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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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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.

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