Ray Eickelschulte is one of rare breed in West Central Illinois.
He's been involved with high school wrestling for 40 years -- first as a wrestler and as a coach, and for the past 25 years as an official. He's the only wrestling official in the Quincy area, which means he's always getting scheduled for matches.
Eickelschulte learned in December that he will be inducted into the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be in April.
During peak wrestling, season how often are you officiating matches?
I'm the only certified official in the area. The next closest to the area would be in Jacksonville, and from there it's Springfield and then the Peoria area. I'm the only one in the west part of the state. This month, I started on the second of January, and I think I have five days off between then and Jan. 31.
Has it always been like that?
I've tried to get young kids from high schools in the area who have wrestled. There's a guy in the area, but his child got too busy and couldn't keep up with it. There's another kid I'm mentoring, and he's been working some matches with me. He's going to work one next week, too. It's a really difficult sport because if you've never wrestled, then you don't understand what goes into the match. Nothing happens in wrestling without an official scoring it. In all the other sports, the ball goes in the hoop or the football goes across the line or the ball gets down in tennis. Without an official in wrestling, you can't really have a match. The official determines a takedown, he determines control, he determines everything. That's what makes it difficult for some people because it puts a lot of pressure or weight on a person. Your mind is constantly making decisions in a split second. Until the referee signals the points, nothing is awarded in wrestling. This is usually my busy time, and I don't get to see my wife a lot. She's OK with it. She and I talked about it, and she knows I love the sport.
Is that love for the sport what keeps you wanting to continue officiating?
That and the fact when I was wrestling in high school, sometimes we didn't always have the best officials. It was difficult when you lost a close match or things didn't work out. I fell in love with the sport when I started wrestling as a freshman (at Quincy High School). I fell in love with it. I coached for a while after I got out of college. The time and the coaching was kind of preventative, so I took a look at officiating. Once I started that, it just set with me and just rang true. I don't have to spend my entire weekend on the road with a team. I spend my time on the road officiating, but at least I've worked my way up to the top. There's about 36 officials in the state who get to do the state finals, and I've worked myself into that group.
When you started, was it a goal to officiate the state finals?
I just wanted to be fair. I don't know if that was a goal, but it's one of the premier tournaments in the United States as far as state final series go. There were some guys I looked up to when I first started, and once I got into it and reffing quite a bit, they made me see I could have that opportunity. They told me it was going to take some work, and I was going to have to spend some time at it. Seven years ago, they asked me to be a clinician for officials, and I've stepped into that role in teaching officials how to officiate. I've done more than 30 clinics in the last seven years, teaching officials how to get better and how to move up and go to sectionals and state. I have a great deal of friends in the sport now, coaches and friends alike all over the state.
How did you get in the conversation for the IWCOA Hall of Fame?
I've been working for 25 years, and I have just been trying to do what's right. They called and wanted my resume of my career. So when I turned that in, they wanted to know coaching, officiating, everything, and I put in all the information I could muster up. That information goes to a selection committee for the IWCOA and goes in front of them. I figured I was on the radar, and in two to three years, I'll get the nod, and they'll induct me into the Hall of Fame. They looked at my criteria, and the best to my knowledge, I had all the things I was supposed to have, I guess. About 2 1/2 weeks later, I got a phone call telling me it would be this year.
Did that catch you by surprise?
Yes. It helped that it came from one of my best friends who's an official. The icing on the cake was another friend of mine is getting inducted at the same time. I was kind of stunned, taken by surprise, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind all the way around it. In my opinion, it's quite an honor because you're chosen by coaches and officials to go into the Hall of Fame that belongs to their association. It means quite a bit. To say the least, I was surprised.
Did getting picked for the Hall of Fame validate what you were wanting to do in being a fair official?
That's the one thing I can make sure I ask every night. Did I do my best job? Was I fair? Did I apply the rules in the way they're intending to be applied? It's validation. I know some people think being an official is glamour. That never enters into my mind. When I walk out onto the mat, I'm there so the two wrestlers are going to get fair judgment, and I'm going to give it 110 percent effort to make decisions that are fair so neither wrestler feels they didn't get a fair match. Sometimes you have to officiate every match like it's the state championship.
Did you learn anything about wrestling when you saw it from an official's angle?
There's so many judgment calls, and I've learned from different angles. I've had coaches come up to me about calls that were made. They weren't questioning my integrity, but they would ask, "Did you ever think about this?" Honestly, a coach about seven or eight years ago asked me that, and I said I hadn't looked at it that way. The coach said he just wanted me to get better and wanted me to think about it. I always listen to the coaches and the comments they make. I have a good friend who's a coach in this area, and he thought I was too hard on the athletes. I said if he really does feel that way, he can tape the match, and I will watch it and critique myself. The coach said, "You'd really do that?" I said, "Sure." I'm always constantly reviewing, and when you're an official, you have to think: Is this kid trying to keep this kid from scoring so he can get his team an extra point in a dual match? Or is this kid working hard enough so the other kid doesn't have a chance to pin him? In the postseason, is he keeping his opponent and cheating him and stalling? All of that takes on a huge part of the match and a huge part of the sport. Most people don't know you have all that going into it. The big thing right now is the illegal moves. They keep trying ways to hide so they can get an advantage. That requires me to keep studying and keep up with the new moves. It never ends.
Is it hard sometimes to spot an illegal move?
Yes, because they're constantly trying to find ways to shield or position themselves so you can't see. That's why it's really difficult. As a wrestling official, you can't stand in one place. You have to constantly be moving to look at different angles. I may work as hard or harder than the wrestlers do. The wrestlers come out and wrestle for six minutes, and they're done. I may be up and down on the mat 10, 15, maybe 20 times in a match in six minutes. Then I turn around and do that for 14 matches in a dual meet. In a lot of tournaments, you'll do 100 matches in a day. When you start thinking about that, it's just the physicality of it all. They're not hard to spot if you know what position they're in and what they're trying. That just comes from the experience. We're watching constantly for things that the general population doesn't know about it. They aren't out there trying to cheat. They're just looking for a way to get an advantage.
It sounds like wrestling has had a pretty big impact on your life.
It gave me qualities that make me the person I am today. I have two sons who wrestle, and they have some of those same qualities. They make sure they finish things. They never give up. It taught me a work ethic that I won't say is nonexistent, but it's endangered today. You're going to get knocked down, but you have to find a way to get back up. There's going to be obstacles in the way. You do what you have to do to get the end result accomplished. It's just a part of my soul now. It's in there, and everything in my life I approach with the fact I'm going to do my best and try my hardest and get the job done. When I started wrestling in high school, I only weighed 98 pounds dripping wet. I have learned through all the training and work that I've done that if you can't be honest or be true, then it ain't worth it. It means more to me to do the job right and be fair than have people like me. I would rather the match got done fairly. That effort, I don't know if it will ever go away from me.