Tom Riccio’s connection to wrestling is long and multifaceted. Riccio, who will celebrate his 75th birthday in January, has a 62-year involvement in the sport as a wrestler, official or coach. This coming April he will have another wrestling identity: National Wrestling Hall of Fame member.
Riccio, the Riverhead High School wrestling coach and Baiting Hollow resident, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum as part of the Class of 2017 that also includes former Shoreham-Wading River High School coach Don Jantzen. Jantzen will be inducted posthumously. He died March 4, 2015, at age 60.
“To me, Hall of Fame is something big, it’s up there,” Riccio said. Asked if he had ever contemplated one day becoming a Hall of Famer, he answered: “It never entered my mind. It’s huge.”
Riccio said his nomination came as a surprise to him when he received a letter from Friends of Long Island Wrestling, notifying him. “My friends knew about it before I did but they all kept quiet until I got the letter,” he said.
Riccio’s introduction to wrestling came when he moved from the Bronx to South Huntington and met some wrestlers as a 13-year-old. He went on to become a four-year member of the varsity football and wrestling teams at Walt Whitman High School, which had been known as South Huntington High School before his sophomore year. He captained both teams his senior year before accepting a wrestling scholarship from Hofstra University.
Riccio went on to play five years of semipro football as a halfback and slot back with the Long Island Giants.
In 1968 he started officiating in wrestling. In 25 of his 28 years of working matches, he was the top-rated official in Suffolk County. He worked in six state tournaments and was the No. 1 official in all of them. “It was something I enjoyed doing and I was good at it,” he said.
After retiring from officiating, Riccio met former Riverhead coach Rocky Davey, who asked him to become his assistant coach. Riccio was Davey’s assistant for 14 years before taking over the head coaching job last year.
Riccio is excited about the upcoming induction, which will be held April 28, 2017, at the Melville Marriott Hotel in Melville. At that ceremony, in the presence of his wife Ann, son Marc and daughter Debbie, he will be presented with a green jacket, along with the other inductees.
Riccio said he has been in coaching for 17 years. “I might give it one more year,” he said, noting that he has been mentoring his assistant coach, Edwin Perry, a former Riverhead wrestler.
Riccio said the Riverhead program has been hurt by the demise of its kid wrestling program about eight years ago. Numbers have been progressively going down since then, he said.
The good news, he said, is that a new kid wrestling program will start in January. “I want to bring the program back to where it used to be … and you’re not going to bring it back without kid wrestling,” he said.
Not only that, but for the first time Riverhead wrestling has a booster club, he said.
“I was always a much better official than I was a coach, but what I am also is a wrestling person,” Riccio said. “I care about the Town of Riverhead and bringing it back to where it used to be. Then I can die in peace.”
Photo caption: Riverhead coach Tom Riccio, in the school’s wrestling room during practice, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in April. (Credit: Bob Liepa)