Referee makes the final decisions in wrestling

Witness Post: Referees Make the Call

Somehow, no matter how obscure the location, my dad attended almost every middle school and high school wrestling match I ever wrestled.  Sure he was a fan, having wrestled in his prime through college, but the fact that he came to all of those smelly gyms and humid wrestling rooms, in some of the most Godforsaken places in Baltimore City, is a modern day wonder.  He would dutifully come from work, sometimes returning to his office afterwards, to catch up on what he missed.  Usually he would give me a lift back home and we would talk about the match.

headlock 3_z

At Loyola High School, although I felt I was a pretty good wrestler as a freshman, I quickly learned that I would have to pay my dues.  Most of those early dues paying lessons were at hands of Ed Lloyd.  Two grades above me, Ed had a tall, lanky physique and those long arms that could reach around you.  Just when I thought I had made a deep double leg, it was time to watch out.  Lloyd had the uncanny ability to stop my forward progress just long enough to counter my shot, wrap his arms and hands around my upper torso and grab my head into a stultifying headlock.  To this day, even recalling it in my mind, makes it seem as if I were wrestling Gumby.  Ed’s hands could stretch far beyond the normal human length and my head always seemed the perfect target.


As a result of Ed’s headlock prowess, I spent a lot of my freshman year on my back, looking up at the rafters and/or bridging for dear life.  It is amazing the energy you extend trying to catch your breath from starting a second period five points down.  I did a lot of bridging that season.

Unlike my arch-rival, Scott Supplee from Gilman, who started on Varsity as a freshman, I did not wrestle any matches at Varsity until my sophomore year.  It turns out I had a few lessons to learn on JV, and they were perhaps the most important lessons of all.

headlock 1

Wrestler in a headlock

One bout I remember in particular my freshman year was an away-match versus Northwestern.  On a Thursday afternoon the Varsity match was held in the main gym at 4:30 pm and the JV was held in an adjacent gym at the same time.  The JV mat was tattered and torn and the wrestling space had poor ventilation and few working overhead lights.  I wrestled 145# that year and, outside of my wrestle-off matches against Ed Lloyd, was undefeated in intra-league JV matches.

My Northwestern bout started off well, as I quickly racked up a dozen points, from multiple take downs and back points in the first period.  Then things started to get sloppy.  In the second period I was on top and was tying up my opponent in an arm bar.  As I started walking my pinning combination around his head, I made the final step and my foot landed on the guy’s head.  The ref blew the whistle and awarded my opponent a penalty point for unnecessary roughness.  I argued with the ref that it was a pinning combination — that was my first mistake.  We went back to the center of the mat and started again.

Chicken wing walk around

 Proper chicken wing in a junior league match

This time I put in a deep chicken wing combination and again was ready to score some back points, but the Northwestern wrestler flopped around and exposed his elbow at a funky angle.  Again the ref stopped the match and awarded my opponent a point for unnecessary roughness.  I looked over at my corner and the assistant coach threw up his hands and rolled his eyes in a sign of confusion and uncertainty. He was not sure what I had done wrong.  I kept my mouth shut and fumed not-so-silently.  I guess the referee could hear my frustration –  mistake number two. As we went back to the center, he gave me a verbal warning to watch what I was doing.

After the next brisk flurry, we were both standing and I had control with my arms locked around his waist. We were headed quickly out of bounds before the whistle blew. My opponent at that moment grabbed my head from behind, pretty much in the same Gumby fashion that Ed Lloyd often did.  As we went off the mat he turned violently and flung me head first into the empty wooden bleachers.  I was stunned and really pissed.  In seconds I came up swinging.  I punched him with one good right on the side of his head.  The ref, who had missed the toss into the stands, turned around just in time to see me land my right jab.

headlock punch_600x400

The whistle sounded.  The match was over. I was immediately disqualified. Despite having led the match the entire time and still leading by a score of 12 – 2, I lost the match.  The call?  Unsportsmanlike conduct.

On the way home I had expected my dad to console me and tell me it was OK.  Besides, the other guy was a bad sport and the ref had missed the throw into the cheap seats. I knew it was not a boxing match or ultimate fighting contest, but I had expected my father to be on my side. I was mistaken.

Instead of comforting me, he said, “You blew it. This is the perfect time to learn what it takes to win a wrestling match: first you have to beat the opponent, then you have to beat the referee.”  When I cooled down, about half hour later, my dad said that I had let the situation get out of control.  I should have pinned my opponent in the first few minutes and not risked giving up the penalty the points for unnecessary roughness.  I lost the match not because of the ref, but because I let up by trying some tricky pinning combinations. The referee is supposed to protect the wrestlers.  After those two penalty points and his warning, the referee could have disqualified me for any small infraction, even my loud nostril flair;  I had been more on ‘borrowed time’ than I realized.


I should have won the match, but for my carelessness. My dad calmly counselled me to learn from my mistakes now as a JV wrestler, so that I could take the lessons with me to Varsity.  I won the JV tournament at the end of the season, pinning that guy in the first period the next time.  I never made that particular punching mistake again, but I made plenty of others.

Live and learn.


Ref in Junior League

Post Script

A referee friend of mine, George McKelvie, who reffed for decades and has been a mentor to young referees in the Baltimore area, read my story.  He said that the ref at Northwestern had made the right call.  He disagreed strongly, however, with my dad’s comment about “beating the referee.”  George said the referee should never be confused as an adversary; he is a judge of fairness on the mat. McKelvie has always been watchful over the safety of wrestlers in a match, as the health and well being of the wrestlers is critical to the sport.  At the same time he feels that in many instances the referees “over-officiate with ticky-tacky calls.”  Rather than getting in the way of two wrestlers in a flurry, he urges new refs to “let ’em wrestle!”

McKelvie agreed with my dad in one point, when he said, “It sure helps to know the referees tendencies.”  That is a vitally important lesson for all grapplers AND coaches: know what your referee is looking for by learning their hot buttons and officiating tendencies.  I could have used that advice at Northwestern those many years ago and as a coach along the way.

Chung ref at NCAA finals

 Jim Chung referee for Wisconsin champ, Andrew Howe at NCAA Finals in 2010

3 thoughts on “Witness Post: Referees Make the Call

  1. What a good lesson Granddad taught you. I like this story so much! I think it is one of my favorites!
    I like how you described each wrestling move and really set the scene. I can see how much it meant for Granddad to come to your wrestling matches, in those stinky gyms. You did the same for Margaret, Kathleen and me also. I am grateful for that and will come to my kids games someday also! There is nothing like getting some unexpected advice from your Pops.

  2. I loved this post. Now in my athletic dotage, I still umpire field hockey about 5 days a week, in season. It troubles me to be considered an adversary, or worse, an enemy of the game. I see my/our job as umpires to secure the safety of players and coaches, to ensure fairness in the athletic contest, And to ensure faithfulness to the game.

    I like your blog. For some reason, reading it makes me happy. My best to you and Tracy.


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