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'Be Smart. Buddy Up' campaign aims to keep students safe

A senior wrestler whose teammate and close friend died in the Chippewa River after a night out with friends in 2011 has launched a safety campaign aimed at helping other students avoid similar tragedies. 

After an evening cookout, Mat Rieckhoff dropped several of his wrestling teammates off at an ATM on Water Street on Aug. 31, 2011. He later learned that one of those teammates became separated from the group while they were visiting the bars that night. He was devastated when Ricky Gonzales was found two days later in the Chippewa River.

"Ricky was the captain of the wrestling team, he was a good student, he brought light into every room he entered … he was supposed to be indestructible," Rieckhoff says of his friend. "He was not the kind of kid that you read about in the paper found dead in the river." 

While details of how Ricky ended up in the river will never be known, Rieckhoff says he's certain that Ricky would be alive today had he not been walking alone that night. And that's a message he wants current and future students to remember. 

Rieckhoff, a peer educator in the Center for Alcohol Studies and Education, is working with the CASE peer educator team to partner with sports teams and student organizations to launch the "Be Smart. Buddy Up" campaign, an initiative aimed at making sure what happened to Ricky doesn't happen to anyone else.

The campaign is designed to raise awareness among students about the importance of sticking together and looking out for one another when they are socializing, says Rieckhoff, who now serves as captain of the wrestling team. 

"You don't need to find a walking buddy and hold hands while you cross the street," says Rieckhoff, an education major from Wausau. "But stick together, let someone in the group know if you are leaving, be smart and buddy up. If you see someone struggling to get home, help them. Let's create a community that cares for one another enough to keep each other safe." 

To learn more about the "Be Smart. Buddy Up" campaign and the story behind it, read Mat Rieckhoff's blog or view his video

Photo cutline: UW-Eau Claire senior education major, wrestling team captain and peer educator Mat Rieckhoff has turned personal loss into a commitment to promote safety on campus.