by Scott DCamp
A Mentor man’s 35-year career as a wrestling referee came to a conclusion at this year’s state tournament. Brian “Bucky” Lindberg concluded his officiating career refereeing the Minnesota Class AA heavyweight state championship match on Saturday, Feb. 27.
It was the final match of the night and as James Huwe of Detroit Lakes and Logan Swanson of Mankato East stepped on the mat, Lindberg briefly realized that he was about to officiate his last match.
“When they shook hands, I thought, this is it,” Lindberg said. “But once you start, you can’t think about it,” Lindberg said.
Lindberg quickly regained focus and officiated his final state tournemant match with the same focus that made him one of Minnesota’s top wrestling officals for more than three decades.
Growing up on farm near Fertile, there was little doubt that Lindberg would be a wrestler. He is the youngest of five boys to be born to Leo and Thelma Lindberg, and all five Lindberg brothers – Lee, Mark, Jeff, Kevin and Brian – wrestled.
Mark, the second oldest, was the first wrestler from Fertile to ever place at the state tournament, taking fifth in 1971.
Three years later, Kevin became the first wrestler from Fertile to win a state title.
“That was one class,” Lindberg noted of his brother’s accomplishment. “It was a big deal.”
Lindberg’s career was a little more modest. He competed on some pretty good teams but he never qualified for state.
“One of the reasons that I got involved with reffing was that I had unfinished business,” said Lindberg, who also competed at North Dakota State College of Science for two years after graduating from Fertile.
Lindberg said he initially fought the decision to get into officiating. It was the 1981-82 season and Paul Cyr, Lindberg’s high school coach and Fertile-Beltrami’s coach at the time, encouraged Lindberg to get his reffing license.
“He reffed on the side too, and he wanted me to get my license just in case he needed somebody to fill in for him once in a while,” Lindberg said.
Lindberg was initially opposed the idea, but Cyr eventually talked him into it. At the time, it didn’t take much to become licensed as a wrestling official.
“Back then, you sent your money in. They sent you a test. You took the test, sent it back and you were licensed,” Lindberg said.
Most officials cut their teeth refereeing JV matches, but Lindberg got thrown into the fire with a varsity dual right away his first year. By the end of the dual, Lindberg had one of the coaches on the mat screaming at him.
Fortunately, Lindberg was able to develop a thick skin pretty quickly, and he renewed his license the next year and each year after.
The 1981-82 season was also Lindberg’s first as an assistant coach. He coached for a total of six years in the early to mid-1980s.
“We had some awesome teams,” Lindberg said, noting that Fertile-Beltrami sent teams to state five years in a row in the early 1980s.
Following the 1986-87 season, Lindberg left coaching to spend more time with his young family. That next year, he began reffing a full schedule that included his first section tournament.
Lindberg continued to add to his list of reffing firsts in 1991 when he was selected to officiate the state tournament. Along with Doug Dufty, he was one of two northern Minnesota officials to be selected that year.
At the time, officials for the state tournament were selected by what could have been described as a good ol’ boys network and Dufty though enough of Lindberg to lobby for the young official to get a crack at state.
Since then, the selection process has become a little more unbiased. Year-in and year-out, Lindberg ranked as one of the top wrestling officials in Minnesota and has reffed in every state tournament in which he was eligible.
His only state tournament absences were a four-year period in the mid mid 2000s when he resumed assistant coaching duties at Fertile-Beltrami to coach his youngest son, Kyle; and every fourth year of a four-year cycle. The latter is a Minnesota State High School League requirement. Refrees may officiate up to three consecutive state tournaments but they are forced to sit out the fourth year.
Altogether, Lindberg has refereed 19 state tournaments.
“It’s nice that coaches think enough of you to give you good ratings,” Lindberg said. “There were quite a few years where Doug Dufty and I were the only refs from the northern part of the state to get into the state tournament. Now, there are about 20 officials in the association and about nine get into the state tournament each year. It makes me proud that the number and quality of our officials have grown.”
Lindberg has seen his role change over the years.
“There were a lot of old refs back in the day that I would lean on for guidance and to learn from,” Lindberg said, referencing Cyr, Dufty, and Ken Steinmetz from the Bagley area. Now Lindberg is paying it forward by serving as a mentor to many of the young officials in northern Minnesota and he feels the region is in good hands.
“I didn’t want to quit officiating if it was going to leave a big void in this part of the state, but I feel really good that we have quality officials in this area,” Lindberg said.
Rules change every year
Lindberg will continue to serve as the rules coordinator for the area – a position he has held for the past 20 years. Over the past 35 years, the sport’s rules have changed some each year.
“When I first started officiating, you started outside the 10-foot circle,” Lindberg said. “Overtime is much different now. Blood time, we never had it in the past. It would be interesting if they had a year without any rules changes.”
Most of the high school rule changes during Lindberg’s tenure mirrored college rule changes from a few years prior.
“I would like to see out of bounds rules be more like college,” Lindberg said. “That’s the big one.”
The college rule referenced by Lindberg allows wrestling to continue on the edge of the mat, and even out of bounds, as long as a portion of either wrestler is in-bounds. The line itself is also considered in-bounds. The current high school rules require two supporting points to be in-bounds are are much more open to interpretation.
Lindberg said he would also like to see nearfall rules changed to mirror the current college rules, where a four-count back exposure is worth four points and two-count back exposure is worth two. A two-count is still worth two points in high school, but it takes a five-count to earn three nearfall points under the current high school rules. Lindberg and many other officials feel that the rule change will encourage more mat wrestling.
“It makes it more exciting for the fans. They need to make it more exciting for the casual fan,” he said.
1 vs. 2
Because of his high ratings, Lindberg has officiated the state semifinals and state finals matches almost every year that he has been eligible. During his 19 state tournament appearances, Lindberg has gotten to referee dozens of marquee matchups and none was bigger than the heavyweight semifinal matchup in 2003.
The bout pitted the top two heavyweights in Minnesota’s AAA class against each other. They were also ranked number one and number two in the nation. Top-ranked Trevor Laws of Apple Valley entered the match with a 41-0 record and second-ranked Jon May of Hutchinson entered the match with a perfect 42-0 record.
The two wrestlers had met twice previously. Laws won 10-3 in the 2002 AAA heavyweight state championship match after both wrestlers entered the bout with identical 45-0 records; and May had won by fall in the consolation semifinals when both wrestlers were sophomores.
Lindberg recalls that he was specifically assigned to mat six by the officiating coordinator. He asked if there was a particular reason why, and the coordinator replied, “You’ll find out later.”
Lindberg and the other official assigned to mat six were alternating assingments between lead official and trailing official. Lindberg was the trailing ref at 152 pounds when he noticed that there were several TV cameras matside. He figured it out pretty quickly that they were getting the Laws vs. May matchup.
May ended up claiming victory in the historic state semifinal matchup and went on to knock off another unbeaten wrestler, Matt Mello of Osseo, to win the state title one night later.
Lindberg said he is often asked if it is hard to officiate a state finals match, such as Laws vs. May, but in reality, it’s typically much easier than a match between two inexperienced wrestlers.
“I can visualize what they are trying to do and you don’t have to watch for clasping or full nelsons as much,” Lindberg said. “A lot of times, stalling might be called differently. In the regular season, you have a lot of guys who might look like they are stalling but they are really just overpowered.”
The end of an era
Wrestling has been a constant part of Lindberg’s life. He met his wife, Kathi, in the wrestling room at NDSCS and his oldest son, Eric, was just five days old the first time he made an appearance in the Fertile-Beltrami wrestling room.
Lindberg plans to keep his wrestling officiating license. He won’t be actively officiating, but he may fill in on occasion.
He said the decision to leave baffled many of his collegues. But, for Lindberg, the time is right.
“One thing I’ve always said is that I don’t want to be one of those officials where people said, ‘he was good five years ago. He should have retired back then,’” Lindberg said. “I want people to say, ‘He was good.’”
Lindberg will continue to work for the Polk County Highway Department, where he has been employed the past 30 years. He will also have more time to spend with his grandchildren.
“The one thing that has been the biggest thing for me with reffing is all the friendships – people that you meet and know,” Lindberg said. “You know the kids as they grow up and graduate. They know you.
“Coaches in wrestling are so much different than in any other sport. You go to tournaments and see them over and over again. You know their wives’ names.
“The group of officials that I work with up north here, I consider like brothers and like kids for me. I’ve watched them grow up as officials. You try to give them advice on how to be a better official. It’s just been a pleasure to work with people like that. You don’t see it in any other sport.”