Keeney going out on top
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - George Keeney saw a need and jumped right in.
"I was at a match when my brother wrestled in 1970 and I saw a referee who was supposed to be one of the top guys,'' said the longtime wrestling official.
"I saw the match and this guy stayed on [my brother's] hip and just kind of stalled the match out. I thought, 'I need to do something. I need to go do this.' ''
Keeney became a referee in 1973 and spent the next 40 years overseeing the sport's growth. He will close out his career at this week's state tournament, which will be his 35th straight.
"My life has been wrestling,'' said the 65-year-old during a break at last month's WSAZ Invitational. "I started off doing this because I wanted to see better officiating. I developed I guess into a pretty good official, from what people say.''
Keeney has shared his vision for better officiating in his four decades, mentoring up-and-coming referees on the finer points. He was also instrumental in founding the Kanawha Southern Board 35 years ago.
"I really enjoyed teaching,'' said the DuPont High School graduate. "We've gone to the Tournament of Champions [in Columbus, Ohio]. [I was the] West Virginia representative and could bring whoever I wanted so I'd take different young guys to get that experience.
"We've done the Cliff Keene Eastern Nationals. I've taken guys to another level, the toughest tournaments so they can get that experience and react under pressure. When they come down [to the state tournament] it's easy because you're seeing the best guys in the nation.
"Without question we have guys in my association and other associations that are top notch. Probably the officiating in West Virginia is as good as anywhere in the country. I think we could take our 12 guys and call anything anyplace, and we've done that.''
Keeney and grappling have been intertwined ever since he can remember.
He only wrestled one year at DuPont after dislocating his elbow, but continued competing until he was 40 in AAU tournaments. His nephews Mark and Greg Samples were state champions at George Washington High School.
"My whole family has been involved in the sport for years,'' Keeney said. "I've been on all sides of it. God's blessed me I couldn't tell you. Wrestling is a life sport. You learn to survive, to depend on yourself, and you hustle to get better.''
Keeney said it's difficult to walk away from the mat, but it's time.
"It's sad for me, but nobody's bigger than the sport,'' he said. "[The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission does] a rating for state officials and last year I had the best rating in the state. I want to go out on top. I don't want to be one of these guys that hangs around and somebody says, 'Ah, he should have quit five years ago.' I never wanted to be mediocre.
"I think too much of the sport and the kids deserve the best officiating they can get. That's what it's always been about for me, the kids. The fact I've been able to do this for a long time at a high level and I've trained so many good young officials that are there to take over for me is really important to me.''
Keeney said the statewide bonds he's forged along the way are what he'll remember best.
"Friendships are probably the most important thing,'' he said. "I've done three generations of the Bosleys from Parkersburg South. Jeff Lester, who coached at Shady Spring, brought me a picture of me raising his hand at the 1980 final. [Former coaches] Jack Perry, Jim Crawford, Pat Vance, Steve Kee, Tom Woods ... I've done the Braxton County Invitational since its inception in 1978.
"Probably what I'll take away from the sport is the fellowship, the camaraderie, the lives we've changed, the people we've had an impact on. I've made so many friends and not any enemies. Just all the things that are important in life.''
Keeney will have plenty to keep him busy. He's continuing to make a difference in young lives, raising his 7-year-old grandson and 6-year-old granddaughter.
"For me to be able to do what I've done is quite a feat,'' he said. "I'd like to thank all the people that supported me all these years. My family, the coaches and the wrestlers. It's been a big part of my life. For them to allow me to do this, it's been a blessing.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.