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Former ISU wrestling All-American Eric Bates set a high standard on and off mat

A black and white photo of a young male wrestler in a singlet marked "isu," kneeling on one knee and posing with a stuffed tiger mascot beside him on a gym floor
ISU Athletics
Eric Bates, who died April 8 in a motorcycle accident, was a national champion wrestler and four-time All-American at Illinois State from 1969-72. He was accompanied throughout his ISU career by a small bear, which he called his "good luck charm."

Dave Gannaway had aspirations of being a basketball player as a University High School freshman. He suited up for the freshman team, but there was a problem.

“I was only 5-6 and 89 pounds,” Gannaway said.

George Girardi came to the rescue. The Pioneers’ wrestling coach approached Gannaway about switching to the mat. The next day, Gannaway told Girardi, “I want to go out for wrestling.”

“Good,” Girardi replied. “You’re wrestling tonight in Springfield.”

He did, and as the first match of his life unfolded, U High senior stars Eric Bates and Les Armes were next to the mat, yelling instructions and “coaching” Gannaway.

Bates lived two houses down from Gannaway on Sycamore Street in Normal. Now, he was just a few feet away, supporting a lowly freshman in need of it.

“That was just the type of person he was,” Gannaway said. “My very first match, he was there for me.”

When Gannaway’s back touched the mat, Bates and Armes implored him to avoid a pin. Gannaway did, and when the match ended, they gave him words of encouragement.

Eric Bates
Eric Bates

“It was like in my mind, these guys are the greatest,” Gannaway said.

His admiration grew from there. He watched and learned, even traveling to Chicago with Bates and Armes when they wrestled in a meet at Navy Pier.

The bond with Bates was particularly strong. Gannaway would go to the garage at Bates’ house and work on motorcycles with Eric and his brother, Danny. The Bates boys were in the U High class of 1968, three years older than Gannaway. They built dune buggies together, including a fiberglass one in Gannaway’s garage.

They are good memories that have flooded Gannaway’s mind since April 8, when Eric Bates died in a motorcycle accident in rural Mackinaw. He was 73.

A state champion at U High and a college division national champion at Illinois State, Bates was a marvel on the mat. He was inducted into the Illinois State Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame in 1977, five years after his graduation, and may have been ISU’s best ever in the sport.

He later became a beloved industrial arts teacher, retiring in 2014 from Roanoke-Benson High School. Bates also taught at El Paso and did some coaching along the way, but not a lot, Gannaway said.

“He just wanted to teach and work with kids at that level, then have his summers and go on adventure trips,” Gannaway added. “That was Eric.”

One adventure saw him ride a bicycle nearly 2,700 miles from the state of Washington to Normal. The 1980 trip took eight weeks and during it, he was chased by a buffalo in South Dakota, confronted by a bear at Yellowstone Park, had his bike run over by a truck in Iowa and spent a night in a tent at a drive-in movie theater.

He shared the details in a column by former Pantagraph sports editor Jim Barnhart, including this: “I’m not sure why I did it. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I hadn’t challenged myself physically in a long time. Neither had I competed in a long time. I got a moderate dose of it on the trip because I was competing with myself.”

Not many could compete with Bates at U High or ISU. He was 64-2 in his final two seasons at U High, winning the 154-pound state title as a junior and placing third as a senior, also at 154.

Bates had a 94-14 record at ISU, earning All-America honors all four years. He won the college division (Division II) 167-pound national championship as a sophomore. When Illinois State moved up to the university division (Division I) the following year, he placed fifth nationally.

Mike Manahan, a former standout wrestler who later became a Hall of Fame wrestling coach, was a referee during Bates’ time at ISU.

"He did a lot to make the sport known in Central Illinois."
Mike Manahan

Manahan came away bleeding after working one of Bates’ matches.

“He put a cradle on a guy and I got too close to them,” Manahan said. “They rolled up on my head and cut my eye open from the glasses (Manahan was wearing).”

Manahan saw enough of Bates to say, “He did a lot to make the sport known in Central Illinois. He was strong and he believed in himself. He also had a lot of technique … just a good wrestler.”

Bates also excelled in football at U High, earning all-conference honors as a two-way lineman.

He played alongside Armes on the offensive line, paving the way for teams that lost one game their junior and senior seasons.

Former U High football coach Frank Chiodo remembers Bates being intense “constantly,” saying, “He was one who had to win.”

Chiodo recalled a game in which a fight broke out. Armes began as a peacemaker, seeking to calm everyone down on both teams.

“Eric turned around and his nose was bleeding,” Chiodo said. “Les saw that and went after that other team. George Girardi (a football assistant coach) had to tackle him to stop him. When he saw that blood, he wanted to take them all on.”

Bates would have done the same for Armes, who went on to win two wrestling national championships at Black Hawk College. They were tight and set a high standard for teammates.

Among them in football was former U High Hall of Fame basketball coach Cal Hubbard, who was a year ahead of Bates and Armes.

“Pound for pound, they were just unbelievable,” Hubbard said. “I would say determined is a great word for him (Bates). He was a good athlete and he was tougher than anything in the world. I just remember how hard he worked, he and Les both.”

Bates had a constant companion at Illinois State … a small teddy bear he placed next to the mat for his matches.

He explained its presence in a 1972 Pantagraph article.

“I got it as a graduation gift when I got out of high school,” Bates said. “It’s been a good luck charm for me.”

Bates is survived by his wife of 23 years, Debra, four siblings and many nieces and nephews. He was enjoying life and “had a tremendous outlook on life,” Gannaway said.

He will be missed by family, friends, former students and others. At the same time, he has been reunited with Armes, who died last August.

“They could be up on one of those clouds wrestling,” Manahan said.

And loving every minute.

Veteran Bloomington-Normal journalist joined WGLT as a correspondent in 2023. You can reach Randy at rkindred58@gmail.com.