While most parents mingled around the start and finish lines during a cross country race, Debbie Riccio Giordano was always on the lookout for her father. As she navigated the middle of a 3.1-mile course as a student at Rocky Point High School, Thomas Riccio would pop out of the woods, seemingly out of nowhere, yelling words of encouragement to his daughter.
“My father would literally come out like a deer on the mile and a half mark,” she said. “People used to think he was out of his mind.”
Her father was born with that competitive spirit in athletics, which he passed on to his children and the many wrestlers he coached for nearly two decades at Riverhead High School. A standout wrestler at Hofstra University, Mr. Riccio remained active in the sport he loved for more than 60 years as a longtime referee and then coach, becoming an icon in the sport on Long Island along the way. In 2017, Mr. Riccio was formally inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.
Mr. Riccio died Monday afternoon at his home in South Carolina surrounded by immediate family. He had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, in 2018 shortly after retiring from coaching, his daughter said. He was 77.
“He was just a bigger than life guy,” she said. “I was so proud of him.”
Ms. Riccio Giordano, 53, said her father tried to keep the diagnosis private. A neurologist at first thought he had foot drop, a gait abnormality, when he had started to struggle with things like getting out of the car. It took about six months to confirm the ALS diagnosis, she said.
Last September, Mr. Riccio and his wife Ann moved from Baiting Hollow to South Carolina where they planned to spend their retirement living in a home he had built on a golf course. The disease would soon force him into a wheelchair and in the last four months, he began to lose his speech, his daughter said.
“Because he had ALS and wasn’t diagnosed and nobody knew what was wrong, I think that’s why he retired,” she said. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’m just tired. I can’t do it anymore.’ He couldn’t get on the mat anymore, I remember.”
Riverhead athletic director Brian Sacks remembered Mr. Riccio as an old-school coach who was “phenomenal” with the kids and was a caring person.
“He gave back all he could,” he said. “When he retired, I think that was a sad day for him and us.”
His daughter said whenever she would see her father around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, he would always be talking about the kids he coached.
“He was so invested in these kids,” she said.
Mr. Riccio became the Riverhead varsity head coach in 2015 and held the position for three seasons. He had spent the previous 15 years as an assistant working alongside Wade Davey.
Even as his coaching career neared the end, he remained focused on promoting youth wrestling to help the sport grow in Riverhead.
“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 in November 2016.
Mr. Sacks said once Mr. Riccio knew the program was in good hands, he decided to step back.
“He didn’t want to until he knew we had a solid foundation,” he said.
He described the decision as an emotional one for Mr. Riccio.
“He knew it was time just for him in his personal life,” Mr. Sacks said.
Eddie Matyka won the 120-pound county championship for Riverhead in 2015. Mr. Matyka, 22, said his former coach had a big impact on him. He recalled how Mr. Riccio would pick him up at his home to drive him to Hauppauge for practices as he prepared for the state championship that season.
“He taught me a lot of stuff,” Mr. Matyka said. “He was a good coach.”
When Mr. Matyka was honored in 2015 with the county’s most inspirational award for his perseverance in recovering from a back injury, Mr. Riccio delivered a speech about him, he said.
“That was very nice,” he said.
Mr. Riccio graduated from Walt Whitman High School in 1960, where he was also a standout football player. He went on to play five years of semipro football as a halfback and slot back with the Long Island Giants.
His wrestling career at Hofstra was cut short when he left the university after the first semester of his sophomore year for financial reasons. He became a skilled carpenter, the profession he maintained throughout his life. Two of the biggest projects he worked on through his union were Ward Melville High School and the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, which never became active. In his later years he worked on private construction projects, mainly building homes.
In 1968, he started officiating in wrestling and quickly became one of the top officials in Suffolk County. He worked in five state tournaments and was the No. 1 official in four of them, while sharing the top ranking with another official for the fifth time.
“In the eyes of many, he is the most respected and confident wrestling official in Suffolk County history,” a video montage at Mr. Riccio’s Hall of Fame induction noted.
He married his wife Nancy in 1963 and they had two children. He remarried in 1992 to his second wife, Ann. His daughter said her father remained close with her mother.
Mr. Riccio is survived by his sisters Janet and Joy and brothers Danny and Marty. He was predeceased by his son Marc, who tragically died in a car accident on William Floyd Parkway the morning of July 4, 2018. He was 47.
“He suffered that, which was awful, to the day he died,” Ms. Riccio Giordano said.
A viewing for Mr. Riccio will be held Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Burrough Funeral Home in Murrells Inlet, S.C. His daughter said a memorial celebration will be held in New York sometime in the upcoming weeks.
Top photo caption: Thomas Riccio in the Riverhead wrestling room in 2016. (Credit: Bob Liepa)