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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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This was Kenny 25th playoff gameā€”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 ii 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.

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