Al Sears recalls himself as being an “in jeopardy” kid while growing up in the late 1970’s in suburban Wheaton. Then he found the sport of wrestling. The rest, as they say, is history.
A four-time All-American wrestler in the heavyweight division at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and highly successful wrestling coach at Belleville West for the past 14 years, Sears has been elected as part of the 2015 class into the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame.
Sears, 51, received notice a few weeks ago when he got an unexpected phone call from his college coach — legendary SIUE coach Larry Kristoff.
“Nobody hears much from coach (Kristoff). He’s out in the country raising horses and doing his own thing. But I got this call from Larry one day and he said that he wanted to congratulate me on being elected,” Sears said. “I later talked to the guy responsible for letting the guys going in know. But he said he thought it would mean more to me if I heard it from Larry. I could tell it meant a lot to Larry to be the one to tell me.
“I am truly honored and blessed. I’m in my high school (Wheaton Central) Hall of Fame and I’m in one at SIUE, but this is the big one. Everybody knows the reputation of Illinois high school wrestling and how good it is. To see the guys who are already in the Hall of Fame and the guys who will be inducted with me next month, I am just deeply honored and grateful to the many people who have helped me and the people who took a chance on helping and guiding a tough kid into the sport of wrestling.”
Sears, who resigned as the Maroons coach, following the recently completed season, will be inducted in Hillcrest on April 17-18 as part of the annual IWCOA All-state banquet. Also being honored during the weekend will be Belleville West all-state matmen Nick Foster and Ricky Nelson.
The two all-state wrestlers are the 15th and 16th in Sears’ 14 years at Belleville West.
“We’ve had a lot of success the last five or six years at the state level and I guess that may have played a part in my being elected,” Sears said. “A lot of the credit goes to the kids of course and for last few years my assistant coach Joe (Rujawitz) who is just great on wrestling technique. He’s able to get on the mat and demonstrate and work with the kids every night.
“I asked Joe this year to see if he could figure up my career wins and losses total. We ended up 208-99 in 14 years. That’s not to bad for an old, overweight heayweight.”
But Sears got his start in wrestling uin the 1970’s under the guidance of his dad, Ed Ewoldt, and longtime Wheaton Central coach John Fuller.
“My dad introduced me to the sport,” Sears said. “Ed Ewoldt taught me to love and respect the greatest sport of all. Ed was and is all about wrestling and I was lucky enough to have his influence and love of the sport passed down to me. He would always let me know where the next freestyle summer tournament was and would even pick me up and take me. He also mentored me off the mat by keeping me in line at school. I can never repay Ed for all his help and support during my high school years at Wheaton Central.
“And then coach Fuller was a tough, non-nonsense guy who was a tough competitior who believed in doing things the right way. When I found out I had been elected I made sure I contacted people who had really helped me along the way. I never would have been in this position without their help.”
Sears finished third in the heavyweight division with a record of 41-1 in 1981 — his senior season at Wheaton Central — then spent the next four years under the guidance of Kristoff. A 14-time national champion and two-time Olympian, Kristoff helped turn Sears into a five-time All-American.
A two-time NCAA Division II runnerup in the heavyweight division, Sears placed eighth in the NCAA Division I Tournmant as a senior at SIUE.
Sears also had the help of working out everyday in practice with Booker Benford, a former national champion in the 177-pound weight class. Benford went on to be an Olympic alternate.
“Booker’s work ethic made me work extra hard just to keep up with him and in turn made me a better wrestler. His knowledge of the sport educated everyone on the team and his success was what we all wanted, it created a standard that we all wanted to achieve and made us all hungry on our NCAA Championship teams,” Sears said. “Larry (Kristoff) was just a man who expected his wrestlers to come in every day and work hard. That work ethic has helped me not only in my coaching career, but in life.”