AMES, Iowa -- The big stage and the bright lights are nothing new for Iowa State wrestler Willie Miklus.
His championship story started back at Southeast Polk High School, winning back-to-back state titles his junior and senior season, cementing himself as one of SEP`s greats.
Then he was onto Mizzou, where he became a three-time All American. But his story is finishing in Ames.
“When he reached out to us it was pretty much done in his mind,” Iowa State Wrestling Head Coach Kevin Dresser said. “I mean he was coming to Iowa State.”
“When I thought about it, a no-brainer, but a necessity as well,” Miklus said.
The first person Miklus told about his transfer was his dad.
“He kind of didn't believe me at first, and then he didn't believe me the second time I said it either, so had to tell him three times,” Miklus said.
“I had no idea it was coming,” Willie’s Mom, LuAnn Miklus said. “It was as big of a surprise to the both of us that he had made those choices.”
It was for one reason, and one reason only, to be near his father, Garry.
“It was something I think I needed to do; something I felt I needed to do,” Willie said. “I just felt my mom needed help [and] my youngest brother. I felt like it would be better to be closer to my dad in the end.”
The end of a terminal illness.
“His diagnosis date was actually April 4, 2016,” LuAnn said. “So coming up this month, it would’ve been three years.”
It was ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. And it was taking a toll on the father that not only preached, but demonstrated the value of hard work.
“He was captain on the city of Des Moines Fire Department,” LuAnn said. “He worked for the city for 29 years. He was also a senior medic for years. He loved his job. Whatever Garry did, though, he did with 110 percent. He never did half way.”
“There was no other option with him. You’re either going to work out, work hard, or you were going to go inside and take a nap, and I wasn’t tired. So I had no other options,” Willie said.
Garry's energy echoed in gymnasiums and arenas across the country, leaving only one word to describe the wrestling dad.
“Intense I think is the word I would use if I had to pick one,” Willie said.
“Garry is very intense,” LuAnn said. “He was always was saying `they should've done this` or `they should've done that.’” But it was out of the love he had for his kids.
“Garry’s goal was to be everywhere the kids were,” LuAnn said. “So if we had two kids doing something one weekend, one's here and one's there, well we would split up. He would go watch one and I would go watch the other.”
That’s why it was so important Willie was close to home this final season. Garry was there, for every single home dual.
“It was really important that he come to all those duals,” Willie said. “That was something he really wanted to do.” But Willie knew his dad’s time in the stands was dwindling.
‘I knew during dual meets and stuff that he might not make it to nationals, and then around February I was like, ‘he’s not even going to make it to conference,'" Willie said.
And Garry knew it, too.
“He stopped talking about NCAAs. He stopped talking about Big 12s. He stopped talking about going," LuAnn said.
Willie’s final match on senior night would be Garry’s last. He died one week later.
“Anybody who has a family member with a terminal illness knows it’s coming, but how do you actually prepare for when it actually happens? It’s still like a dagger in the gut. Like, you’re just not ready for it,” Willie said.
But even with Garry gone, his words of wisdom drove Willie, his family, and Iowa State to keep their eyes on the prize.
“Obviously his dad was a very strong, tough individual and that's the way Willie was raised,” Dresser said. “So the communication right after his dad passed with his mom was ‘this is the way it's going to be. The focus is on Willie right now.’”
“He has to remain focused. He has a job to do and Garry would've wanted it that way,” LuAnn said.
“There’s no question about going, like I’m going,” Willie said. “You’re going and you’re going to try to win. That’s the goal every time.”
So Willie went on to wrestle in the Big 12 Championships, just five days later. He clinched his 100th collegiate career win, and qualified for the wrestling championships.
“I mean it’s definitely a difficult road to the finals when you look at it from my end, but that's the way he would've made it,” Willie said.
This is Willie’s fourth trip to nationals, the first without Garry. But if there's anything his dad taught him, it was not to feel sorry for himself and press on.
“It’s my last shot at a national title. This is what I’ve worked for since I was six-years-old. It’s the end of it,” Willie said.
“My dad, you know, got me started in this. He wanted to see it happen some days more than I did, but at the end of the day winning a national title is exactly what we wanted. So that’s what I’m striving for."
Willie wouldn’t say if his father is giving him extra inspiration or motivation, but simply says the key for him on the mat this weekend is to just be himself, and “that’s a pretty fun thing to do.” He’s the sixth-seed in the 197 lbs. national bracket. His first match is Thursday morning.