In Iowa, wrestling is practically a family affair, almost a religion.
It’s a place where every kid with a little ability and a steely attitude grows up and thinks of becoming the next Dan Gable. The four-day state high school tournament can draw upwards of 80,000 people and the finals are always sold out.
And almost everyone there waves at each other from across the concourse because they’ve all been to the same youth and prep tournaments over and over again, talking and getting to know each other, creating a sense of family.
Wrestling didn’t save referee Bob Baxter when a front tire on his truck catastrophically failed and then quickly caught fire on his way to a tournament in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Dec. 8, 2018.
His quick wits and resourcefulness saved him as he grabbed a small flashlight, broke a window and jumped clear moments before the vehicle exploded into a full-blown inferno (the video went viral locally).
But that aforementioned Iowa sense of wrestling family and culture certainly helped Baxter that day in ways too many to remember. It put people in his path who helped him call 911 and made sure the sheriff’s department and the fire department got there to put out the fire and see if he was all right (he was fortunately thrown clear of the truck when it blew).
Also, to no one’s surprise, that same culture of tenacity got him to the tournament on time, where with borrowed gear he helped his fellow referees officiate a successful event. That same sense of unity also got him back home safe and sound that night.
Not that any of this surprised Baxter in the least.
“All the people who helped me, who loaned me equipment (his went up with the car), even several of the firemen involved and the highway patrolman, all were involved with wrestling somehow,” he said. “It (wrestling) is amazing.
“Just an amazing, tight-knit group.”
It’s a fraternity to which Baxter, a man who meets his obligations, is proud to belong.
Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School coach Clint Koedam, who gave Baxter a ride home after the tournament in the team van, said that attitude is part of what Iowa wrestling is all about.
One vast extended family, no matter where you come from or who you are rivals with.
“Bob officiated me in high school more than 20 years ago,” Koedam said. “I don’t really know him on a personal basis but on a professional basis, yes. So, I think it was kind of ironic that I was there (to give him a ride home). God’s plan, if you will, because this is the kind of stuff that has always drawn me to wrestling. That camaraderie between coaches, wrestlers, referees and their families.
“You go to your average dual meet and it gets done and no one’s going home. Everyone is sticking around and talking and catching up with one another. … You sit around at a tournament from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and you wind up talking to people during breaks. And so, if a coach’s family or a ref’s family turns out to need help, people will reach out and do it.”
But it still begs the question that after all that, why did Baxter, 64, who was inducted Feb. 16 into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Officials’ Hall of Fame at the state meet in Des Moines, still feel like he had to work that day?
“They needed me out there,” he said without a trace of irony.
Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) Director of Officials Lewie Curtis, who is also the state’s wrestling administrator and who has known Baxter for many years — going back to when Curtis’ son was a wrestler in high school and college — was amazed at everything that happened, but not surprised at all with Baxter keeping his assignment.
“I don’t know if I could have done it,” Curtis said. “What’s neat about it, is that it (the accident) was a barrier to him keeping his contractual obligation. The easy thing to do in that situation would be to say, ‘I’m not going to complete this obligation. I’m just not going to be on the mat today.’
“But what he did by making it was send a clear message to all the young officials out there. To those guys thinking about calling it in because of a scratch in their throat or a little fender-bender.
“He found a way to get there. He’s just old school that way.”
That attitude has served Baxter well in the 46 years he has officiated and it served him well again under much sadder circumstances as just weeks before the state tournament, both his parents, mom Alta, 92, and dad Merl, 94, died. His dad’s funeral was Feb. 13, the day the IHSAA team dual tournament was held.
But despite that overwhelming sadness, he held to his obligations and worked the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Feb. 14 and 15 and then came back for his well-deserved induction into the officials’ hall of fame on Feb. 16.
“While I know it was difficult for him to be away for those two days, and again on Saturday for his induction into the hall of fame, he still did it,” Curtis said. “Not surprising at all.”
Of his parents, Baxter said simply: “They both had great lives together.”
Baxter also didn’t want to make a fuss over the situation, indicating it was just him keeping one last contract, because for him this was his last state tournament as he is calling it a career.
“I’d been to so many that I told them that I decided that I’d no longer work the state tournament anymore,” he added. “I told them that there are younger officials, good ones, who deserve to get there.”
Curtis knew about Baxter’s intentions ahead of time but wanted this elite official to go out on top with this one last go-around in Des Moines.
“Let him go out on a pinnacle,” Curtis said.
Because Baxter is as deeply entrenched in the Iowa wrestling fabric as are mats and headgear.
Baxter’s longevity started back when he was a wrestler himself at Bishop Heelan High School in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He has been a fixture ever since as an official at prep and small-college tournaments throughout the region.
“When coaches or ADs ask anymore how many years it’s been, I just tell them, ‘It’s been a long time,’” he said with a laugh.
And it was fortunate that time did not run out for Baxter on that early Dec. 8 morning as he was driving on I-29 trying to make the weigh-ins for the Council Bluffs Classic, a two-day, 40-team, 10-mat event that needed as many qualified officials as could be spared.
He was about 10 miles from Council Bluffs when he felt a thump come from the driver’s side front-wheel well. His vehicle slumped and went out of control, but Baxter was still able to maneuver the vehicle to the right side of the road.
The smell of burning rubber flooded his airways and he knew the tire was gone. He got out quickly and noticed it had broken off and jammed underneath the car. He went back into the truck to get some things but as soon as he closed the door, flames and smoke poured out of the hood and his cab filled with smoke.
Worse still, the door jammed and the window was stuck and he couldn’t get out. Fortunately, he found that small flashlight and eventually broke the window, crawling out and falling onto the concrete below. He started moving away when the truck erupted into an inferno.
“I got out and the next thing I knew the blast had blown me clear,” he said. “I rolled a little more before I got to my feet and just went, ‘Wheah!’ thinking it was a good thing I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape.”
That’s when the Iowa wrestling family stepped into action to lend a hand. A kind and generous stranger, whose name Baxter did not get, stopped almost immediately to ask if he was all right.
“He was there almost as soon as I pulled over,” Baxter said. “It turned out he had a kid in the tournament. We walked over to a point about 25 yards away and watched the whole thing. He called 911 and then we turned and looked at the truck and just said to each other, ‘Can you believe this?’
“He said he’d never seen anything like this before.”
Emergency services arrived fairly quickly. It turned out several of the firefighters had kids in the same tourney and another recognized Baxter as an official who had worked his high school matches.
All that got Baxter to thinking about his duties that day. He quickly determined that a little thing such as a blown-up truck was not going to keep him from assessing near-fall points and slapping his hand to the mat to record pins.
Not that it didn’t take some doing to get that done as his phone, wallet and all his gear were in the burning, tangled mess.
“But I’d been through enough weigh-ins to know that not everyone (referees) gets there exactly on time, mostly because they didn’t get up on time,” said Baxter with a laugh.
“I asked someone to take a picture of the truck to show the lead official why I was late and when I got there, the lead official (Jerry Middleton) looked at the picture and said, ‘You can get those pictures anywhere on the internet,’” he said with another laugh.
“But from the time I crawled out of the truck until I started officiating, it was only about an hour and 15 minutes.”
Middleton, who is the head official for Missouri’s state high school tournament as well as the for the NAIA national tournament, for which Baxter has also done some work, could only laugh at his mistake in judgment about doubting Baxter’s excuse.
“I looked at the video again later and said, ‘Oh, he might have been really in trouble!’ Middleton said. “It was just a crazy story. I’ve never seen anything like this. But Bob, who I’ve known for 17, 18 years, obviously wanted to take care of business.
“He really wanted to see to his obligations.”
Knowing the man as he does, Curtis too figured that if Baxter still had all his limbs and his hair wasn’t on fire that he would be in Council Bluffs one way or another.
“He (Middleton) tells me, ‘Bob has had some trouble and sent me a picture of his truck on fire,’” Curtis said. “First of all, I ask if he is OK, but then I catch myself thinking, ‘He’s going to figure out a way to get there!’
“That he found a ride and was ready to ref (that quickly) did not surprise me at all.”
The kind individual who had initially stopped to help Baxter drove him the final 10 minutes to the tournament, where he was able to cadge enough equipment to work the day. He was grateful to everyone who helped.
Middleton said they were even able to find someone with the right size shoes for Baxter, which allowed him to work.
Baxter was initially going to call and inconvenience his wife Maureen for a ride home at the end of the day — it’s about 150 miles from Sioux City to Council Bluffs — but Koedam wasn’t hearing any of that, and so Baxter rode back in the team van. Sergeant Bluff is only seven miles from Sioux City.
“Heck, 99 percent of other officials would have said, ‘I’m not going (to the tournament),’” said Koedam, “but Bob said he would be there. He said he was going to call his wife but I said, ‘No, no, you’re going back in the van with us.’ We weren’t going to make her take that long drive.
“If we needed to throw a kid in the trunk to make room, we would have,” he laughed.
But Baxter’s level of commitment did eventually come at a bit of a price.
“When I got to a phone I called my wife and told her that the tire blew and that there was a small fire,” Baxter said. “I didn’t tell her the full details until the first break (at the tourney). I also sent her the photo (of the truck).
“When I got home, after she had seen the photo, that’s when I heard about it from her,” he said with a laugh. “It was sure some weird stuff, but when you’re around the sport as long as I have been you find out that everyone’s got a story.”
It’s a story that’s been going since 1972 for Baxter, who started doing some informal officiating during wrestle-offs for his prep team. He got comfortable with it and then took the certification test the fall after graduation. He started working that fall and never looked back.
“My high school coach really pushed me,” he said. “It was right after I got my certification that he called me on a Friday night and asked if I would like to work a Saturday tournament. I said, ‘Sure!’ I went into the corner, worked the consolation matches and learned a lot that day. It was a great start.”
And what ensued was a great career that has included 25 Iowa state finals and many small-college matches. It finally came to its natural conclusion with that one last go-around in the state tournament and his induction into the hall of fame.
“What I’ve always loved about (wrestling) officiating is that you’re the only one out there,” he said. “You just focus on the mat and the match. Even with the high-level athletes and the noise, if you’re doing it right, you don’t hear the crowd.”
He will be missed.
“Bob has been around a long time,” said Koedam, “and he has a solid rep, as good an official as there is out there. You work hard to get a kid to state and if you’re lucky enough to get him to Saturday (the finals), you’re lucky if you get a guy like Bob officiating.
“He knows what it’s like. He’s a guy in a striped shirt who stuck his nose in there, kept to the grindstone and through it all, made it (wrestling) great.”
“There are people who help pave the way for the next generation of officials,” Curtis said. “We have to be on the lookout for what’s next, but we want to utilize the skills of these older officials because they still want to observe and help and give back.”
Baxter is just happy he made it this far and that his career (and maybe life) didn’t end prematurely that December day. As he closed out his final season, people started to recognize him more and more for that viral video and his harrowing brush with death.
“They’ve given me a new nickname,” he laughed. “Smoke!”
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