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Photo: Neary 35 years after their historic college match in 1988, former Iowa State Cyclone Eric Voelker (left) and former Iowa Hawkeye Brooks Simpson became friends while also serving as pastors of churches in Iowa City and West Des Moines.
By Mike Chapman
It is a wrestling match that has been described in very colorful ways for over three decades. And … there is an amazing twist to the story that comes later in this column.
Those who were in the arena that day will probably never forget that match.
It’s been called “the pin heard around the world” and “lighting in a bottle”.
“I’ve never seen a moment like it in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and I’ve been attending basketball and wrestling events there for 40 years,” said one longtime Hawkeye fan.
What they were talking about was the epic battle between Brooks Simpson of Iowa and Eric Voelker of Iowa State on Jan. 16, 1988. As the defending NCAA champion, Voelker took to the mat as a huge favorite. He was 19-2 on the season, while Simpson was an untested sophomore with a 3-2 mark.
In addition, both teams were undefeated and ranked one and two in the nation! It was a seminal moment in the tremendously popular series between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones, two iconic programs with long and illustrious traditions.
Entering the final two bouts, ISU was ahead 15-10 and a win by Voelker would clinch a victory for the visitors, handing Dan Gable his first loss ever as a head coach in CHA. In the second period, Voelker was on top with a 6-1 lead … and then Simpson hit a tremendous side roll, putting the national champion on his back.
Eric fought valiantly but to no avail. Brooks scored the improbable fall and bedlam ensued as the crowd of 13,575 erupted. Moments later, Iowa heavyweight Mark Sindlinger scored a quick pin and the Hawks came away with a stunning 22-15 victory.
“I still get excited thinking about the Simpson-Voelker match in Carver Hawkeye because they were both such warriors,” said Tim Johnson, the longtime television broadcaster who was covering the meet live. “When the mat was slapped the place went nuts. I had never heard CHA that loud, nor have I since, and I’ve been calling meets there since 1986. I thought the roof was going to blow off.
“Barry Davis, who was an Iowa assistant at the time, jumped into assistant coach Mark Johnson’s arms and I remember seeing Gable gather himself in the midst of the chaos and make sure that Sindlinger was ready to go out and seal the deal for the Hawks.”
Voelker got revenge a few weeks later when he pinned Simpson in the second dual. Overall, they wrestled four times during their college days, and the Cyclone held a 3-1 edge. Voelker finished third in the NCAAs that year as a junior and won his second title in 1989 as a senior. He also won three Big Eight championships.
In 1990, Simpson was Big Ten champion and took second in the NCAAs, dropping a 6-5 decision in the finals to Matt Ruppel of Lehigh.
BUT THAT is only part of this amazing story.
Eric and Brooks are now using their considerable energies and talents for preaching the Gospel. Brooks has been a member of the Grace Community Church staff in Iowa City since 1998 and is now the lead pastor there, while Eric has just retired from a long stint as pastor at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines and is continuing his work in an independent fashion.
“The first time I ever saw the clip of the match on the internet was on Eric’s Facebook page” said Brooks. “I was really surprised he had posted the match on his page, and not me. It’s part of his message that pride goes before a fall.
“And that says a lot about Eric as a person, and his humility. He was a fierce competitor but he is a very nice and humble man.”
They began texting each other and Voelker invited Simpson to speak to his men’s group at his church. They even posed together for a photo at the Iowa-ISU meet in 2019 at CHA.
“I knew Brooks was a pastor and I brought him over to our church to discuss the book of Romans,” said Eric, who admits the dual loss in Iowa City “wasn’t my favorite thing at first. But … it’s been a part of my life. I learned more from my losses than from standing on the top of the podium.”
The referee for the 1988 match was Phil Henning, a hall of fame coach at Marshalltown High School (and a former Hawkeye NCAA runner-up, at 167 in 1970). The memory of that match remains fresh in his mind to this day.
“You could have heard a pin drop when Eric was on top with a 6-1 lead,” said Henning. “The Hawkeye fans were so quiet … and then Brooks hits a simple side roll, and the place went from dead quiet to the loudest roar I’ve ever heard. I could actually feel the vibration on my back from that noise. I have never heard anything like it in my life.”
The veteran referee had to restore order and get the final match underway. And there was yet another remarkable moment to come. As Henning was exiting his dressing room after the meet, the Iowa State team was coming out of its locker room nearby. Voelker spotted Henning and started walking toward him.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” said Henning. “Then Eric stuck out his hand and said, ‘Thanks, Phil, for giving me a chance to get off my back before calling the pin.’”
Henning had hesitated to call the fall because Eric was working so hard to break free, fighting long, tortuous seconds to avoid the pin.
“Here’s the defending national champion, his team’s victory is on the line, and he comes over to thank me,” said Henning. “I tell that story every chance I get. That was the epitome of sportsmanship!”
And there is this side note to the story: “I too was called to the Gospel ministry with the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes),” said Tim Johnson. “For the past 30 years, I’ve been ‘broadcasting’ the Gospel full-time through FCA, as well as a few wrestling meets as a side gig; for all three of us, wrestling set the table for us to compete in life for a greater gold.”
(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN Magazine, the Dan Hodge Trophy, the National Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, author of 30 books and was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.) n