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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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Out in the north-central Illinois countryside, where the plains are so great and the towns so tiny that any little hillock can look like a mountain, losing your one dream can be too much to bear. Since that chilly Saturday morning when Kenny Wilcoxen tried to kill himself, two women in the area have succeeded, both with guns.

But Kenny is still looking down on the grass and loving every minute of it. The other day he woke up to a sleet storm, and he looked out his bedroom window and said, "What a terrific day!" Says Melissa with a smile, "I think he's going to be O.K."

There has been some fallout. Kris asked him, "Daddy, why did you want to die?" It's a good question, and the therapist they're seeing is working with the whole family on it. The answer is coming, bit by bit.

People in Durand are thinking things through a little, wondering how important games have become to them. Pinker insists his school did nothing wrong. "We had to report errors in judgment," he says. But the woman from Durand who wrote the wounding letter says she'll never write another. "Now when I go to games," she says, "I keep my mouth shut."

Maybe if there is a lesson in all of this, it is that there are real men under those black-and-white stripes, and they hear everything you say and feel every ice cube you throw. There are real hearts under there too. Some are even breakable. Maybe that's it. Maybe everybody just forgot that Kenny Wilcoxen was more than just something attached to a whistle. For sure, that is what he forgot.

"I'm going to start taking things one day at a time," he says. "Enjoy the mornings. Look up and see the sun shine. Enjoy every meal."

He has discovered that there are things his father did that he will never do. And vice versa. "One of my Babe Ruth teams went 17-0 and went to the county tournament," Kenny says proudly. "Dad never did that."

He sees all the colors on the calendar now. He knows what he means to his town and what the town means to him. The first day back at the school, a little kindergarten girl came running through the double doors, hugged his leg and said, "Coach, don't you ever try to leave me again."

"My wife was right," Kenny says. "If I'd have given up, that would have meant they won. It was a game. It's over. Life goes on. Her voice saved my life. And now I get to hear her voice all the time."

Well, not all the time. Kenny's little datebook is full through 1996, and Robinson has hinted that Kenny's crew may go to state next year. "If it happens, it happens," Kenny says. "I know right now that even though I didn't make it down there, I was supposed to be there. I've got my letter."

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