Richard Jay: Wrestling's Best Friend
By TIM CREASON
The wind was howling and snow was blowing on Feb. 14, 2015.
As the Merrillville wrestling semistate drew to its close, a blizzard was blanketing northern Indiana.
Visibility on some roads was down to zero. Sections of U.S. 20 were closed by police.
In the gym, thousands of wrestlers and fans literally didnâ€™t know where to go, or what to do. Many were calling hotels, trying to find vacancies. Others scanned Mapquest, trying to find alternate routes home.
In the middle of all this, as I was speaking to a Merrillville police officer about my options for getting back to South Bend, my cell phone rang.
It was Richard Jay.
â€œTim,â€ he said. â€œGo to my house.â€
Now, the thing to understand is this: Richard was not at the semistate.
For the first time in decades, he was missing from his usual spot in the crowâ€™s nest, the one with a â€œMat Burnsâ€ banner hanging on the rail.
Richardâ€™s wife was in the hospital. She wasnâ€™t doing well. Truth be told, she was dying.
The semistate was always one of Richardâ€™s favorite events. He would alternately cheer local wrestlers while recording the results from every mat for the local media. He was the ultimate wrestling fan.
But this year was different. His wife was dying and Richard was at the hospital by her side.
And then he looked out the window.
â€œGo to my house. Donâ€™t try to drive home in this. Iâ€™m only a few miles away,â€ I heard Richardâ€™s voice say, crackling over a cell phone in the middle of Merrillvilleâ€™s gym.
â€œBut â€¦ but â€¦,â€ I stammered. â€œArenâ€™t you at the hospital?â€
â€œYes, but Iâ€™ll leave and go let you in,â€ he said. â€œThe place is yours. Iâ€™m going back to stay with my wife.â€
â€œRichard â€¦.,â€ I said.
â€œDonâ€™t argue about it,â€ he said. â€œJust go.â€
I should have. I didnâ€™t.
In hindsight, out of the many stupid decisions Iâ€™ve made in my life, this was one of the biggest.
Not because it took four hours to get home, and I was terrified the whole way, and I almost drove into a drainage ditch.
No, in hindsight, it was stupid because it deprived me of the opportunity to thank Richard for being such a wonderful person, and let him know how much we all missed him that day, and how much he meant to the wrestling community.
Because, God knows, he would have done that for any one of us.
Richard Jay died from complications of a stroke on Dec. 23. It was about eight months after his wife died.
Richard adored his wife. Everyone in his family agrees: the two events were tied together.
Richard had been a coach in the Hammond school system â€“ mostly at Gavit â€“ for something like 38 years. He coached wrestling. He coached track. He coached tennis. Hell, he could coach anything.
A lot of people came to the funeral home. A lot of people cried. I was one of them.
â€œRichard had a â€¦ a humanity that most coaches donâ€™t have,â€ said veteran Mishawaka coach Al Smith, who, like most of us, was unprepared when he heard the news.
Yes. Al Smith.
â€œRich wanted his kids to win, of course he did, but he was always more interested in what kind of person they would grow up to be,â€ said Smith. â€Whether you were a good wrestler or not, he always wanted to know how he could help you. You were a person first, a wrestler second.â€
In the weeks since his death, Iâ€™ve been stunned by the number of young wrestlers and coaches who never knew Richard Jay, didnâ€™t even know who he was.
Trust me on this: You would have liked him.
The â€œPick the Championsâ€ contest, the one you saw at every state meet? That was Richardâ€™s contest.
The â€œQuick Pinsâ€ list, the one that every wrestler wants to make? That was Richardâ€™s, too.
And most of all, there was Mat Burns, the greatest magazine of Indiana wrestling history that ever existed.
If you are from a wrestling family â€“ if you and your brother or your father or your sister ever stepped onto a mat in Indiana â€“ odds are that you are in Mat Burns. There are thousands of records in that thing.
â€œI remember he came over here a couple times when he was starting Mat Burns,â€ said Smith. â€œHe went through our records, he really wanted it to be complete.â€
Richard sold some ads to try and finance it, but most of the money came out of his own pocket. He didnâ€™t care, he thought it was important.
And he was right. I cited Mat Burns -- a lot -- in the wrestling columns that I used to write for the South Bend Tribune.
Richard was special because he cared, really cared, about the sport, and all the people in it.
Over the years, I have learned one thing the hard way: Lots of coaches say they care about their sport, but the truth is that they only care about stuff that benefits their own teams.
Even if a proposal makes all the sense in the world, if it doesnâ€™t help them directly, then â€¦ pfffft. Theyâ€™re gone.
Richard was never that way. Wrestling came first.
In reporting Richardâ€™s passing, NWI Times sportswriter Jim Peters repeated a story first told by Calumet coach Jim Wadkins.
It went like this:
â€œSitting in the bleachers after losing a freestyle wrestling match, Jim Wadkins was approached by then-Gavit coach Rich Jay.
"I remember, I was having a problem with a certain technique," said Wadkins, now the coach at Calumet.
"Rich said, 'Jim, come here.' He took me down to an empty mat and showed me a little tweak that helped me fix the problem. That's the kind of guy he was. He was a good guy, a wrestling guy, somebody who was always there to help you regardless of what school you were from."
It was exactly that reason another Times columnist, Al Hamnik, wrote a piece titled: Rich Jay was the model for all coaches.
It started like this:
â€œIf you're a young coach, regardless of the sport, please put your clipboard and whistle down and read the following carefully.
â€œIt will help your career.
â€œLet me tell you about Rich Jay.â€
And then he described the things that made Richard Jay a great coach, and none of them had a thing to do with wins or losses.
I can tell you about Richard Jay, as well.
Richard was the kind of guy who --while sitting in a hospital room with his dying wife, whom he loved dearly â€“ would look out the window, see a blizzard, and take the time to call a lowly, struggling sportswriter from South Bend, and offer his home as shelter.
Thatâ€™s who Richard Jay was.
As I have grown older, I have become convinced of two things.
There is a God. And he has put angels in this world.
I know, because one of them was just called home.
Rest in Peace, Richard. God Bless you.
Here is a link to Richard Jay's obituary with many pictures from on and off the mat.