SALINA — Mike Ford has been a wrestling fan his whole life.
Ford, who lives in Parker, was coaching kids club wrestling when he asked Prairie View Athletic Director Ron Schomaker why they used the same officials all the time. Schomaker said they did not have many to choose from and suggest Ford become an official.
That is exactly what Ford did.
During the KSHSAA Class 4A state tournament at the Tony’s Pizza Event Center in Salina, Feb. 27, Ford was recognized for 40 years of service as a high school wrestling official.
“It has been fun and an honor to officiate this great sport and work with some of the all-time best officials the state has ever had,” Ford said. “I still get excited when each year rolls around. The sport has evolved from my earlier years from small tournaments to multiple day events.
“Most programs here on the East part of state were just getting started, and now there are many with great traditions and more wrestlers going on to the collegiate level,” Ford said. “I have seen the best wrestlers in the state each year. I have officiated three generations of some families. It truly is a small world as it seems wherever I go someone will say, ‘Hey, I remember you,’ and it almost always comes back to wrestling. It is awesome to visit with these former wrestlers and learn where they have landed in their lives.”
When he first got started, Ford learned the ropes from wrestling official Brad Clark.
“I still consult him about wrestling,” Ford said. “We traveled many miles of the countryside and spent hours discussing wrestling and life in general. I truly call Ron Schomaker and Brad Clark my friends and have the utmost respect for them.”
It is hard to imagine officiating wrestling for four decades, Ford said.
“I would say that is a pretty good accomplishment,” he said. “I enjoyed every step of the way. I would have never dreamed this 40 years ago.”
This year was the 26th time Fort has officiated a state wrestling tournament. Officials have to be chosen for the post-season events. During his time, Ford has seen more than 25 four-time state champions.
Ford was the first official to wear green and red arm bands, doing so in the 1985 state tournament at the Wichita Coliseum, when Class 4A, 5A and 6A were all at the same place for a huge two-day event. The state made the arm bands optional in 1986 and mandatory in 1987.
“I do it for the kids,” he said. “There is always a shortage of officials. I guess it is just my way to give back to the communities and it is something I just enjoy doing.”
When the Class 4A, 5A and 6A were all together, there would be 6,000 to 7,000 people at the Wichita Coliseum, Ford said.
“From my first state tournament back in 1985 and through 2000 when 4A, 5A, and 6A were all together in the Wichita Coliseum, I do remember the butterflies,” Ford said. “I personally wish they wouldn’t have split them up. It was just awesome to watch with the best seat in the house.”
Being selected to officiate postseason events, especially the state tournament, is a very big honor, Ford said. It also comes with a lot of responsibility.
“You always want to do a great job at state for the kids after they have worked so hard to get there,” he said “You are representing your area of the state so you want to be at your best. You have to have thick skin and confidence and try to be as consistent as you can and going home knowing you did the very best that you could for the kids. It has been an honor to referee with some of the greats of our sport past and present. I remember being the youngster on the state team and now have come full cycle to the elder statesman.”
Ford thought about retiring from wrestling, but he wanted to do everything he could to help the high school wresting season happen in 2020-21.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ve got and I know it is coming to an end,” he said. “I thought at the beginning of this year, with the craziness of COVID-19 and all, that it might be over, but with all the planning by the state and schools we made it through the year which was amazing in itself.”
Ford said he has fortunate enough to have a family which has encouraged him the last 40 years.
“They have always supported me and they know my passion and love of the sport,” Ford said. “Thankfully, they also enjoy the sport and spent many weekends in the gym and on the mat during wrestling season. The kids each have their own memories of matches and tournaments as they have been attending since they were born. They’ve been table workers, score keepers, managers and wrestlers throughout the years.”