CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The Illinois Fighting Illini wrestling team kicked off its 2023-2024 season Thursday night with a tribute to a local wrestler who died in a tragic accident.

Easton Wilsey of Royal passed away in September when he was struck by a train while riding his bike to school. He was just nine years old.

Friends and family say Easton loved wrestling and the wrestling community came together to honor him. For the opening Illini meet of the season, the team placed his wrestling uniform on their bench.

Officials at State Farm Center said they expected around 500 people to attend the meet against SIUE. But the turnout was a lot bigger, and the Wilsey family was in attendance as well.

“Easton was just a very loving person,” said Andy Wilsey, Easton’s grandmother. “He was very athletic, but he had a kindness that was much, much more important.”

Since his death, neighboring communities have been rallying behind his family with donations and special events in his honor. The latest event was the opening wrestling meet of the season for the Illinois Fighting Illini.

“We were a football, baseball family. And then Easton kind of, several years back wanted to do wrestling,” Andy explained. “So we had to go learn about wrestling then we learned to really love the sport.”

Easton didn’t just love the sport. He excelled at it. His former coach Billy Gallo said he was a natural, racking up more than 20 wins in his second season with the St. Joseph-Ogden Wrestling Club.

“There was not too many that would step on the mat and show the strength and dedication and the desire to win a match,” Gallo said. “He’s always focused, always having fun and he was always giving everything he had.”

Andy echoed those words, but also wants people to remember that on top of his skills, Easton had a good heart.

“I hope he’s remembered as a kind person and his kindness continues to spread because communities are definitely spreading that kindness.”

Andy added that the family is forever grateful for all the and support they’ve gotten and will continue to celebrate Easton’s memory.

The Illini will continue to honor Easton throughout the season. His uniform will remain on the bench and the chair will remain empty.