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When Your Dream Dies
Rick Reilly
December 26, 1994
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
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December 26, 1994

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

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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.

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."

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