Upon Further Review: Winkler’s rich legacy far different than planned

If you’re drawn to syrupy narratives, the type where triumph follows hardship, then Cleat Winkler’s story just doesn’t make sense. For everything he’s endured, he deserves better.


The dispensers of karma didn’t get the memo that the Southridge senior shouldn’t have broken his hand during football season. Or that he shouldn’t have lost both matches in Saturday’s sectional, dropping the curtain on a wrestling career in which he was once destined to be a legit stud.

Those things shouldn’t happen to someone who’s already tackled brain cancer. Someone who still participates in sports partly because of the possibility of inspiring other cancer patients. Someone who’s endured Sundays and holidays and snow days and 6 a.m. days full of extra workouts with his father, Steve, in hopes that his strength and endurance would surface again. Someone who’s still game to complete all the training sessions at wrestling practice, with exponential levels of pain but none of the complaints.

In middle school, Winkler’s legacy was setting the Southridge Middle School record for wins. The legacy he’ll leave from Southridge High School won’t be etched on any record boards and emblazoned on the walls for years to come. But it’s far more important than that.

“He’s been an inspiration to all of us,” Raider coach Dave Schank said.

“He never gives in, he never uses it as a crutch. He just knows that he’s been dealt a tough situation and he’s dealt with it.”

Nearly five years after the discovery of a brain tumor and the operations and chemotherapy that disposed of the cancer, Winkler expected to work back to at least a semblance of his old self. Run and lift and get in shape again, and it’ll happen, he thought.

But cancer is as arbitrary as it is rancorous.

Some people return to full strength two years after completing radiation. Some take five years. For some, the vigor never fully comes back.

Winkler’s energy needle leans far left, but he empties the tank of what he’s got.

At practice, Raider wrestlers drill for 20 to 30 minutes and take a water break. Winkler doesn’t get a drink. Not because he’s not thirsty. Because he’s still lying in one spot on the mat, practically unable to move. Everyone else returns from the water break, and Winkler pops up, soldiers on.

During matches, his body is in such pain that he’ll hold his breath most of the time. Running and climbing stairs might be the hardest activities. Winkler has the option to use the elliptical machine instead. He spurns the easy way out to run through the SHS hallways with his teammates, even though his run is about the pace of a brisk walk.

Saturday, Winkler’s wrestling career concluded with some of the Raiders’ following in tears after he lost both sectional matches to finish the year with an 11-16 mark. Had cancer not invaded, he would be of state championship gentry.

“He was the real deal,” Schank recalls, drawing out the vowels in “real.”

Back in the day, when he toured the state at tournaments, Winkler wrestled close matches with guys like Mitch Sliga from Fishers. Sliga finished 49-0 last season as the state champion at 195 pounds, where the 145-pound Winkler once expected he’d be as a senior before the radiation treatments stunted his growth, zapped his strength and left him with other lingering side effects like hypothyroidism and the inability to produce adrenaline naturally.

Something about this gamut of agony must be fun, right, justifying Winkler’s attitude to power through? When posed the question, Winkler never repeated the word “fun.” The passion, though, is still embedded.

“I love wrestling,” he says. “But it’s so tiring and it takes so much out of me that it’s almost painful. But the most painful thing is I can’t do it as much as I used to.”

Winkler’s mind, evidenced by his 3.95 GPA, is still as sharp as it’s always been. As is his inclination to learn more. Schank said Winkler easily knows more moves than he does. And Winkler adds to the artillery by continuing to scour the Internet and YouTube to learn more technique and moves.
Winkler’s body may not allow him to execute everything he’s absorbed. So he passes it on instead.

He helps Blaize Meyerholtz polish his tilting moves. He’s introduced Jacob Mundy to nuances of technique as Mundy used to simply try to muscle his way through matches.

“He was my wrestling partner last year and he helped me a lot,” Mundy says. “It’s kind of hard to watch, because you can tell he knows exactly what he’s doing. And every once in a while he’ll catch a good wrestler and get him on his back for a little bit, but he doesn’t really have the strength to finish anything. You know if things went right, he would just destroy all these people that have beaten him.”

Don’t get the idea, though, that Winkler is being destroyed. In wrestling, or in life.

Even in all his losses this year, Winkler was pinned just twice. The only other Raiders in the same category are Mundy and Ethan Schwoeppe, both sectional champions.

It gives Schank fodder for motivation and teaching. Don’t tell me that you couldn’t have fought a little bit harder. Cleat doesn’t get pinned.

“You never see him mad, you never see him having a pity party for himself,” Schank says. “Being a teacher, I see kids constantly, ”˜Oh, woe is me and poor old me.’ I never hear Cleat doing that. And he’ll tell kids, ”˜You think that’s hard, try having brain cancer.’ When they’re laying around, ”˜Oh me, oh my,’ he’ll say, ”˜Try a brain tumor. Try getting your head cut open.’”

The words aren’t vindictive, only meant to nudge teammates to develop the same fondness for the sport as Winkler does. How did Winkler react not long after his career ended at the sectional? By laughing through impromptu grappling matches with friends Luke Stetter and Tyler Gray after Memorial Gym had mostly cleared out.

Winkler didn’t have to come back. He didn’t have to feel physically drained the day after all-day tournaments, accept all the losses that were once so foreign. But Winkler has long since moved past competing for just himself.

“One of the major (reasons) I still do sports is there’s so many kids at Riley (Hospital for Children) that it hits them so hard that they can’t do anything. Sometimes I just feel like they want to hear a story: ”˜Oh, well, this kid had cancer but now he’s playing sports and he’s wrestling,’” says Winkler, who still visits Riley twice a year for follow-ups. “I think it just kind of helps people have a positive look that it’s not going to be completely negative for the rest of your life and you can still work and do things after the treatment gets over. It’s not going to keep you from living your life.”

If anything, it’ll make you richer than any records or heap of wins ever could.

Herald Sports Editor Brendan Perkins can be reached at bperkins@dcherald.com or 482-2626, ext. 111.

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