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Wrestling’s 12th man (or woman) are special
By Sandy Stevens
Editor’s Note: The following column first appeared in WIN, Volume 19, Issue 2, and printed Nov. 21, 2012.
The phrase “The 12th Man” was coined to praise a football fan’s influence on his team’s triumph, but it applies beyond the gridiron.
And sometimes, “The 12th Man” is a woman.
Becky Buckles Willhite, for example, is one of a legion of wrestling fans whose dedication and service to their favorite team can have a profound effect on the schools’ success.
Willhite, a charter member (1994-95) of Iowa State’s Cyclone Wrestling Club and a 15-year board member, organizes the club’s tailgates and socials.
“I feel like it’s my family,” she said. “I’m kind of a mom to the kids and a liaison to their parents. God never gave me any boys; he gave me all the wrestlers at Iowa State.”
But wrestling captured her passion early on. At age 3, she’d accompany her parents to watch her uncle, Hall of Famer Gerald “Germ” Leeman, coach his Fort Dodge High School team. Lehman, a national champion for Northern Iowa and an Olympic silver medalist, would go on to coach at Lehigh University.
“I remember people then talking about him being an Olympian,” Willhite said. “He was always one of my heroes. It was just natural that I would love wrestling. Once Uncle Gerry was at Lehigh, I spent summers out there in the Poconos, working his wrestling camps.”
She cheered at East Waterloo High School, which won multiple state championships at that time, and cheered at ISU, where she majored in early childhood education.
Even before joining the board, this mother of two continued to follow Cyclone teams while raising children and llamas.
Willhite’s support “means everything,” said Iowa State head coach Kevin Jackson. “Her love and passion for the sport and for Iowa State; it just shines through her.
“Regardless of results, whether you’re having a championship year or a tough year, she stays loyal, she stays positive. And she truly loves every single Iowa State man.”
John Garriques, coach of Division II Centenary College of New Jersey, says his Cyclones’ program lost a “12th man” in May, when Robert Quade died at age 85.
In 1992, seven students had approached the business professor to urge him to start a wrestling program with a club team, although Quade had virtually no wrestling experience, Garriques said.
The school dropped the program for one full year, but then the president asked Quade to reinstate the club team. “From then on, Bob drove the bus and took them to tournaments,” Garriques said.
Quade handed off the coaching reins in 1995 but continued to stay involved and extremely supportive, in ways ranging from academic aid to volunteering to drive, Garriques said. “He was at every single match we went to, and he raved about the program to everybody he talked to.”
During Garriques’ third coaching season, Centenary made national rankings for the very first time, coming in at No. 22. “What’s a reasonable goal?” Quade asked.
“Thirteenth,” Garriques answered.
“If you guys break into 13, I’ll go green,” Quade promised.
They did, and he did, the highly respected professor traversing the campus with his signature bowtie and his hair dyed green.
“And if you break into the top 10, I’ll do it again,” he declared.
“That season, he did it again — and with a Mohawk,” Garriques said.
At last year’s wrestle-offs, in front of about 500 fans, Quade put on a singlet and “wrestled” Cyclones’ assistant coach Mike Kessler. During the NCAA tournament, Quade sent inspirational quotes and a photo of himself with a cutout of Hulk Hogan in singlets to Garriques’ phone.
Though he’s gone, Quade certainly is not forgotten. “We’ve dedicated this season to him,” Garriques said.
Dan and Linda Pierce think little of jumping in their car and driving hours to cheer on the Western State Colorado University Mountaineers.
The couple spends the spring through the fall in Gunnison and the rest of the year in Colorado Springs — “when we’re not chasing the wrestlers around,” Dan said.
That “chasing” can entail a trip to San Francisco for the regionals, a seven-hour drive to the Kearney Open, even a five-hour excursion (one way) to a fans’ social before the Mesa Open.
“The last three years or so, they’ve hardly missed anything,” said head coach Miles Van Hee.
The Pierces’ involvement with Western State began in earnest after they retired from teaching about seven years ago, but Dan’s job before graduating in 1970 was working in the wrestling room.
“I rolled around with them,” he recalled, “but I wasn’t a wrestler. I became a pretzel for them once in a while.”
He coached middle and high school wrestlers in Colorado Springs, and Linda would attend those meets. “Plus she’s from Pennsylvania,” he said. “She’s a sports nut, and she’s really interested in wrestling now.
“Wrestling crowds are a great family atmosphere, and it’s entertainment for us.”
While their dedication focuses on a specific team, some of these super fans also devote time and effort to the sport as a whole. Willhite, for example, now lives in Cedar Falls, and she and grandson Nate have season tickets to UNI’s home meets.
She also works closely with Kyle Klingman at the Dan Gable Hall of Fame in Waterloo, promoting a mentoring program for youngsters.
“This place should be full of kids and sweat all the time,” Willhite said. “I’m just concerned with them being part of the sport.”
Then her thoughts return to the Cyclones.
“We’ve come a long way,” she declared, “but my goal is to get our program endowed.”