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Coach of former Graham wrestler killed in crash: ‘I told him I loved him’ during last visit

Eli Stickley leaped into the arms of St. Paris Graham High School wrestling coach Jeff Jordan after winning a state title as a junior in 2014.

“We were so happy when he won the state. Everyone went crazy. Eli was a crowd favorite. … It was one of the happiest moments I look back on,” Jordan said Saturday. “I remember he comes running over and jumps in my arms. I’ll remember and cherish that moment forever.”

Jordan recalled that hug and a more recent one in the wake of Stickley’s death from a car accident Thursday in Illinois.

Stickley, 21, wrestled at the University of Wisconsin and was the nephew of U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Urbana), who is married to Stickley’s father’s sister. Interviewed on FOX News on Friday night, Jim Jordan said, “it’s been the toughest week.”

RELATED: Standout Graham wrestler, Urbana native dies in car crash

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Jeff, Jim’s brother, said he hadn’t seen much of Stickley because his former wrestler had been training in Wisconsin during the summers. That changed last Monday, when Jeff said Stickley came to his old coach’s house.

“He said, ‘I just wanted to stop over and say hello and tell you I love you and I want you to meet my girlfriend,’ ” Jeff Jordan said. “I gave him a big hug and I told him I loved him and that’s the last time I talked to Eli.”

According to Illinois State Police, Stickley was driving a black 2004 Nissan Frontier, headed west on Interstate 74 in Henry County. The Nissan left the road into a right-hand-ditch, over-corrected and rolled across the westbound lanes of traffic.

RELATED: Graham wrestling lineup loaded with D-I talent

Stickley and a passenger, who was not identified by police, were taken to Illini Hospital in Silvis, where Stickley was pronounced dead.

Jeff Jordan said Stickley was with his girlfriend and they were headed to Iowa to see Stickley’s twin sister and her boyfriend, four-time Graham High School state high school champion Alex Marinelli, who wrestles for the University of Iowa.

“There (were) so many kids on the team that looked up to him just because he was an overachiever … maybe didn’t have the most talent in the world but just through hard work and discipline overcame that little bit of less talent and became successful,” said Jeff Jordan, who called Stickley the most coachable athlete he’s had in 24 years at Graham, a school with 18 straight state team titles.

“He did not become captain his junior and senior year off his wrestling credentials. He became a captain his junior and senior year off his off-the-mat credentials. He was such a hard worker and just a great kid that exemplified what hard work’s all about.

MORE: Read other stories from Mark Gokavi

Jeff Jordan said Stickley taught at his wrestling camps, mowed yards for him and started a Bible study group during wrestling seasons that three-quarters of the team and their fathers attended.

Stickley told Jeff Jordan he had thought about becoming a chiropractor after his wrestling career.

A starter at 141 pounds in 2017-18 season for Wisconsin, Stickley finished 21-14 and qualified for the NCAA championships. Stickley was a four-time state placer at Graham with a 185-22 record.

Jeff Jordan said he didn’t know of any funeral arrangements yet.

“The Graham wrestling team and the Graham community will all be there, because of just how great of a kid this young man was and how much they loved him,” Jordan said. “It’s just tough for everyone right now.”

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