Thirty-six years after the IHSAA sanctioned the state tournament, Bob Steenlage muscled his way to becoming Iowa’s first four-time state champion. I love events in history that break barriers. They’re special, like man’s first space walk in orbit, or man’s first steps on the moon. They are events that are extraordinary, that appear transcendent as moments of destiny where you stop what you’re doing to watch what’s taking place and take notice. That’s the esteemed place of honor that Bob Steenlage holds in Iowa wrestling history!
It’s been almost 60 years since Steenlage won his 4 titles and his alma mater high school, Britt won consecutive state titles in 1961-1962, but the legendary achievement of becoming the first will always remain and belong to him. It’s an astounding feat that would not be repeated for 17 long years. It would become the road map for those who came after him that persevered and held onto their dreams of becoming a 4 time state champion in wrestling, and aspired to push those boundaries ever further.
Bob Steenlage has an amazing history and life story that fully told would be better left for a “Remember the Wrestler” article to do him justice, but since we are dealing with the subject of GOAT in IA HS wrestling I will try to limit most of my comments and facts to his high school career and push for his consideration as such.
So is Bob Steenlage of Britt the GOAT?
By simple name recognition by the average wrestling fan… probably not. But if you asked knowledgeable wrestling fans you may get another answer. Steenlage has a lot more name recognition than you may think, and of course his accomplishments in Iowa wrestling history are in a class among the wrestling elites, as a very select few of this group are – he’s not just a member of the 4 timer list of Iowa state champions. He’s the very first one in that elite group. That carries the weight and level of respect in this sport much like that of the pioneer astronauts of the NASA space program in their race and quest to conquer space. Part of what makes Steenlage relevant even today is that he’s a decorated Vietnam veteran, has a published biography and is a public speaker, and that he’s still out there telling his compelling story and still promoting the sport of wrestling to those who are willing to hear. His wrestling credentials for GOAT and his claim dates back to 1959.
Here’s the case for Bob Steenlage as GOAT…
Bob Steenlage completed his HS career with a record of 74-7-5 in route to his pinnacle achievement of winning 4 consecutive state titles. He would be the first to admit that he was not the most talented wrestler ever to don the mats at the state tournament, but recognized that his lack of natural or gifted ability did not have to be a hindrance in achieving greatness. Probably the greatest attributes or assets that he possessed as a competitor were his raw determination and an unshakable belief and confidence in himself, and his mental toughness. He had immeasurable TRUE GRIT!
And while his career record is not nearly as impressive by today’s standards, there is a reason that the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum selected Bob Steenlage to represent the award presented to the top high school senior wrestler in the state of Iowa.
Kind of a unique factoid regarding this first 4-time event in Iowa HS wrestling history is that as a senior, Steenlage won his finals match on a referee’s decision by “riding time” (3-2). We’ll get to the details of that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about context and then take a quick look at each state title in order.
At that time in Iowa wrestling history, the participating state wrestling schools were divided into just 2 classes – larger schools class A and the rest of the wrestling schools in class B. Growing up in an agricultural state, Iowa has long been recognized for its work ethic and it provided rich opportunities for anyone willing to put their hard work and efforts to good use. I’m old enough to remember those days of hot summers baling hay, stacking and unstacking, then putting the bales away in the barns. Bales weighing between 70lbs to 100lbs depending on moisture content and how tight the bales were set and loading those hay racks 7 rows high. That’s the work life that Bob Steenlage knew and came out of, and it didn’t matter that he was on the light end of the wrestling weight classes as everyone was expected to carry their own weight in that era of late 1950’s early 1960’s. Small in weight class or not, Steenlage was nasty as a roll of barbed wire and just as strong.
As for the individual state titles that he won:
State Title #1
Steenlage won the first of his 4 straight championship titles in the 1959 Class B 95lbs finals where he defeated Ron Jones of Iowa Falls 2-1, who went on to wrestle in college at Iowa State University and was 2x AA at 130 placing 5th in 1963 and 4th in 1965, and was part of Coach Harold Nichols’s first NCAA National Championship team. Ron along with his brother Don (also an Iowa State alum and IA state champ at 133lbs in 1961) later coached for their alma mater for 15 years – Ron winning the Iowa prep 2A COY award in 1983. So the kid that Steenlage beat in the finals as a freshman was a pretty good quality wrestler, good enough that Dr. Harold Nichols chased both he and his brother down at a roofing job personally to recruit them for his Iowa State wrestling program.
State Title #2
As a sophomore, Steenlage bumped up a weight to 103lbs, and advanced through the state tournament rounds going on to win the 1960 Class B state championship and capturing his 2nd straight title, beating Rich Leichtman of New Hampton by a score of 4-0. The runner up, Leichtman would go on to win a state title of his own the next year at 112lbs in 1962, continuing his wrestling career at Iowa State – placing 3rd in the Big 8 Tourney in 1966 at 123lbs, then placed 5th at the NCAA Nationals at 123 (unseeded) behind none other than our GOAT profile wrestler Bob Steenlage (seeded 4th) who placed 3rd that year for Army (West Point Military Academy). In that 1966 NCCA Nationals tournament, both wrestlers were defeated by eventual 3x national champion Mike Caruso from Lehigh (Leichtman losing to Caruso in the 2nd round 3-2; and Bob Steenlage losing to Caruso in a close 4-2 semifinals match). Steenlage defeated Leichtman in the wrestle backs by a score of 4-2 to advance to the 3rd place medal match where he defeated Warren Crow of SUNY-Albany 7-3 to capture 3rd place.
Leichtman’s school – New Hampton was a state powerhouse during that era from 1957-1963 which included 12 individual state titles and 3 team titles in 1957, 1959, and 1963. So again, the kid that Steenlage beat was a great kid, a future state champ and went on to have a good career at the college level.
A background note – Lehigh’s Mike Caruso went on to be inducted into the National Collegiate Wrestling HOF in 1991 and finished with a career record of 57-1 and had a streak of 50 consecutive wins. His only loss came by the hands of none other than Bob Steenlage in a 7-2 match – Not Too Shabby!
More trivia – Steenlage also defeated Mike Johnson of Pitt in the finals of the Easterns in 1965. Mike Johnson was the first wrestler in the U.S. to win four straight wrestling titles in high school. Steenlage was the second ever to accomplish this feat one year later. Who would’ve seen that cawinkydink happening in their crystal ball?
State Title #3
Steenlage capped off his junior season in 1961 by seizing his 3rd state championship title at 112lbs by defeating Dan Sullivan of Corning in another close match 2-0. I’ve been working on trying to find out more information on Dan Sullivan but have been unsuccessful at this point researching back through 60 years on any of his wrestling achievements… but the point here is that Sullivan was a state runner up. It’s still not necessarily a reason to discount double-check a state title if you’re measuring GOAT attributes based on competition level… Oh, by the way, I’ve heard from family members that winning one state title is NOT that easy, let alone your third! One thing’s for sure, you wrestle whoever makes it to the finals and Steenlage beat the best that took the mat against him that year at state.
State Title #4
As mentioned previously, Steenlage won his 4th straight state title in 1962 at the 120lbs weight class in exciting fashion by defeating Steve Balsbaugh of Perry, a previous state qualifier who got knocked out of the tournament in the opening round the year before by Steenlage’s teammate and a 2x state champ himself – Larry Loyd.
The 4-T clinching finals match ended in the third period tied 2-2, but back in those days one of the tie-breaker criteria used to determine winners in a tie match was by a clock that logged the riding time advantage between wrestlers, similar to how college score tables track riding time today. This ultimately provided Steenlage with a criteria advantage and when the referee returned from the scorer’s table after about a 2 minute meeting, he raised the right arm of Bob Steenlage for the win, causing the crowd to erupt with excitement, thus crowning him as the “First 4 time State Champion” in Iowa wrestling history. The criteria time difference was by 1 second, as Steenlage had racked up a 61 seconds of riding time advantage. A point was given to a wrestler if they had more than a minute riding time over their opponent. The official score in the books would go down as 3-2 with the difference determined by “riding time”…
While that score doesn’t seem indicative of a dominating performance that would provide ammunition for considering Bob Steenlage as the GOAT in Iowa HS wrestling, maybe we should consider some facts regarding his senior year campaign…
Much of this information is chronicled in the documentary “Wrestling with Iowa”, which includes footage of an interview of Bob Steenlage, who is now 76 years old, discussing his quest for 4 state titles and in particular his senior year.
During his senior year he faced and overcame some major hurdles, which began when his HS wrestling coach Kent Townley left before the season started. Steenlage has been candid about that event being devastating to him at the time – “He was like a father to me. It was devastating when he left because he was my workout partner, my mentor, and my teacher.”
Britt had brought in a new wrestling coach named Jim Craig, a former NCAA champion at Iowa in 1959. On the surface this all seemed to be a plus, but as it happened, during some drills where Steenlage and his new coach were working on takedowns, Steenlage injured his back. The pain was severe enough that it forced him to see a local doctor, who after x-rays, told Steenlage that he would never wrestle again! To paraphrase, the words of Lt. Aldo Rey – “That was news he could NOT abide!”
He didn’t accept that diagnosis so he sought help through a chiropractor across the street, who worked on him and helped him manage the pain while he worked at getting back on the mat. The injury left him unable to wrestle for weeks and was a nagging reminder throughout that season as it took much longer to recover than expected, with the pain preventing him from working out until 10 days before the district tournament started. Throughout this ordeal Steenlage’s confidence never wavered though – “I knew I could win because of 3 things… my mental outlook, the strong grip I had and the physical shape I was in!”
That belief and confidence carried Steenlage all the way to the state semifinals match against his fiercest rival and competitor – Ron Barker of Osage, who Steenlage recalls as being “built like an ox” and that match was refereed by none other than Dr. Harold Nichols – yes the legendary Dr. Harold Nichols… Steenlage’s only loss his senior year was to Barker during a regular season dual. The semi-finals match was highly competitive with Steenlage coming out on top by a score of 7-5, but that victory came at a high cost as he separated his right shoulder during the match, the seriousness or severity of which was not known till after the tournament was over!
“I knew I had to wrestle with one arm,” Steenlage said about preparing for that final match of his prep career. He persevered, while having no grip in right hand or much strength in his right arm throughout that finals match against Steve Balsbaugh of Perry. Miraculously, he was able to wrestle his opponent to a 2-2 draw when the referee’s whistle blew ending that match. And with the 1 point awarded by the scorer’s table for the just over a minute advantage in riding time, the wrestling gladiator Bob Steenlage became an Iowa wrestling legend and the first Four-Time wrestling state champion in Iowa history!
Like many that are reading this, we’re either not old enough to remember this historic event or weren’t even born yet… maybe for decades. But the truth is in the details.
Everything that I’ve read about it and even interviews of those involved or that did see this, portray it like a true life Rocky movie with a fairy tale ending, including the hero – a bruised and battered gladiator character like Rocky calling out “Yo Adrian, I DID IT!” atmosphere to it. Only in this case he won it for his coach and his teammates and the entire wrestling world (Iowa) that was watching!
So much interest and thought is spent discussing won-loss records, match ups, and wrestling era’s and trying to compare one against the other, but I think there is so much more to this sport than numbers when evaluating worth and excellence, plus there’s no statistic that measures a wrestlers desire, heart, and guts when competition is concerned. In the horse racing and breeding industry they can measure differences in heart size in relation to performance… (did I mention I love horses in one of my previous articles? well I digress) but the sports folks can’t quantify or measure will and the desire to win. We only see a partial measure based on results. Those are attributes required by those that achieve at the highest levels of competition.
We try to quantify individual attributes and contributions via statistics, which don’t get me wrong – they matter, especially today where colleges are using wrestling metrics to make training decisions and how analytics can be used to predict potential, reveal weaknesses, opportunities to improve, develop workout and training strategies and plans to streamline individual workouts as well as for improving team strengths and addressing team weakness. But like all data analytics, it’s only as good as the input data used in producing results. So where am I going with all this? Well I feel like it’s hard to give an elite and outstanding candidate like Bob Steelage a fair shake because I’ve never seen him wrestle or seen video of him wrestle to make any disqualifying decisions or impressions regarding his style… The only style I see in newspaper print and books that I’ve been fortunate enough to read and learn about him. And his style is he hates to lose and he’s a winner! There’s very little data available on older era athletes to make valid comparisons or draw realistic conclusions regarding older era wrestlers.
How does that help in evaluating who the GOAT is in Iowa HS wrestling? Did I help move the needle at all or did I just muddy the water? Regardless, there’s a great deal of uniqueness and level of excellence in the HS career of Bob Steenlage that all fans and competitors should value, recognize, and appreciate.
Winning four consecutive state high school titles was and still is a Mount Everest achievement in wrestling, and Steenlage is the Edmund Hillary figure in Iowa wrestling that conquered that summit! The fact that others have followed and made that climb to that same summit peak overlooking the vast wrestling horizons doesn’t diminish that great achievement in the least, and in my opinion, enhances it – just as it does for those others that have achieved that pinnacle moment in their histories!
Bob Steenlage is probably not the GOAT in Iowa HS wrestling if what you are measuring by is based on won loss record and points scored vs points allowed, or even quality of opponents. But I’d still put him up against anyone pound for pound at his relative age and weight class, given access to the same advantages of modern wrestling facilities, and training. He won 4 state titles at 4 different weight classes. Just like all the other 4 timers, he was a winner and a steely cold competitor that didn’t seem to have many weaknesses.
And he won his last state title with an arm that was basically useless (the proverbial “one arm tied behind his back”) – how many 4 time GOAT candidates can say that?
As far as breaking barriers in sports and wrestling in particular – Bob Steenlage ranks at the top of the sport. That’s why he has a place in the Dan Gable Wrestling Museum and an annual award named after him given to the top senior wrestler in the state of IOWA!
It doesn’t get any better than that…
And to quote the late great radio voice Paul Harvey – “And now you know – the Rest of the Story!”