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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 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.

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