Cheers for the REF

As an official, a coach and a competitor, Brett King’s wrestling career spans 50 years

THE FINAL MATCH of Brett King’s 33-year officiating career was the Division 1 final at 285 pounds at the Kohl Center in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 25. Penn State recruit Cole Mirasola of West Bend West beat Stoughton’s Griffin Empey by a 19-9 major decision. (Lower photo) Brett King of Grafton has spent 50 years in wrestling as a competitor, coach and official. He retired this year after 33 years officiating. Photo by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

Three equals 50 when it comes to Brett King’s career in wrestling.

King competed in high school and college, then coached, and the Grafton resident spent the last 33 years as an official, capping a half century career in the sport at the WIAA individual state tournament in February.

He was the last of the 20 officials announced before the championships at the Kohl Center and received a rousing tribute from the crowd when it was mentioned he was retiring after 50 years.

King’s children flew in from out of state to see their father’s last tournament, and his wife Pam was also on hand after supporting her husband the last few decades.

It was a special finish to a career that started at James Madison High School in 1973.

“I started wrestling because I got cut from the sophomore basketball team,” King said.

At 110 pounds, King was too small for basketball. But wrestling was another story.

“Once you get it in your blood, you can’t get it out,” he said.

King wrestled for three years, winning a conference title at 126 pounds as a senior, then wrestled at Ripon College where he qualified for the national tournament as a sophomore.

“It wasn’t a big deal back then,” King said. “I was Division III.”

But winning is a big deal. King loves the nature of wrestling.

“It’s one-on-one. You don’t have to depend on an offensive line or somebody getting you the ball in basketball,” he said.

King can remember the high from being in the best shape of his life and from defeating opponents.

“There’s no better feeling than winning a match. You have good days, you have bad days, but it’s just you,” he said.

After graduating from college, King got into coaching wrestling and soccer at Milwaukee Madison and then Thomas More, where he started the soccer program at the all-boys school. After serving as an assistant soccer coach for a few years, he served as head coach for five years.

He made coaching work around his new career. King planned to teach and earned a degree in education, but in 1980 there were 200 applicants for each teaching position. He took a job as a substitute teacher in Milwaukee and took a summer job painting garages for Town Reality. The company, now Zilber Property Group in Milwaukee, offered King a job as a maintenance man. He asked if his schedule would allow him to coach in late afternoons, and the company agreed.

King never left, working his way up to facilities director, which requires him to get to know his employees and learn how to motivate them. He’s still using those teaching skills he learned in college.

“My students are a little bit older than I thought they’d be,” he said.

In 1990, when King’s first child was born, he wanted to spend time with his son, so he left the daily and nightly duties of coaching for officiating.

He also officiated soccer for a few years and at the time played for the Bavarian United Soccer Club in Milwaukee with longtime Grafton boys and girls’ coach Don Arnold. But King decided that he preferred running less and the consistent climate conditions of a gym over a soccer field that officiating afforded..

But he realized the switch from coaching wrestling to officiating at matches would be a challenge..

Good mentors, learning the details of the rules and staying in shape helped, as well as King’s wife. Pam filmed King, which helped him improve his mechanics.

King worked his way up and developed his own identity.

He didn’t want to come off brash or untouchable, instead talking to coaches in a “gentlemanly way” and trying to make the competitors “feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Since he lived in Grafton, King avoided officiating Black Hawks’ matches for a while. He later worked Grafton’s matches and said he never had an accusations of favoritism.

When it comes to comments on his officiating during matches, he said, “I hear the coaches. I hear the kids. I hear the parents.”

King never stopped a match to handle an unruly fan and thus provide the satisfaction for the loudmouth, and he only had three coaches removed from the gym in his career and a couple of parents.

“I wasn’t proud of it but they deserved it,” he said. “Most of the time it’s language.”

Much of the noise came to a halt a few years ago. During the pandemic, only two fans were allowed per wrestler in mostly empty gyms.

“It was surreal,” King said.

Wisconsin was one of the few states to even allow wrestling. Teams were limited to one dual match per week and no tournaments.

By then, King had developed friendships with many officials. They missed each other so much that they went out for breakfast on Saturdays just to talk.

The part King enjoyed about the pandemic was having weekends off. He had regularly officiated two meets per week and a tournament most every Saturday.

King found camaraderie with coaches at the state tournament. During breaks, coaches would eat with the officials. The group would swap hunting, fishing and golf stories. Sometimes, they’d even stop for a sandwich after a match..

King officiated 14 state tournaments, earning a spot each time according to coaches’ rankings.

In wrestling, different weights provide different challenges. The 106-pounders are fast while “You’ve got to stay out of the way” of those in the 285-pound weight class,” King said.

The work isn’t easy. Officials are exhausted at the end of those tournaments. “It’s physically draining but I loved it, King said.

Beyond that, King thinks it hurts the sport to have top veteran officials working youth events instead of younger officials gaining experience.

“When do young guys get a chance?” he said.

King has witnessed many key changes in the sport since high school, and Wisconsin has led the way in the national federation in changing the rules.

One sets a limit on how much weight wrestlers may lose. King remembers sitting in a sauna while wearing a rubber suit. “Now I don’t see kids who look like they’re starved,” he said.

Holding weigh-ins in singlets is another positive move. It used to be done in the nude, making teenagers and officials uncomfortable.

Handling head, neck and spine injuries has also been updated. It no longer involves holding smelling salts to a wrestler’s nose as in King’s wrestling days.

Now, the first injury requires a five-minute evaluation; the second automatically ends a wrestler’s day.

Facial hair rules have also been relaxed, which King said is a positive move.

The growth of club wrestling has caused more wrestlers to compete year-round, King said, which is creating more four-time individual state champions but is hurting other sports.

Clubs have also led competitors to become friends and even hug after matches instead of just shake hands.

“When I was in high school, you didn’t like the wrestler from Milwaukee Juneau” or another school, King said.

King said he likes it that more girls are taking up wrestling, that they’re wrestling each other instead of boys and that their state tournament is also held at the Kohl Center.

“They’re not as good as the boys now but give them time. They’ll be just as competitive,” he said.

Regardless of gender, King has loved the wrestling culture.

“The bottom line I found with all these kids is no matter how good they are, they’re just good kids,” he said. “The parents and coaches are doing good jobs.”


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