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.