s a year younger than him.

“I was standing up there poking him in the ear and whacking him on the head with the branch,” Willie said with a laugh, recalling how funny he thought he was.

The scene in Home Alone 2 at the beginning of the movie comes to mind where Kevin McCallister is singing a solo during a Christmas Eve service and his older brother, Buzz, is messing with him and putting candles behind his ears, making them glow.

Kevin eventually pushed Buzz for embarrassing him, causing a domino effect of choir members falling down. Tim didn’t do that — although he wanted to.

“It was annoying,” Tim said, laughing at the memory. “We were all trying to wave our branches — doing what we were supposed to do as little kids in church. But he kept trying to stick it in my ear and I wanted to turn around and fight him. My parents are sitting in the back going, ‘Oh God. Oh no.’”

“Everybody thought it was hilarious,” Willie said, trying to justify his actions 20 years later. “Except for two people — mom and dad.”

As the two got older, Willie got Tim to join him in his troublemaking quests.

It got to the point where Garry and Luann couldn’t mow their yard without getting a babysitter first.

The Miklus family lives on a 20-acre lot outside of Altoona and Willie said it takes four hours to mow — 30 minutes per section.

One time, Luann was mowing near the house and she saw one of her sons run across the window holding onto the curtain. When he got to the end of the curtain track, his feet left the ground, flew up in the air he slid back across the window holding onto the curtain.

That event is what prompted the babysitter.

“I was wild and I was crazy,” Willie said. “Then you had a second one that followed my lead. We’d feed off each other. They couldn’t leave us alone inside.”

Willie was constantly finding a way to get in trouble as a child. Luckily for Willie, he has a great sense of humor that, at times, softened the blow.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate my humor, it’s just that there’s a time to be serious and I just could not figure out when that was,” Willie said.

The times when Willie’s humor didn’t soften the blow, Garry made sure Willie knew he was in trouble.

“He’s intense,” Willie said. “I’ll give him that. My dad was intense. He was very much about doing the right thing and giving best effort. I’m thankful for it now. But there were definitely times where I thought, ‘Why can’t I get away with this just once?’”

One thing Willie had no chance of getting away with was when he purposefully spilled on his shirt before taking a family photo when he was young.

The photo was taken before Willie’s sister, Erin, and youngest brother were born.

“I always tease my sister and younger brother that those were the good ol’ days,” Willie said. “Everybody had on red shirts and I didn’t want to wear my red shirt so I spilled on purpose. The three of them are wearing red shirts and I have on this blue, black, white and red shirt. And if I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

“That’s my favorite family photo. How could you not love that one? It was just me,” Willie said laughing, “an ornery little turd.”

Bad news

In January of 2016 Willie’s parents texted him that they were going to come down for the weekend of the Oklahoma State and Oklahoma duals.

Willie told them that was fine, but he was injured so there wasn’t really a point to it since he wouldn’t be wrestling. They insisted anyway.

Willie met his parents in their hotel room. They told him Garry was being tested for ALS after Willie and Luann noticed Garry started slurring his speech at night earlier that school year.

The test was just a formality. The Miklus family saw Garry’s mom, Willie’s paternal grandma, suffer through an ALS battle.

“Shock, disbelief — you’re scared,” Willie said of his reaction to the conversation. “You walk into that hotel room and you don’t walk out of that conversation the same way you walked into it. It’s a nightmare. It’s a worst-case scenario come true. It’s scary. You’re uncertain about a lot of things.”

Garry was a strong man. He was a wrestler in his youth — he placed sixth at the Iowa state wrestling tournament for Saydel, he coached wrestling and was the fire captain at the fire station. Garry was strong — physically, emotionally and morally.

When Willie’s grandma battled ALS, Garry helped in the best way he knew how. Garry built his mom a ramp to her house, so she could still live at home. He also replaced her shower with a handicap accessible one.

Garry is a firm believer in the “actions speak louder than words” cliché. But it’s not cliché for him, it’s a lifestyle.

What’s it like for Willie to see a strong figurehead in his life go through this battle?

“I don’t know man, it was weird. It’s tough to watch. At first, it’s not bad,” Willie said slowly with a distance to his voice. “He was still a normal guy. He was still my dad — not to say he’s still not my dad because he is.

“At first, you know he has it and you know bad things are coming.”

Garry worked as a fire captain even after his diagnosis. He worked until he was forced to retire.

“He loved saving lives,” Tim said.

 

Understanding

Willie was back in the lineup two weeks after his parents’ trip, against No. 3 North Carolina State. No. 5 Missouri lost the meet, 18-17. Willie lost to Pete Renda by major decision, 11-0.

“Right when I found out I decided I didn’t want to talk with anybody about it,” Willie said. “I would go home, lock myself in the room and just sit. I felt like there was a giant hole inside me.

“You don’t know how to handle that news and you don’t know how to patch that up. And you can’t because your whole reality has just been flipped upside down.”

When the team got to the airport, Smith told Willie he needed to see somebody because his dad’s illness was affecting him negatively.

When they got back, Willie started seeing a sport psychologist, which helped him.

All Willie wanted was understanding. Willie is a man of faith, so he sought understanding from God.

“I’m not the best Christian there ever was and I never will be,” Willie said. “I understand I’ll fall short every time. Faith has helped me a lot. I pray every night, I pray during the day — there are different times when I talk to God.

“Sometimes I asked, ‘Why?’ Not, ‘Why me?’ Just: ‘Why? What’s the lesson here?’”

Willie has learned several lessons. He said he’ll still be learning lessons even 20 years from now. But no lesson more than how important family is.

Which is why, when Garry’s condition deteriorated, Willie had to make the tough decision to transfer from the program and university he loved and had called home for five years.

He told Garry about his decision by getting him the Iowa State wrestling shirt. But Willie still had to tell his former coaches and teammates.

“I told Coach Smith and I was pretty upset when I was doing it,” Willie said. “It was a hard phone call to make. We actually had two phone calls. He actually called me the second time and apologized for the first one saying that he ‘didn’t handle it right.’ I was like, ‘I thought you handled it fine.’ Smith understood but I don’t think he left it on the note that he wanted to so he called me again.”

After Willie told Smith, he called each one of his teammates individually. Willie made more than 30 phone calls to teammates. He wanted to tell them in person, but plans had changed.

“I called them all and told them what was going on,” Willie said. “They all understood. But it was incredibly hard at 24 years old to be making those phone calls. It was awful.”

One of Willie’s first phone calls after he told the his teammates was to former Iowa State national champion Kyven Gadson, who was training in Colorado at the time. Gadson doesn’t get good reception in Colorado, so when he got back to Iowa, he called Willie asking if it was true that he was transferring to Iowa State.

Willie and Kyven wrestled together as youths and their fathers exchanged stories while their children competed in various tournaments. Willie said Kyven’s dad, Willie Gadson, was one of his favorite people.

Willie Gadson died of cancer in 2013.

“I thought about Kyven and his dad when I was making this decision,” Miklus said. “One of the things Kyven told me is he wishes he could have one more conversation with his dad. Just one more. He has so many questions he wants to ask him.

“Kyven just had his first kid with his wife and I know he wants to ask his dad if he’s doing the right thing and raising his daughter correctly. I knew being closer would definitely be the right move. I asked Kyven once, ‘I’m guessing you wish you could’ve been closer?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be honest, that gave me chills because I definitely wish I could have. I would love to have my dad around one more time.’”

 

Family

The holidays are a tough time for Willie. He knows he only has so many holidays left with his dad.

Iowa State wrestled at the Southern Scuffle over New Year’s, but Willie felt he needed to be home with his family for Christmas and his dad’s birthday, which was three days after Christmas. Willie had also been sick, which was the tipping point. Dresser told Willie he was staying home to be with his family.

“The holidays are a different time for me,” Willie said. “Everybody is so excited to go home and see family and stuff. I’m glad to go home and I’m glad to see family, but at the same time, it’s a depressing time because you know you only have so many left.”

Willie said this was probably Garry’s last Christmas. Garry, who’s 58, can no longer dress himself. He can’t walk, has a hard time talking and can’t brush his teeth. He lost the ability to use his left arm and he just stopped eating solid foods.

“My mom has to do everything for him,” Willie said.

That’s why Willie felt like he needed to move back home, to help Luann whenever he could.

“It’s caused me to think about things differently and to understand this situation in depth and in a way I don’t wish on any of my friends,” Willie said. “I don’t want them to understand what this is like. People have said, ‘Well you can talk to me about this.’ Well I can but I can’t because you’re not going to get it. And I hope you don’t. I hope you don’t understand until you’re 55 or 60 years old and your parents pass away because they’re too old. That’s the way I would rather figure this out.”

Willie got a “FAM1LY” tattoo with the names of his family members surrounding the word as a constant reminder how important his family is.

“Family has always been important to me, but how do you forget this? How do you walk away and not learn anything from it? Those are the people I love the most,” Willie said. “If there’s anything that could be said or should be said it’s that family is first. Family is most important. I’d do whatever I could to help them out.

“That was something that was very important to my dad — family.”

On Sunday, Willie will toe the red starting line on the wrestling mat as the lights of Hilton Coliseum shine down on him. Garry, who hasn’t missed a home dual, will be there watching. Willie will look across the mat and shake hands with his Missouri opponent and good friend Wyatt Koelling.

The ref will blow the whistle and for seven minutes in the last dual meet of his career, Willie will demonstrate the maturity, intensity, strength, steadiness and discipline his dad instilled in him throughout his life.

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