By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
Warning: Some wrestling fans will find this column offensive.
You see, I am writing about a referee. Perhaps more than any other sport, the wrestling referee is the subject of the most disdain.
After seeing what they put up with on the mat, I wonder if, in their situation, I might wear a fake beard or Groucho Marx disguise when going out in public.
Former successful North Schuylkill coach Joe Cesari, insults be darned, is still officiating the sport 40 years later. This is Cesari’s 50th season of wrestling and he enjoys it as much today, probably more so, then when, without ever having seen a wrestling match, he was drafted into starting a high school wrestling program in Cuba, N.Y., in 1962.
That was the first of three occasions that Cesari was asked to coach a new program.
He returned to his home area in 1964. He played football at Kulpmont High School, now part of Mount Carmel, and continued coaching at Ashland, now part of North Schuylkill.
His Spartans won 92 percent of their meets in his 10-year stint as the coach, including a streak of 76 wins in a row. They had epic battles with the best teams of that era, including Shikellamy, Milton and Line Mountain. He said he misses the coaches he faced, especially Shikellamy’s Phil Lockcuff, Milton’s Dale Cochran and Line Mountain’s Paul Stehman.
“We used to pack those gyms with 1,500 to 1,800 people in the stands,” recalled Cesari, who is proud of what his teams did in wrestling despite the fact that the only thing he ever wanted to be was a head football coach.
Football came first
Cesari, who lives in Kulpmont, played football in high school and at the University of Buffalo for coach Buddy Ryan (later the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears and head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles), he never got the chance to be anything more than an assistant coach in football in Pennsylvania.
As a physical education teacher in New York, he was required to coach, so he became the head football, head track & field and head wrestling coach.
“We had the old mohair mats that you would actually tie together and then put a cover over. I never even knew there was anything like a Resilite mat until I came back here in 1964 to Ashland,” he said.
“I really just wanted to be a football coach. I had no interest in wrestling,” he said.
Yet he had some success in New York because he had tough kids who were in shape.
“We didn’t know anything about wrestling and we would do a football tackle for a takedown. But they could outlast kids because they were in shape,” he said. “One thing that I was pretty good at was getting kids in shape, and disciplining them.”
When he came to Ashland, he was asked to start a new wrestling program there. Two years later, Ashland, Ringtown and Frackville merged to become North Schuylkill. He applied for the head football coaching position, but they hired Gino Poli. Cesari was asked to be his assistant, and, once again, start a new wrestling program.
“I said ‘oh my God, not again. I don’t know anything about wrestling,’” he told them, adding “Read my lips, I want to be a football coach.’’
Yet, he didn’t want to stay in New York and coach three sports. It was too grueling, he said, so he accepted his role.
At first, there were no uniforms. They did not arrive before the season started. “We were waiting and waiting, so I borrowed them (from the opponents). One night we would come out and we’d be dressed in maroon and gray (versus Shamokin) and then we’d give those uniforms back and the next night we would be Mount Carmel’s red and white and the third night, we’d be Coal Township purple and white, we’d be the Purple Demons,” Cesari recalled.
Out of uniform
When uniforms finally arrived for his Ashland Area Black Diamonds, they were embroidered with a baseball diamond with first, second and third base and home plate.
“We had to rip them off and put Ashland Area on, that was funny,” Cesari added.
Cesari, a former Williams Valley district superintend, and owner of several business, has officiated wrestling since 1973, including state tournaments, and has worked college matches (including about 10 Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments, and graded NCAA officials. He conducts clinics for officials in the off-season.
His sons, Mark, Steve and Joe Jr., had outstanding high school and college careers and Mark and Joe Jr. moved on to coach and officiate.
He advised his sons to become officials before they get into coaching. “I told them ‘learn the intricacies of coaching from that standpoint and you will be a better coach because you were an official.’”
Cesari has seen a lot of changes.
He learned at a recent national conference that the Midwest is looking to go to 16 weight classes, which he opposes.
“I told them, you can’t even fill 14, how are you going to fill 16?” he said. “I still say if you go down to 12, you’re still going to fill every weight class, and you get those kids out of the gym a little quicker.
“Don’t torture the fans, when you start torturing the fans, they don’t show up. I know when a football game is going to start and I know approximately when it’s going to be over. It doesn’t happen in wrestling; you never know when it starts and when it’s over,” said Cesari, who also officiates football.
Cesari said that catcalls from the bleachers don’t bother him. He said his focus is always on the wrestlers, and on their safety.
He tells the younger officials that being in the right position is crucial. “You need to be on the side where they’re driving, know where they’re going, especially near the edge and when those scrambles and flurries are taking place, I want to be straddling that line to make sure I can see the inbounds and the out-of-bounds and make that call.
“Those little kids, you don’t know where they’re going to be half the time. You are on one side and all of a sudden something’s happening on the other side,” he said.
“You must protect the kids from injury. When they’re driving a bar you want to make sure it continues to be a bar and not a chicken wing, and it’s important for you to be right there, talking to the kids to try to keep them from making it illegal and hurting the other kids ,and calling ‘potentially dangerous’ right away,” he said.
“A lot of people don’t like it. The say ‘oh, this is a rough sport.’ Yeah, but the kids’ heath is more important than anything. Winning and losing, that’s OK, but their health is more important, being there to make that call, being in the right position to make that call.”
Referees must have conversations with the wrestlers, but they must not say anything that is considered ‘coaching,’ ” he said.
Cesari will turn 72 next month and, he said, people always ask him when he is going to retire.
“As long as I’m on that mat doing this, I keep myself in pretty good shape. My body will tell me when I should retire, and when I feel like I can’t help the kids anymore, then, OK, it’s time for me to retire. I don’t want to hurt the kids; they work too hard, and I don’t want to hurt the coaches, they work hard at it.”
Just like Cesari worked hard to have success in a sport he knew nothing about.
n Sports editor Harold Raker covers high school wrestling for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.