2006.03.16 Saved by the dancing ref

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN 

I’m sitting at the Palace of Auburn Hills trying to find something to be happy about. It’s 9 a.m. Friday morning, I was late for day two of the Michigan high school wrestling finals, I had a harrowing trip to the arena, and there’s a guy a few feet away who is driving me nuts. So give me something to make me glad I’m here.

The trouble started Thursday night when I mistakenly set my alarm for 5:59 a.m. I was planning to leave at 6. That doesn’t leave much time for breakfast. At 5:19, I happened to glance at the clock and jumped into action.

Kym Ries showed up at the curb right on schedule at 6. She would be staying overnight so she could catch Saturday’s matches, too, and she wanted a guide to the arena. That was probably her first mistake, but I was already on to my second.

I only make this trip once a year and I never remember how to get here. I trusted MapQuest to lead me this time and it took us down two miles of dirt road. Not just dirt road—muddy, rutted, potholes full of water.

It was as if Kym and I were in an off-road racing adventure. Curtains of water splashed up through the headlights as we wove back and forth looking for the smoothest path through the morass.

That was bad, but the worst was yet to come. Somewhere in suburban Detroit, I made the wrong turn. There were signs obscuring the sign I needed to see. When I saw “West” rather than “East” it was too late. I went the wrong way, with Kym right on my tail.

We made good time going the wrong way until we came to a loop that allowed a turn-around. Suddenly I think we were heading north on Square Lake Road East (if that’s possible) and facing two lanes of on-coming traffic. And, of course, Kym was right behind me. Together we were ready to take on rush-hour traffic.

The goal was to reach the Palace, pick up my press credentials, and get in place to photograph Willie Foster. The dirt road, the wrong turn—Willie’s coverage was in danger, but there was still a possibility—until I reached the Palace.

I was careful to read my media guide from the Michigan High School Athletic Association and saw the IMPORTANT NOTICE about a change in procedure. Do not go to the loading dock to pick up your press pass; go to the administrative entrance. I did that and was told: “Sorry, it’s back to the dock after all.”

I ran off to the dock thinking that maybe they started late. Maybe Willie wouldn’t be first on the mat. I hurried through the door, but the security guy didn’t make any more sense than MapQuest. OK, so I wasn’t listening too well at that point. “Go through this door until you run into the wall.” I never ran into a wall. Another wrong turn. Willie was finished and so was I.

So now I’m back where I started, sitting at this press table—after carefully avoiding the row for the special people here, “Daily Newspaper Writers Only”—and trying to find something good about the day. The real writers are in the row above me with their laptops and cell phones. I’m down in the amateur section with a pencil and a pad of paper.

I’m joined by somebody who is definitely a weekly guy—small-town weekly guy at that. Tiny camera bag, gawking around at the ceiling of the Palace with a big grin on his face. I don’t mind his smiling and wonder, but the way his left leg is shaking is really too much. He’s a big man and the entire stand is shaking. I’m trying to write on this moving table. He offers no inspiration; only an annoyance.

The coaches in front of me aren’t doing much for my mood, either. They’re so compassionless when their wrestler loses. They seem angry at their athlete when he drops a match to a better wrestler. Some coaches won’t even look at their kid afterward.

But these two guys from Capac are something else. They’re slapping their guy around before the match starts to get him pumped. Slap, shove, now the head coach has him by the neck. The kid is smiling. He knows it’s all in fun. But what’s going to happen if he loses?

He does lose. He came out of the loser’s bracket and he’s done now. Back home empty handed. The coaches are slapping him again, but those are obviously compassionate slaps. I like those guys.

Ohmygosh! What about those two across the arena? They’re hugging the loser before he makes his way back to his own coach. Most unusual.

My spirits are lifted somewhat by my coach study, but there’s still probably an hour and a half before Matt Delaney wrestles and the leg shaker will not stop. He’s switched to his right leg now, but he hasn’t quit looking like a tourist in the big city.

That’s when I spot someone. The guy who’s going to save my day. He’s across the arena working the Division IV matches. The gray hair, the Steve Martin look. This is my favorite referee. I watch him year after year. He is what gets me through a long day of wrestling.

Every move he makes is done with a flourish. Most refs stick out an arm to make a call. He throws his arm forward, but then comes a slow, graceful slicing of the air, as though he’s practicing tai chi out on the mat.

The whistle planted in his mouth, the smile on his face. He’s loving every minute of this job. When he jumps to the side, it looks like choreography. When he calls a pin, he’s exulting with the winner. When he’s on break, he’s dancing to some music in his head.

I’ve mostly forgotten about the trip up here and missing Willie and I’m not noticing so much how this table keeps shaking. I’m glad to be here and I’ll be back a year from now watching that “poetry in motion” man in the striped shirt.

– March 15, 2006 
  • Front.tug
    MORENCI pep rallies generally end with a tug of war. The senior class entry, shown above, did not advance to the finals. Griffin Grieder, Alaina Webster, Kyle Long and Jazmin Smith are shown at the front of the rope, giving it their best effort.
  • Accident
    FAYETTE resident Patricia Stambaugh, 64, was declared dead on the scene of a single-vehicle accident Friday morning south of Morenci. Rescue units were called around 9 a.m., but as of Tuesday, law enforcement officers had not yet determined the time of the accident. According to Ohio State Highway Patrol, Stambaugh was driving west on U.S. 20 when her Chevrolet Malibu traveled off the north side of the road and down a steep embankment, coming to rest in Bean Creek (Tiffin River).
  • Athletic Fields
    SPORTS COMPLEX—Fayette’s outdoor athletic facilities will include three ball fields for summer recreation leagues at the southwest corner of the school. The baseball and softball fields, along with the running track, will be constructed on the east side of the school. Outdoor athletic fields were not part of the new school project from 2007, but voters approved a $1.4 million levy for a school addition and the sports fields last August. Both projects are scheduled to be complete by July 20.
  • Front.teacher Leading
    PRESCHOOL MUSIC—Fayette band director Jeffrey Dunford spends the last half hour of the day leading the full-day preschool class in musical activities. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.F.band
    TROMBONISTS Jake Myers (left) and Max Baker perform Friday at the annual Senior Citizens Luncheon at Fayette High School. The National Honor Society and the FFA chapter teamed up to serve a meal to area seniors and to provide musical entertainment. Both the school band and choir performed. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.

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