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Longtime ref Welmer to retire whistle


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Basketball has been a mainstay in Steve Welmer%u2019s life for most of his 60 years. He is shown at an emotional moment in his high school career exchanging a hug with Columbus High School trainer Chuck Richardson after leading the Bull Dogs to a Regional championship win over Shelbyville in 1968. From The Republic Archives
Basketball has been a mainstay in Steve Welmer%u2019s life for most of his 60 years. He is shown at an emotional moment in his high school career exchanging a hug with Columbus High School trainer Chuck Richardson after leading the Bull Dogs to a Regional championship win over Shelbyville in 1968. From The Republic Archives

Steve Welmer, who spent more then 30 years officiating major college games around the country, is pictured talking to Butler player Bruce Horan during a 2004 game against Indiana University. From The Republic Archives
Steve Welmer, who spent more then 30 years officiating major college games around the country, is pictured talking to Butler player Bruce Horan during a 2004 game against Indiana University. From The Republic Archives


THE black-and-white photo that accompanies this column has always been special to me. It was taken almost 43 years ago — March 2, 1968 — at Memorial Gym.

I was sports editor then and had just witnessed what was the most exciting basketball game I had ever seen.

The Columbus Bull Dogs (there was only one high school then) had just beaten Shelbyville in the championship game of the regional tournament.

The Dogs won by a 3-point margin (83-80) but had staged a fantastic comeback from what had once been a 14-point third-quarter deficit to get the job done.

The picture told the story of celebration, but there was another story behind it, one that involved the two people hugging in the middle of the floor.

The player was Steve Welmer, the center for the Bull Dogs who had scored 24 points in an inspiring performance.

The fellow in the suit and glasses was Chuck Richardson, who then was the team trainer.

Leading up to the game, Steve was a question mark as to whether he would even be able to suit up, much less play. He had suffered a sprained ankle earlier, and Chuck had spent most of the pre-game week trying to get him able to play.

It worked and Steve started the game, but early in the first half he re-injured it and was taken out. For the rest of the first half Chuck worked on making him comfortable enough to play.

That worked too, and Steve returned to the game and led the amazing comeback.

He and I both remembered that picture when we talked earlier this week.

Time to retire

I had called him at his home in Bradenton, Fla., on learning that he had decided to retire as a college referee after more than 30 years of stop-start running up and down gymnasium floors across the country.

Ironically, the retirement was related to another injury, one that he had first suffered in 2009 while calling a major college game between Kansas and Michigan State.

The diagnosis on that injury — nerve damage to his right foot — sidelined him for the rest of the season.

After surgery, he seemed to be back in form this season and already had 16 to 17 games under his belt, but on the last weekend in November he suffered an injury to his left knee.

A visit to his Columbus physician — Dr. Tom Marshall — confirmed in his mind what he had been telling friends earlier … the 2010-11 season would be his last.

“I’m sure I’ll miss the camaraderie and all the excitement, but it really was time to call it quits,” he said this week. “Let’s face it. I’m 60 years old, and you can count on both hands the number of guys that age who are still reffing Division I games.”

The physical drain of running the equivalent of three to five miles a night certainly had its toll, but Steve was carrying a schedule that essentially reduced his life to gym floors, locker rooms, hotels, restaurants, airports and planes.

“I was getting to the point that I’d wake up in a hotel room and couldn’t remember what city I was in,” he said. “That was a part of the job I really didn’t like.”

Roundly admired

The games and the people he interacted with were just the opposite. He developed lasting relationships with hundreds of players and coaches. He was also admired, even by coaches.

Even former IU coach Bob Knight, not exactly a fan of many referees, had kind words to say about him and his officiating skills.

Steve certainly deserves recognition for those skills. He also was acclaimed for his basketball talents, at Columbus and later at Evansville College, where he proved to be one of the top players in the history of the Purple Aces.

But there’s another area of achievement for which he should be recognized — one that’s evident in the two photos that accompany this column.

Steve is a big man, always has been. It shows in the high school picture, but not all that weight could be described as solid muscle.

“There was a lot of baby fat there, even in high school,” he said. “You’ve got to remember that I was about a year younger than most of my classmates and hadn’t had time to develop like they did.”

For a while in high school there was some question as to whether he would ever develop. He came to be known for his weight and what was initially a non-confrontational attitude.

In his early years under coach Bill Stearman he was shoved around by opposing centers and forwards, many of whom were several inches shorter.

But Steve eventually toughened up. He might still have been carrying some of that baby fat into the 1968 Shelbyville game, but he didn’t give an inch to the opposing center Wes Miller. In fact, he held Miller to 11 points, well below his season average.

Steve kept growing, even at Evansville College, eventually reaching 6-10. The baby fat was gone, and the 265 pounds on his frame were mostly bone and muscle.

After college Steve did lose some of that firmness, but in 1980 he did something about it. Having entered the refereeing ranks at the high school level, he proceeded to lose 100 pounds. It hasn’t returned.

For the past 30-some years he’s been chasing players young enough to be his sons and grandsons up and down college floors four and five times a week.

Along the way those players have become quicker and able to do more things than their predecessors.

“You just have to be on your toes every second to make sure you don’t miss something,” Steve said.

He’s been able to keep pace despite the difference in ages.

Not bad for a fellow who used to be called the “whale” in high school.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or by e-mail at harry@therepublic.com.

 

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