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Wrestling loses a legend with death of Mick Pickford

04/11/2014, 9:45am CDT
By Matt Levins

~~FORT MADISON — In the sport of wrestling there are legends and there are icons, people whose influence on the sport and people transcend the sport.
 Willard L. “Mick” Pickford was one of those rare treasures. Mention the name Pickford and the first two things most people think about are wrestling and Fort Madison.
 Pickford, the longtime Fort Madison High School wrestling coach who started the Tri-State Freestyle Wrestling Tournament in Fort Madison which now bears his name, died Wednesday morning in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 82 years old.
 Pickford leaves behind a legacy in the sport that will live on forever. His influence on wrestling and on the lives of those people he touched is still being felt, two decades after he hung up his whistle for the final time.
 Pickford, quite simply, is a legend in the sport of wrestling.
“My best memory of Coach Pickford was just the fact that he was somebody who helped build the sport of wrestling into what it is today. He had some great athletes and some great wrestlers,” said Dan Gable, perhaps the most legendary figure in wrestling history who was friends with Pickford. “The Pickford name is an institution in wrestling for me.”
 “My Dad had a lot of contact with a lot of kids in Fort Madison through the years. He made an impact on all of them in one way or another. I think most of them were positive with my Dad,” said Pat Pickford, one of Mick Pickford’s three sons and who won a state championship for Fort Madison in 1980 with his dad as his coach. “My Dad actually started the program at Fort Madison. When he first came there, the school was brand new. That’s one of the things that attracted him to Fort Madison in the first place.”
 “I first met Coach Pickford through his son, Scott, who wrestled at about the same time I did over at Western Illinois,” said former Burlington High School coach Mike Richart, who got his start in coaching under Pickford at Fort Madison in 1973. “Mick had an opening for a freshman wrestling coach and the physical education and driver’s ed positions. I learned so much from him. I had just come out of college and just being around him and his staff, I became a much better wrestler. He was a very good technician.”
Pickford’s influence is still profound at Fort Madison to this day.
“When I first came in as a young rookie coach, I had a lot of respect for Coach Pickford and what he had established in Fort Madison. If it weren’t for that, I probably never would have come here,” said Ryan Smith, who just completed his 16th season as head coach of the Bloodhounds’ wrestling team. “As the new guy coming in, I wasn’t sure how I would be received. Coach Pickford was more than welcoming. He embraced me as a coach and that really made me feel good. I always felt like I had his blessing on what I was trying to do with the program and that always meant a lot to me.”
Pickford came to Fort Madison in 1959 to reestablish the wrestling program. In his 35 years as head coach of the Bloodhounds, Pickford’s teams won 17 conference championships, 10 sectional tournaments, three district meets and finished in the top six at the top 10 at the state tournament six times, placing third in 1980. He had six undefeated seasons and his team’s once won 42 straight duals.
 One of Pickford’s prize pupils was Gary Steffensmeier, who won two state championships at Fort Madison and went on to become a three-time All-American at the University of Northern Iowa.
“One of my best memories of Coach Pickford is of him chewing on a cigar while driving us to wrestling tournaments,” Steffensmeier said. “Mick had a huge influence on my life. He was very misunderstood. He was a very demanding person. He had a high standard and he wanted everybody to rise to it. I remember him taking me to Chicago three times. He grew up on the south side of Chicago and he was very ppor, but he made it out. We used to go back there and he would speak to people. That was an unbelievable experience for a high school kid.”
Pickord’s first state champion was Larry Balanos in 1968, He also coached Randy Lampe to a state title in 1974, as well as Pat Pickford and Steffensmeier.
 Pickford came to Fort Madison after a brief stint at Hawarden, where his claim to fame was coaching the father of decathlon great Kip Janvrin.
 Pickford is perhaps best known for bringing freetsyle and Greco-Roman wrestling to prominence in Iowa. In 1970, Pickford started the Tri-State Freestyle Wrestling Tournament at Fort Madison High School. It is held the second weekend in March and annually draws some of the best wrestlers from Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The event was renamed the Mick Pickford Freestyle Wrestling Tri-State Tournament several years ago. At one time, it was one of the biggest freestyle tournaments in the Midwest and served as a qualifying tournament for the national freestyle championships.
“I remember that used to be the tournament after the state wrestling tournament was over. Mick Pickford helped Iowa become the first state where freestyle and Greco wrestling became an entity in and of itself,” Gable said. “I remember people used to follow his tournament after the state tournament. It was a really big deal.”
 “He really got the freestyle and Greco style of wrestling going at the high school level. He was a big figure in he movement in Iowa,” Smith said. “I remember coming to that tournament when I was in high school and college. It was a pretty big deal. That was one of the things that attracted me to Fort Madison.”
Pickford may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. His legacy lives on. He is a legend in the sport of wrestling, an icon in Fort Madison.
“I owe a lot of my success in life to him. He was a mentor. He was a father figure. He told me how it was,” Steffensmeier said. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for Mick Pickford.”
 “I remember the first time I was at Burlington and I beat him in a dual. Someone called up the Des Moines Register and they put in a little blurb about the pupil beats his mentor. It was a big deal,” Richart said.
“I’m glad I got to know him and spend some time with him,” Smith said. “His wisdom and his wrestling knowledge … I tried to soak up as much of it as I could. I consider him a legend in the wrestling world, especially in Iowa.”
 “My dad had a lot of impact on a lot of people. Every time I’m out in public, like at the grocery store, people will come up to me and ask about my dad and ask me to tell him hello for them,” Pat Pickford said. “He is going to be sorely missed.”
 “It’s a sad day. He’s someone who really helped the sport of wrestling,” Gable said. “Pickford. The family name will always be etched in history for me. You applaud the name.”

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