Columns

2006.03.16 Saved by the dancing ref

on . Posted in By The Way

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 

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