When Your Dream Dies

Dec. 26, 1994
Dec. 26, 1994

Table of Contents
Dec. 26, 1994

Pro Football
College Basketball
Pro Basketball
Bowl Preview
High School Ref
Point After
Photo Credits: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

When Your Dream Dies

After a high school referee blew a call that helped cost him a chance to work a championship football game, his life no longer seemed worth living

On a refrigerated, colorless Saturday morning in the no-McDonald's town of Walnut, Ill., Kenny Wilcoxen walked along the street carrying the letter he had waited for his whole life, the one that meant that after 20 years he was finally going to ref the state high school football finals. On the other side of the letter, written neatly in blue ink, was his suicide note.

This is an article from the Dec. 26, 1994 issue Original Layout

Unblinking, Kenny made his way past the simple little white two-story houses with the big backyards, turned right at Main Street, walked a block and then turned left, passing the one-story Walnut Grade School, where all the kids, K through 8, knew him as the gym teacher, as Coach. Every kid he taught got a nickname: Gerdie for Sharon Gerdes's kid; Tuffy for Brandon Rhodes, his centerfielder; Sarge for Chris Tornow. Kenny was also head coach of the three boys' basketball teams and assistant coach of the track team, the man in charge of the summer baseball programs and the coach of his son's Little League team. When he was dead, personnel was going to have a real headache trying to replace him.

He was handsome and sturdy, 36 years old, with a mustache and a wrestler's build. The cold didn't bother him, but he did keep checking the righthand pocket of his Chicago Bears wind-breaker for the 98 penicillin and 50 ibuprofen pills he had put there. He was wearing his lucky Chicago Cubs hat. In his right hand he carried a half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew to help the pills go down.

He walked around the front of the school, past the basketball courts, past the baseball field, the one he had helped to till and flatten, and back to the maintenance shed that doubled as the concession stand. He unlocked the door with his key, closed it behind him, turned on the light and sat on the big John Deere mowing tractor, the one he used all spring and summer to cut the soccer, football and baseball fields. Maybe it was weird, but dying on top of that tractor didn't seem so bad. Of all the things he did in Walnut, population 1,200, it was riding the mower that he loved best. Maybe it was because that was the only time he could sit and think without hearing the phone ringing or a mom ragging him about her son's playing time or some dad screaming at him because the man figured his kid gets 2½ steps on a layup. Besides, Kenny loved the smell of cut grass, and he loved the perfect lines the mower made, back and forth, forth and back. And if he made a mistake, if the lines weren't quite parallel, he could always go back and fix them.

That was the problem with Kenny Wilcoxen. He liked things perfect. The Magic Markers in his drawer at work all had to face the same way. The pencils had to go the other way. He was a card-carrying double-checker of locks. Close it. Lock it. Check it. Step back. Check it again. At home the washing machine was in perpetual use because Kenny hated to have dirty clothes just lying there in a hamper. The family calendar was done up in glorious, fastidious Technicolor—red for Kenny's coaching, blue for his refereeing, black for his school meetings. Everything under control.

But in the last week, life just seemed to spin out of control. It seemed there was no way to go back and fix things. And that's how he came to be in the shed, taking a deep breath and then a big glug of the Mountain Dew and dropping the pills in his mouth, fistfuls at a time. He went through all the soda to get them down. Then he started up the tractor and waited to die.

And all because he blew a big call.

When he was asked why Kenny did it. Randy Rimington, his basketball refereeing partner, said, "You've got to understand Kenny. For some of us, refereeing is just kind of a strange way to relax. For Kenny, it was his whole life. He was born into it." Kenny's father, Larry, is a renowned ref in the world of north-central Illinois high school sports. Get this: Larry has made it to the finals in four sports. Four sports! It takes at least 20 years for a ref to get to a final in any one sport. Most guys spend a lifetime and never get asked at all. But Kenny's dad made it in football, boys' basketball, girls' basketball and baseball. He is in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. This year he got a plaque, presented by Kenny, for reffing his 5,000th high school varsity game for the Illinois High School Association (IHSA). Even Larry's license plate echoes his legend: IHSA SF 4.

Most guys try officiating when they can't play anymore, but even when Kenny was still playing he wanted to be a ref. He started umping Little League games at 16. He stayed with it until one day he looked up and he was officiating one sport or another 250 to 300 nights a year. He kept all his ref bookings in neat little date-books—where he had to be, when he had to be there and exactly what time he could expect to get home. When each year ended, he saved the little datebook in a box, just like his dad did.

Kenny's pretty blonde wife, Melissa, could go weeks without seeing him anywhere but at the breakfast table. She tried everything to keep him home—tears, anger, aloofness—but nothing helped. The pull of the legend was too strong. "I've always thought games were too important to Kenny," Melissa says. "Not just state tournament games. Any game."

He had driven his little 1985 sky-blue Chevy Nova to games in ice storms, through snowdrifts and despite tornado warnings. One night it took him four hours to get home. "I've never called [a school] and said I couldn't make it," Kenny liked to say. "Never once." Nor did he call and say, "I forgot—I have the kids' recital" or "It's my wife's birthday" or "I'm sick." The gym teacher never got sick. For crying out loud, even as he lay overdosed in the hospital and the nurses searched madly for a single medical record of his, none was found. The man never even had a regular doctor.

In early November, the day Kenny got that letter from the IHSA, Melissa knew what it was from 100 yards. Didn't even have to read it. She saw Kenny coming up the street, making the block-and-a-half walk from their home to Hardware Hank's, where she works. He was bouncing along like a kindergartner, the letter in his hand.

He flung himself through the door with a grin on his face, holding the letter in front of him like a steering wheel, tilting it giddily from side to side, making it dance.

"Is that it?" she screeched.

"Yeah!" he yelped.

His football crew's ratings were among the best of the 175 crews in the state, and that meant they were "going downstate," which is what Illinois high school sports fans call making the state finals. Kenny had never made state as an athlete, but now he would as a ref. He would do a championship game. Might be Class 1A, the smallest schools. Might be Class 6A, the biggest. Didn't matter. He and the crew were going to "walk on the carpet," which is what refs call working a game in Normal, on the AstroTurf field at Illinois State's Hancock Stadium. Paradise found.

Kenny had been there only twice, and he had put his nose up to a fence and looked at the turf. He could have gone in the stadium. The gate was open. But it wouldn't have been the same. When he took his walk on the carpet, he wanted it to be in his black-and-whites.

Now he would have one more playoff game to do, Durand at Stockton, Class 1A (fewer than 313 kids), both teams undefeated, and then he would do a semifinal game, and then—can you believe it?—downstate. He made his hotel plans.

It was a 65-mile drive to Stockton that Saturday, Nov. 12. Kenny never minded the long drives. "When you coach, you get all the complaints afterward. You never leave it," he told his old high school coach, Dave McFadden. "But when I ref, I get in my car and drive home. It never follows you home."

He took his 11-year-old son, Kris, along to be the ball boy.

This was Kenny 25th playoff game—he kept track of that, too. Unfortunately, this would be the worst. There were five or six very tough calls in the game. Once Durand fumbled and Stockton fell on the ball, only to have the crew rule that the ballcarrier had been down. Most of the tough calls, though, seemed to go against Durand.

With Durand leading 14-8 and 45 seconds left to play, Stockton quarterback Jesse Brandt heaved one about 50 yards toward the corner of the end zone and wide receiver Matt Leitzen. Leitzen was actually a backup quarterback who was filling in at wideout because of an injury to the regular starter. Fact is, Leitzen had never caught a pass in a game. Durand's man in coverage was Jason Smith. "I thought he was two or three feet out-of-bounds," Smith said later. "I didn't even think of jumping for the ball, he was so far out. I knew the referee was there." The ref was Kenny, in perfect position. He thought he saw Leitzen extend his arms fully and make the catch with his left foot inbounds. Kenny signaled touchdown. Stockton missed the extra point. Tie game, 14-14.

"Whew, boy," Kenny yelled to his crewmates as they set up for the kick-off. "He was lucky he got that one foot in. If this was pro, it wouldn't have counted."

In the overtime a Stockton running back broke through left tackle at the Durand 10-yard line, was hit at about the three and dived for the end zone. Linesman Andy Yowell signaled touchdown. Game over. Stockton wins.

There was the usual screaming, and the walk to the officials' changing room got a little dicey, but it was nothing unprecedented. Nor was there anything unusual in the postgame wrap-up on FM 92 in nearby Freeport, which Kenny and Kris heard on the car radio. Two of the hosts discussed Kenny's touchdown call but didn't make much of it. Sixty-five miles and a $70 paycheck later, Kenny told Melissa, "It was crazy tonight."

Meanwhile, in Rockford, near Durand, three TV stations showed Kenny's touchdown call, and two ran a slow-motion replay. The replay showed that Leitzen never did get his foot down and was, in fact, out-of-bounds by eight inches. One station also showed a replay of Stockton's overtime touchdown that suggested the runner was down at the two and lost control of the ball before recovering it in the end zone. The TV sports reports mentioned that several other calls by the officials had been close.

At about 11:15 that night Durand's athletic director, Jeff Pinker, called Kenny's crew chief, Don Cook, at home to ask if he had seen any of the replays. Pinker also wanted to let Cook know that at Durand's Lakeside Oak Rail Lounge, where patrons had seen the replays on TV, there was a lot of grumbling going on. "I don't think anybody is going to do anything stupid," Pinker told Cook. "But you never know about people these days." Just trying to be helpful.

Kenny didn't see the replays, but by Monday he started hearing things. More important, the phone started ringing in his little white two-story in Walnut, and it kept ringing over the next couple of days. Usually Melissa or one of the kids answered it, since Kenny was often out teaching or coaching. The rest of the messages ended up on the answering machine.

"I have a problem with your husband's blatant calls," one woman told Melissa. She told the woman to call the IHSA and hung up. The next caller said Kenny was "incompetent." The next call was much worse. Melissa tried to laugh it off. "You know, I'm havin' fun hangin' up on these people," she said. But the calls kept coming.

By Tuesday, Pinker had fired off a bulky package to Don Robinson, the IHSA's head of officials, including tape from two of the TV stations plus a long letter citing, among other things, evidence that a Durand touchdown that had been disallowed in the second quarter probably should have been allowed. Pinker, who has been involved in high school football for more than 20 years, including 10 as a ref, wrote, "In my entire career, on any level, I have never seen this many major mistakes in one game." He strongly urged Robinson to yank the crew off its assignment downstate. "I would feel it a real injustice if any other team or town would have to go through what we have," he said. The letter was also signed by Durand's superintendent of schools. Meanwhile, Durand's principal began looking for a counselor to deal with the emotions of distraught players. Parents of eight of the nine departing seniors wrote a letter of protest to the IHSA and sent copies off to a few local newspapers.

On Wednesday things seemed much better for Kenny. The packet came from the IHSA with his parking pass and tickets and I.D. tag for the state finals. His dad visited him at the school to look at the tag and beam. Larry had worked the very first state football finals exactly 20 years earlier. Now his boy was going to walk on the carpet too.

But that morning, down in Bloomington, Robinson was undoing all that. The head of officials had looked at the tapes, read the complaint from Pinker and decided to take Cook's crew off the finals. "If this had been one call, it would have been a reprimand," Robinson said. "But it was three calls that were clearly in error, and they all led to scores or elimination of scores." Robinson called Cook, who was shaken by the news. Cook had been reffing for 27 years and never been to a final. Robinson told him the decision had been made "for the good of the playoffs."

Cook agreed to call the rest of the crew. Fun job. Kraig Kniss, who had been reffing for 15 years, was rattled when he got his call that same morning. Andy Yowell, a ref for 21 years, said the news hit him "like a brick alongside the head." Since Cook couldn't get hold of Kenny, he called Kenny's parents and told his mom, Judy. She couldn't bring herself to tell her husband until midafternoon, and then the two of them got in the car and went looking for Kenny.

It was about four o'clock, which meant that Kenny and Melissa were on their daily walk. When Larry's car pulled up, they stopped. Larry got out of the car and looked at Kenny a second and said, "You're off."

"What do you mean?" Kenny said.

"You're not going downstate. You're not working this Saturday or the state finals."

They all climbed into the car to talk about it. Before long Kenny and Melissa got out, and Kenny just started walking. Fast. Hard as she tried, loud as she yelled, Melissa couldn't get him to slow down.

That night Kenny didn't eat. That was very weird, for him not to eat. He was an cater of prodigious proportions. He liked to mix his salad dressings—ranch, Catalina and Thousand Island—into a phantasmagoria of flavors. Or he would glop Heinz 57, A-1 and Worcestershire sauces together and move in on a steak.

Now, nothing. Melissa got so worried she called Durand's football coach, John Schwab, and asked if there was any way he could get his fans to get off Kenny's back. He said he would. Oh, and one other thing. "I think Ken got followed home that night," he told her. "Two men." Word was, the men sat outside the Wilcoxens' for two hours before finally driving off. What do you know about that? Refereeing finally followed Kenny home.

The rumor, which would later turn out to be false, terrified Kenny. He remembered going on a walk with Melissa that night and leaving the kids home alone for half an hour. Were the men out there then? He would later tell Melissa that he "kept having visions of coming home some night to a family shot to death," she recalls.

After that, Kenny seemed to go into a small, dark place where you just couldn't find him.

Officials in the area complained to Robinson about his decision to remove Cook's crew. "If it were a rules interpretation or we were out of position, we should get our butts chewed," said Kniss, the umpire on the crew. "But these were judgments. You see it and you respond. That's it."

Nothing could lift Kenny's spirits. He told Melissa he might just quit officiating altogether. "Honey, don't let them win," she said. "If you quit, they'd win." She unhooked the phone and the answering machine, but she couldn't unhook the mailman. On Thursday a letter arrived from a woman in Durand. Kenny opened it. "She said he must not have any feeling for kids," Melissa remembers. "She told him maybe he should retire from officiating. That letter hit him the hardest. Every one of those words were like knives to Kenny, stabbing him."

He began to kick off his shoes and leave them in the middle of the floor, a previously unthinkable act. There was laundry undone. Melissa called four of Kenny's friends and asked them to try and talk to him. "Please," she said. "He's not himself."

On Saturday, Melissa left for work at seven. Kenny ate no breakfast. He sat and read the Peoria Journal Star sports page, where he saw the matchups for the day's big semifinal game, Byron at Rock Ridge, the one he was supposed to call, the one he had earned the right to call. This isn't right, he thought to himself. I should be leaving right now for Rock Ridge. Hour-and-a-half drive. Get there an hour and a half early. I should he going. I should be on the road right now. Then he put down the paper, went upstairs and got out his packet from the state office—the parking pass, the I.D. tag, the ticket for Melissa. He stared at them, fingered them, studied them. He realized it would be the first time in his life that his little datebook had lied. The lines weren't parallel anymore. Everything was coming out crooked.

It was then that something inside him just gave in, just sort of clicked off. He got the IHSA letter that he had filed so neatly in his filing cabinet in the bedroom, sat down, picked up a pen and turned the letter over.

"To everyone I love," he wrote. "I'm sorry for what I've put you through. All this harassment is my fault. When I'm not here, it will stop." He apologized to "the whole crew, for getting us pulled off state." He told his family how much he would miss them. He told Melissa, "I love you more now than the day we were married." He told his parents he loved them. Then he thanked Rimington and the football crew and a whole lot of other officials and signed the letter, "I love you all, Ken."

He walked to the bathroom closet. He opened the door and stared. He thought to himself, Should I do this or not? What good was he now to his family? To his town? An embarrassment. What good was he to his crew? To himself? To his dad? A disappointment. What was he to his wife? To his kids? A danger. He saw a bottle of penicillin and a bottle of ibuprofen. He flicked off the caps and emptied both bottles into his pocket, flipping the empties into the trash can. He walked downstairs and found the open Mountain Dew in the fridge. He walked by his daughter, eight-year-old Anna, and told her he was going out for a walk.

He slipped out the back sliding glass door and off the porch and hurried down the block, late for the cemetery.

The ref is a bum. He is a sightless, soulless, gutless bum who needs to be told that One Hour Optical stays open late now. You pay for your ticket, you get to scream at the ref. That's half the fun. He is a brainless oaf who ought to move around a little out there because he's killing the grass. He should be booed when he walks on the field, and he should leave under a shower of ice cubes. He is a no-good wannabe jock who usually requires a state-trooper escort off the field and into a little room somewhere, where we forget about him until the next time.

Across American sports, across towns, across generations, that is one thing that never changes, and it didn't change for Kenny Wilcoxen. As a kid he once saw a man go on the basketball court and smash his dad on the shoulder with an arm wrapped in a cast. "You're the reason we have juvenile delinquents in this country!" the man yelled. Kenny's father had been spat upon, jeered at, booed and ridiculed. One time Kenny asked, "Dad, why do you do it?" And his father said, "That's their right, son." And so Kenny grew to accept hate as part of the job, and the hate never seemed to bother him. He pursued officiating with every ounce of obsession inside him.

When the obsession was stifled, when the hate finally got to him, Kenny found himself in a little shelter, trying to poison himself and escape from the fans and parents and coaches, from purple screaming faces and the mailman and the answering machine. Things would get back to normal soon. He figured they would find him by dusk. The services would be Monday at Walnut Methodist. Rimington would get someone to fill in for him on Tuesday at the Kewanee-Wethersfield basketball tournament.

After about 25 minutes he started feeling dizzy, and his legs started getting numb. His skin got cold and clammy. He could feel himself going, and it scared him a little.

And then, for no reason at all, he heard Melissa's voice.

"Don't let them win," she was saying. "Don't let them win."

It was so clear that he looked around the shed to see if she were really there. Suddenly, the reality of what he was doing hit him. This is dumb, he thought. He slid queasily off the tractor and made his way to the door, staggering out into the late-November sunshine, heading toward that voice at Hardware Hank's, about a quarter mile away. His right leg wasn't cooperating. He was having to drag it along. The park was circling around him like a carousel. After a while he realized he could never make it all that way, and he turned in another direction, toward the soccer field and maybe the houses upon the hill.

Who knows why Dave McFadden decided to take his dogs out back just then? The dogs had been in the front yard, where McFadden was helping his wife put up Christmas lights, but suddenly he got the urge to go out back and let the dogs run. When he went around the house, he caught sight of somebody out of the corner of his eye, an elderly person having trouble walking. He turned his attention back to the dogs. No, wait, it's a drunk. A drop-dead drunk on Saturday morning. What a world. No, wait, it's Ken Wilcoxen. And at that moment Kenny fell straightforward into the grass, still holding the letter in his hand.

McFadden's wife called emergency while McFadden ran down the hill and turned Kenny over. "God, Kenny, what have you done?" he screamed. He began to cry. He yelled at Kenny the way he had yelled at him when he coached him. "You're tougher than this! You're a fighter!" Kenny was incoherent, except for one thing he kept repeating: "I don't think I locked it." The shed door.

Walnut has no hospital and no paramedics. There is only a loud emergency whistle that pierces the town. But Walnut has volunteers like Skinny Andersen, who sells ambulances, and Sharon Gerdes, who lives up by the Tastee Freeze, and Mike Howlett, who ran to the fire station and jumped in one of the town's two ambulances. In less than five minutes Gerdes and Andersen and Howlett and about a dozen other volunteers came flying up the street and got Kenny on a stretcher. They set off for Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, a 20-mile drive. They all knew Kenny. Hell, he'd coached two of Mike's kids. And now, with no doctor and not much equipment on hand, they had to get him to the hospital before he died.

At Hardware Hank's the whistle made Melissa's heart lurch. When she saw the ambulance go past her window, she felt a cold wind inside her chest. But when the ambulance didn't turn down her street and instead headed toward the school, she relaxed and let her shoulders down.

Within five minutes, though, Kris had called and told her that two men had come rushing through the door of their house, gone upstairs and come down with two empty pill bottles. "Where's your father?" Melissa asked.

"Oh, he told Anna he was gonna go on a walk," Kris said.

Melissa felt a pain in her stomach.

As the ambulance sped out of town, Gerdes started trying to save Kenny's life. Her 13-year-old, Nick, was on Kenny's eighth-grade team. Nick was kind of like Kenny, actually—the kid with All-Pro expectations for himself and All-Pine talent. Kenny could relate. He had spent so much time on the bench during his high school basketball career that when the bench broke and was going to be thrown out, he asked for a piece of it, used it to make a plaque and hung it in his office. "Every time Nick did anything good, Kenny would praise him," said Sharon. "He'd always take the extra time to pat Nick on the back. Nick loved Kenny."

As Kenny drifted near unconsciousness, Gerdes slapped him, slapped him hard, shook him and pleaded with him. She knew she was supposed to keep him talking, and for some reason she knew exactly what to say.

"All the boys need you," she said. "Nick needs you." She said, "Don't you know what you mean to this town? Don't you know how important you are to us? Kenny, we all love you. The kids all love you, Kenny."

Come to think of it, inside most every house and store and machine shop and farmhouse they drove by on their way out of Walnut, there was somebody who had been coached or taught or reffed or helped by Kenny Wilcoxen. They sped past Mark Willis's old house. Remember? The awkward kid the other kids laughed at two years ago—until Kenny named him manager of the basketball team. And then of the track team. Who could forget graduation night that year, after all the big awards had been handed out, when Kenny called Mark up to the podium and gave him a surprise award? It was just an old shot that the shot-putters didn't use anymore. Kenny had inscribed Mark's name on it. Mark beamed like he had just lettered. Then he cried, right in front of everybody.

It was an idea that had never sneaked inside Kenny's brain before: Don't you know what you mean to this town? He had seen himself as a ref, the 250-nights-a-year man, the son of the great ref. He had forgotten what else he was—a teacher, a coach, a father, a friend to nearly every kid in town. It's funny, he had spent his whole life marking his calendar in three different colors, but he had really seen only one.

"After that," Kenny says now, "I wanted to make it."

At the hospital he was treated to prevent his kidneys from giving out because of the combination of the ibuprofen and all the potassium in the penicillin. His heart rate was flying. Outside, in the hall, his father was trying to get up the nerve to go in and see him. When Larry finally walked in the room, Kenny looked up with his face full of tubes and tape.

He whispered, "Sorry, Dad."

It took 26 hours in ICU and a whole lot of pacing and praying and hoping by Kenny's friends and family, but slowly his heart rate came down. And then a nurse told him a remarkable thing. "Mr. Wilcoxen," she said, "We want you to know something. You've broken all our records."

"For what?" he asked.

"Most people in the waiting room."

For they had jammed that tiny waiting room at Perry Memorial and spilled both ways down the hallway besides. Parents of kids he taught. Uncles of kids he coached. Refs and umps and back judges. Relatives. People Kenny had known his whole life. People whose kids he had taught to dribble and bunt and slide and run the down-and-out and pole-vault and skip rope. Kids on his teams. Families of the kids he taught every day. Grown young men he'd had in eighth grade. Mothers who never thought twice about turning their kids over to him summer after summer to learn to hit the cutoff man and to eat Popsicles after practice.

There was more when he went home on Monday: hundreds of cards and letters, people thanking him for all he had done for their kids, feeling bad that they had never thought to thank him before. All the kids drew pictures for him, too, and nearly all of them signed the names he had given them. Gerdie. Little Willy. Tuffy.

"I guess I'd forgotten what all the kids meant to me," Kenny says today. "I was really amazed. I was amazed by everything, the cards and the people who called and all the nice things they wrote. You know, you go through life and you never think you make a difference in the lives of that many people. And then it just hits you."

It is a wonderful thing to be hit with. And in the stack there was the following letter from a 12-year-old:

Dear Coach,
I have had you for a coach almost all of my years in school.... You are the one teacher who has meant the most in my life. You are also the teacher I respect the most. You are the teacher who, when I look back on my life, I'll say, "That's who I want to model my life after." You have taught me a lot not just about sports or school but about life.
Derek Young

Not bad for somebody with no feeling for kids.

Out in the north-central Illinois countryside, where the plains are so great and the towns so tiny that any little hillock can look like a mountain, losing your one dream can be too much to bear. Since that chilly Saturday morning when Kenny Wilcoxen tried to kill himself, two women in the area have succeeded, both with guns.

But Kenny is still looking down on the grass and loving every minute of it. The other day he woke up to a sleet storm, and he looked out his bedroom window and said, "What a terrific day!" Says Melissa with a smile, "I think he's going to be O.K."

There has been some fallout. Kris asked him, "Daddy, why did you want to die?" It's a good question, and the therapist they're seeing is working with the whole family on it. The answer is coming, bit by bit.

People in Durand are thinking things through a little, wondering how important games have become to them. Pinker insists his school did nothing wrong. "We had to report errors in judgment," he says. But the woman from Durand who wrote the wounding letter says she'll never write another. "Now when I go to games," she says, "I keep my mouth shut."

Maybe if there is a lesson in all of this, it is that there are real men under those black-and-white stripes, and they hear everything you say and feel every ice cube you throw. There are real hearts under there too. Some are even breakable. Maybe that's it. Maybe everybody just forgot that Kenny Wilcoxen was more than just something attached to a whistle. For sure, that is what he forgot.

"I'm going to start taking things one day at a time," he says. "Enjoy the mornings. Look up and see the sun shine. Enjoy every meal."

He has discovered that there are things his father did that he will never do. And vice versa. "One of my Babe Ruth teams went 17-0 and went to the county tournament," Kenny says proudly. "Dad never did that."

He sees all the colors on the calendar now. He knows what he means to his town and what the town means to him. The first day back at the school, a little kindergarten girl came running through the double doors, hugged his leg and said, "Coach, don't you ever try to leave me again."

"My wife was right," Kenny says. "If I'd have given up, that would have meant they won. It was a game. It's over. Life goes on. Her voice saved my life. And now I get to hear her voice all the time."

Well, not all the time. Kenny's little datebook is full through 1996, and Robinson has hinted that Kenny's crew may go to state next year. "If it happens, it happens," Kenny says. "I know right now that even though I didn't make it down there, I was supposed to be there. I've got my letter."

Kenny left the hospital that Monday and was working basketball games with Rimington on Tuesday and Wednesday night. Somebody at one game hollered, "You're so bad, you should have taken more pills!" but Kenny just tried to laugh it off. That's their right, son.

Yeah, reffing is still a Wilcoxen tradition. In fact, Larry is thinking now that someday all three Wilcoxen men could be on the football field together. After all, when Kris is 17, Larry will be only 64. "Wouldn't that be something?" says Larry. "Three Wilcoxens on one crew?"

Could happen. Lately, Kris has been slipping out the back sliding glass door and off the porch and hurrying to school wearing his grandfather's faded old referee's jacket.