As we start to get closer to football season, I got to thinking about an old friend who passed away recently. He was a fellow official, and I learned a lot from him over the years. His name was Richard (Dick) Wheeler. As an ref, he really wasn't too bad. He fought his demons, but by and large, he cared a great deal about his craft, and the kids playing the game, and you really can't ask for more than that. Over the years he and I worked together in football and basketball, and we did have an experience or two.
Please understand as I write this piece, that I really liked the guy. In my younger years as an official, I learned a lot from him, as he was instrumental in a lot of my early training. When I got older with my own crew, I tried to help him pick up a few games here and there, for which he was grateful.
One thing about Dick, is he never drove a car. Many times, if you worked with him, you would need to pick him to get him to the game and home after. Once he worked with my crew in Independence. I picked him up that night, in an older beat up car that I was driving at the time. It was a warm day, and when he tried to roll down my car window, for some reason, it fell down inside the door, and was gone. Which was fine for the trip up, but the trip home was going to be challenging, as in October it can get much cooler in the evening. The game went okay, but the one thing I'll remember about that night was the drive home. I froze the whole way home. Not Wheels. He fell asleep, and snored the entire 30 miles. His head hanging down, with the cool October breezes slamming in on him, and he didn't say a word. I just shivered.
He went down to West Branch with us one night, for a district game, with the winners making the playoffs. One of my crew members was out of town, and I needed a replacement. He called and really pleaded to get to work the game. I was concerned because, I needed a side judge (which is on the sideline) and that involved a great deal of running, which I wasn't sure he was up to. Finally, I gave in, and rode with me to do the game.
For the most part he was fine, and kept up with the game. West Branch can be a difficult place to work, but Dick wasn't hurting us that night at all. But then late in the fourth quarter...
West Branch had small lead, but Pekin was moving down the field, trying to take the lead. Their quarterback threw a little sideline pass, that a Bear intercepted, and took off down the sideline. Now the mechanic on that is, the side judge follows the play, with the resposibility to watch the out of bounds (in case he steps out), and to get there at the tackle, to mark the spot. Me, as the referee, will slide down, meeting the play from the middle of the field, making sure that there are no blocks in the back, or late hits, and watch for ground contact in case of a fumble.
As I see the West Branch kid coming down the sideline, my next look is to see where the side judge is. Thing is, there is no Wheeler. I speed up to cover the play, and get there about the time of tackle. Still no Wheeler. So, I stop the clock, get the ball, toss it in, sort the player, and get ready to move onto the next play. Finally, there he is, walking up the sideline, like a Sunday stoll in the park. "Wheels, where were you?" His answer was "I saw you had it. I just needed to catch my breath. I'm fine now. You ready for the next play?"
He must've been ok, because he finished the game without an incident. Later we laughed about it. But that night, I didn't think it was funny, nor did the West Branch coaching staff.
Please forgive me for the notalgia. People come and go in life, we all know that. And sometimes people leave us, that we don't want, or can't forget. Maybe thats the way I look at Wheels. He may have exasperated me more than once, but I appreciated what he for me, and the time he took to help me become a better official. And for that I'll hold him in high esteem.