Don Elsea had elected not to pursue a collegiate wrestling career after he graduated from Red Bank High School in 1970, but he likewise realized he missed the sport.
A couple years later, Elsea’s former high school coach – the late, great John Farr – phoned Elsea with a simple question.
“Have you ever thought about refereeing,” Farr asked.
Soon, Elsea was wholly invested. Now, after 50 years’ service as a wrestling official and additional work as a state and national evaluator, Elsea continues contributing to the sport he loves.
He’s also been selected as one of 10 TSSAA Distinguished Service Award winners for the 2023-24 academic year.
“Coach Farr helped me get into it, other people took me under their wings and helped develope me,” Elsea said. “It’s something I feel like I really enjoy doing and I’ve got friendships that I’ve made over the years that have lasted a lifetime.
“I’ve been really fortunate to referee all over the country, and it’s been something that’s been a passion to help other officials become better officials, train new officials and then the friendships I’ve developed with coaches and even wrestlers. I’ll run into wrestlers and they recall, ‘Hey, you officiated my match at this school.’”
An inductee of both the Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame as well as the inaugural class in the Tennessee AAU Hall of Fame, Elsea has officiated in some 45 TSSAA state wrestling championships and more than 60 national tournaments.
As his role in the sport has grown into a more supervisory element, Elsea also has traveled the country scouting officials to be selected for national tournaments and prestigious invitationals, such as the massive, 200-team annual meet at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.
Regardless the setting, Elsea knows wrestling is impacting lives and, in his own ways, he is seeking to do the same.
“Sometimes, it’s the guys that lose that need to be picked up,” said Elsea, who has officiated three generations of wrestling families at times in the Chattanooga area, “to reach out to them and say, ‘Hey it’s not the end of the world. This will make you a better person. Life isn’t always fair.’ Wrestling is a good example that if you can get through this you can get through anything.
“I had a friend who called me from Utah (Christmas week), I’d mentored him the last few years, and he said if it hadn’t been for me encouraging him, he didn’t think he would’ve ever refereed outside the state of Utah.”
Not lost on Elsea is that his dedication to wrestling and serving as an ambassador for the sport across the country requires a strong support system at home.
“My wife, Pat, has been great and very supportive,” said Elsea, who’s officiated more than 2,000 career matches and will celebrate 42 years of marriage in March. “Because with this, you’re gone a lot of weekends throughout the year. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.”
TSSAA proudly salutes Don Elsea for his many years of service and dedication as a wrestling official in Tennessee.