Miller’s Moment (print edition)

Richie Muhall

Kent State fifth-year senior, two-time All-American and three-time MAC champion Ian Miller is a man on a mission. And that mission is to win.

It all happened so fast. Almost as fast as an Ian Miller takedown.

It was the 157-pound quarterfinal match that pitted Kent State wrestler Ian Miller against Cornell wrestler Brian Realbuto at the 2015 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Missouri. Ian was the No. 7 seed and Realbuto was the No. 2 seed. The stage was set for a great match.

The whistle blew and the two bulls locked up.

Ian took Realbuto down four times and gained a significant riding time advantage to build a 9-4 lead. With the match well in control, Ian imposed his will. Only 50 seconds remained in the period. All Ian had to do was maintain.

Suddenly, Ian’s uncle Zeb watched Ian’s big lead disappear as Ian melted down; Realbuto stunned him with two takedowns in a row in the waning minutes of regulation.

“It was almost like watching someone who can’t swim,” Zeb said.

The match clock was winding down as Ian treaded water, just trying to survive. Ian expended almost every ounce of energy throughout the first six minutes of the match. The last minute belonged to Realbuto.

Ian let a five-point advantage slip away, as Realbuto rallied to a 9-9 tie to force the match into overtime. Just 16 seconds into the extra session, Realbuto scored a takedown for the 11-9 win.

There was only one problem. At the end of regulation, Realbuto struck for a pair of quick takedowns with an escape by Ian in between. The officials missed Ian’s escape point, which should have resulted in a 10-9 win for Ian.

Kent State head coach Jim Andrassy and assistant coaches Matt Hill and Josh Moore were adamant that the score was wrong, so they approached the officials’ table to request that they check the score, but the officials denied the request and told the coaches to return to their bench.

After regulation, Ian was completely spent. He felt gassed going into the overtime period, and it only took Realbuto about 12 seconds to take down Ian in overtime to seal his victory. The scoring error cost him the match and a shot at a national title.

The NCAA Division I wrestling committee, led by committee chairman Matthew Whisenant met to review the footage of the match and come to a conclusion. It took the Kent State coaching staff an hour and a half to hear the ruling derived from the committee’s deliberations. The committee admitted the score was wrong, but the result was left unchanged. The NCAA issued the following statement:

“The NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee met to discuss the scoring error in the match between Brian Realbuto and Ian Miller, and our determination was that there is a protocol in place for coaches to challenge errors in a match via the coaches challenge (Rule 3.21.2 b).  Kent State had challenges remaining and did not raise the challenge flag to declare an error in the match, therefore the resulting Cornell victory stands.”

The NCAA knew the officials got the score wrong, acknowledged that it was wrong, but did nothing to overturn says call. The ruling on the mat stood and Ian Miller was robbed of the victory.

Tweets poured in over social media and flooded Ian’s phone to offer overwhelming support. The hashtag “#freeMiller” trended on Twitter as people voiced what everyone was thinking. The consensus was unanimous: Miller should have won.

As Ian walked through the corridors of the St. Louis Convention Center, the strong, pungent aroma of garlic bread seeped into his nostrils, causing him to projectile vomit as he was heading through the tunnel on his way back to the locker room. Coach Hill followed Ian to the locker room, cleaning up the puke on Ian’s arm and shoe. The bad taste of loss, coupled with the scoring debacle, ultimately left Ian feeling defeated.

After a while, Ian grew quiet. Calm and collected, Ian handled the emotionally charged situation with a sense of grace other wrestlers might not have maintained if thrust into the same situation. “Ian stayed on a really even playing field,” Matt says.

Ian’s mother, Stacy, caught up with her son afterward and offered her support. It was Stacy that really snapped him out of it. “She told me, basically, you can quit and just not be an All-American this year or you can just grit your teeth, go out there and become an All-American again for the second time,” Miller said.

“You’re going to have this kind of stuff happen to you for the rest of your life,” Stacy says. “This is where you decide whether you lay down and let them win or you just keep going.”

Unfortunately, Ian has become too used to this kind of stuff.

Following his family’s footsteps

Growing up with a family history rooted in collegiate wrestling, Ian learned to be tough and wrestle through controversy—whether it be pain, personal setbacks or bad officiating. He had to find a way to gut it out and persevere for the sake of the overall goal.

In Ian’s case, that goal was to become an All-American again—an accolade he would have failed to reach had he chosen to quit after the NCAA quarterfinal match. His gruff and tough upbringing mentally prepared him to not sweat the small stuff and to flourish in the face of adversity.

Ian started wrestling competitively when he was in first grade. He started traveling around the country to wrestle in fifth and sixth grade, and his career took off in junior high when he won the Ohio Junior High State Wrestling Championship his eighth-grade year.

Growing up a Miller exposed him to wrestling at an early age. His grandfather wrestled, his father wrestled and all three of his uncles wrestled. Wrestling runs deep in the Miller family bloodline and, given his father’s wrestling background, Ian would be no different.

His father Ferd was a two-time state champion at Oak Harbor High School in 1986 and ’87.

His two uncles, Chad and Tait, were also state champs from Oak Harbor in 1989 and 1995, respectively. Zeb qualified for the state tournament in 1998 at 171 pounds and placed fifth.

With all this wrestling knowledge at his disposal, Ian learned the family trade rather quickly. Wrestling was in Ian’s blood, and toughness runs in the family when it comes to the Millers.

“Growing up, you had to be tough to be a Miller,” Ian said.

Ferd—the surly bear with the grizzly beard—is the reason Ian is the way he is. A tough kid who never felt sorry for himself.

“Ever since I was little I was always taught that if something doesn’t go your way, you can’t just sit there and sulk,” Ian says. “My dad’s saying is ‘you gotta grit your teeth and get through it.’”

Wrestling is the one common denominator that binds the Miller family lineage together. “They’re crazy in their own right,” Hill says of the Millers. “They have some outlandish ways.”

Outlandish but effective, nonetheless. And to think, if Ian’s uncle Tait hadn’t stopped by the house one day to wail on him, he might not have had the killer instinct to be the dominant wrestler he is today.

Miller’s time

When Ian first arrived at Kent State five years ago, Jim had to tweak Ian’s style a bit to ensure he didn’t get injured. Ian’s dynamic moveset and throwing style put him in a lot of precarious positions when he was younger, and they still sometimes have the same effect.

“It wasn’t as much teaching as it was putting Ian into the best position to win,” Andrassy said.

Ian wasn’t good at managing his weight, staying disciplined and developing mental toughness, but after he redshirted and matured over time, he acquired all the tools he needed to win.

When it comes to working with Ian, Hill focuses more on strategy than technique. It’s all about planning before a match for the end of a match.

“He’s got to get uncomfortable and win that last period,” Hill said.

Andrassy says Ian has the potential to become an All-American again and even run the table at the tournament, but only if he does things the right way. In his sophomore season at the NCAA tournament, he warmed up too early, wasn’t in the best shape and ran out of gas in his semifinal bout. Last year he had some anxiety and dropped seven points to Realbuto in the last 45 seconds of the match.

“To be the best at 149, 157, 165, you have to be the best for three days in a row,” Andrassy said. “You can’t have a bad moment. Ian had a bad 20 seconds. He’s got to figure out a way to win these [close] matches.”

Those three weight classes mentioned above are consistently the top three weight classes every year in terms of depth and competition and this year is no exception.

Ian hasn’t been tested by any elite competition yet this season but once the NCAA Tournament rolls around, he will face some good names out there: Penn State’s Jason Nolf and Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, currently ranked No. 1 and 2 respectively in the nation right now, according to InterMat. “Those are the most athletic, dynamic wrestlers,” Andrassy said of Ian’s weight class.

Man on a Mission

Athletes can be consumed by one earth-shattering moment that goes on to define them. One crushing blow or one demoralizing defeat can destroy an athlete. Look at Ronda Rousey, for example. She lost her first fight in her undefeated mixed-martial arts career and went as far as to contemplate suicide.

“People as good as Ian live and die wrestling, and everything that happens is almost life-threatening or life-changing,” Andrassy said.

Despite the narrations newspapers recite and stories news stations tell, Ian Miller is not some athlete hell-bent on seeking redemption for the tournament that wronged him and cheated him out of a national title. There’s no unfinished business. There is only business.

Last season’s scoring debacle motivates him, but it doesn’t drive him. Only one thing fuels him now: winning.

The bitter end of last year’s NCAA Tournament was not a career-defining moment. The robbery did not define him because he’s fighting for so much more than revenge. He’s fighting for a title.“It’s not going to define the kid’s life – that’s the beautiful thing about it,” Zeb said. “Ian Miller’s not going to be ruined by a wrongly scored match.”

Ian Miller, a two-time All-American and three-time MAC champion, is 20-1 this season, albeit the competition hasn’t been up to par by his standards. He has only wrestled in certain matches, duals and tournaments to save himself for the NCAA Tournament this weekend. He missed a few matches this season due to knee soreness and wasn’t cleared to compete in Kent State’s final home matches against Central Michigan and Edinboro due to a bout of ringworm, a condition he’s dealt with since he was 11 years old.

Whether or not Ian is “sandbagging,” as his dad calls it, he’s definitely saving his best performance for last. “I think the way he’s wrestling is to get through the season undefeated, get the highest seed he can and just let it rip from there,” Zeb said.

Winning an NCAA title is a goal, but that goal is not the end-all, be-all moment. The moment Ian didn’t quit during last year’s tournament when a lot of people expected him to, the moment he finished his 2004 middle school tournament match even though he was getting the snot beat out of him—these are the moments that define Ian Miller. The moments when no matter how much the deck was stacked against him, he found a way to overcome.

Although Ian is no longer undefeated, he promises nothing has changed. He’s been chasing the dream of becoming a national champion since biddy (youth wrestling), and he will not be denied. When Ian lost in the middle school wrestling tournament in 2004, he came back in high school and won the state championship in 2010. When Ian lost the 2011 OHSAA State Championship match in high school, he bounced back and placed fourth at the 2014 NCAA Tournament in college.

Nothing will deter Ian’s drive to win a national title. Not scoring errors. Not knee injuries. Not concussions. Not ringworm. Not even the smell of garlic bread.

“I think anything less than a national title is going to be a bummer, so I gotta win that national title,” Ian said. “I’m going to throw everything I got out there. It’s my last go-round.”