Chattanooga's Mike Craft has been named co-referee of the year by USA Wrestling.
"He's an icon of the sport in Tennessee," said Soddy-Daisy principal Danny Gilbert, a former wrestler, coach and respected wrestling official in his own right. "He's been refereeing more than 40 years, and he does it at an extremely high level."
Craft began calling youth matches while still wrestling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and he registered with the TSSAA prior to the 1974-75 season. He has officiated every year since except for two seasons when he was the wrestling coach at Jacksonville State. In that time he has called thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, individual matches.
"I honestly have no idea, wouldn't have a clue," he said.
Craft, who was talked into launching his officiating career in youth tournaments by former Notre Dame assistant Steve Hammond, since has called junior high, high school and college matches. He was a favorite among college coaches in the days of the Southestern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association and the Southeastern Conference when numerous SEC schools had teams.
"He's just an exceptional referee. He exhibits everything you want in a championship event -- his professionalism, his demeanor and his work ethic," said TSSAA assistant director Mark Reeves. "There aren't many across the state or the country that have called as many championship events as Mike has."
Some of the younger referees have taken to calling the diminutive Craft "the Little General" because of his take-charge mindset.
"Without question he's one of the best referees in the state," Gilbert said. "He is also a leader and has been a mentor to a lot of the younger referees. He truly loves the sport and has been involved in so many ways. Someone may one day step into his slot, but you're never going to be able to replace him."
Craft was surprised to be singled out, although he received the TSSAA's A.F. Bridges service award earlier this year.
"It's humbling to be singled out when in our local association along there are several that are just as deserving, guys like Kenny Mara, Donnie Elsea and [Walt] Tater Vineyard," he said.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...