Brought to you by EI Sports
By JEREMY HINES
Thirty-two years ago a spur of the moment idea by Kevin Whitehead resulted in a monumental change to the Indiana high school wrestling state finals.
Back then, Whitehead was a table helper at the finals. He had filled in occasionally on the microphone, announcing some matches for Homer Hawkins, the main announcer at the time. Whitehead thought something was missing going in to the finals. So, he grabbed a notebook and a pencil and went on the mat asking each wrestler for information about themselves.
"I was interested in finding out a little more about the kids," Whitehead said. "So I went kid-to-kid and asked them what year they were in school, what their records were, how many falls they had and such."
At the time, all of the wrestlers in the championship round were lined up across the mat and everyone's name was announced along with their opponent. The two would run across the mat and shake hands. That was it.
But now that Whitehead had all of this extra information scribbled down in his notebook, Hawkins asked if he would like to announce introductions.
"After I announced everyone, Homer looked at me with a smile and told me to keep the microphone and announce the championships," Whitehead said. "I haven't given it up since."
Now the introductions of the finalists are a large part of the finals. Whitehead announces each wrestler, and reads off their list of wrestling accomplishments as the wrestler joins his coaches under a spotlight. After one wrestler is announced, the spotlight moves to his opponent across the mat. Then, the two wrestlers meet at center circle and shake hands.
Whitehead has been the announcer at the state finals since 1984. He lives in Kentucky, but looks forward each year to his annual trip to Indianapolis for the finals.
During his time as the announcer for the finals, Whitehead said he has witnessed major changes in the state format.
"The tournament has gotten bigger in just about every way it can," Whitehead said. "There were fewer wrestlers when I started. When I first got involved the tournament had just expanded. When I was in school there were 12 weights and four wrestlers in each weight. There were 24 semifinal matches and that gave you the finalists and the consolations. After 48 matches, it was over.
"Now we hit match 48 by about 7:30 on Friday night."
Whitehead remembers when the finals moved to Market Square Arena and when the Friday night sessions were added. He has watched as the talent level in Indiana has gotten better, and interest in the sport has greatly increased.
"Wrestling has really grown in the state in terms of the caliber of wrestling, the number of matches, the fan interest and the amount of schools that are represented," Whitehead said. "Right now it sort of gets taken for granted that we have guys wrestling for, or going to wrestle for schools like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State. That was unheard of not so many years ago. You might have one or two outstanding guys that would break the mold, but the quality of wrestling has increased multi-fold and that's very gratifying. That is the driving force as to why there were 33,000 people going there and watching it this year."
Whitehead has announced over 8,000 matches in his long career. He doesn't have a favorite match, but said the atmosphere this year at the state finals was great. He misses the old scoring system for the team title, and believes that created a big interest throughout the tournament.
That was what separated the great sessions from the average sessions," Whitehead said. "The team race was great when you had a few teams battling for the team title. That really hasn't happened since we went to the new format."
One of Whitehead's best memories from the finals came in the 80s. The weather was exceptionally bad and the finals got bumped from Market Square to the New Castle Fieldhouse.
"They had to wrestle it all on one day," Whitehead said. "It started early and ran late. The crowd was huge and New Castle was absolutely packed. When it was over, we all knew we can through a tough time with the weather for wrestling. We had this sense of community afterwards."
As far as announcing, Whitehead said when he calls out for the wrestlers to clear the mat for the second time, that's when things start to get serious. He says he doesn't have any go-to catch phrases from behind the microphone, but he does love the unique names. He prints the finals brackets off as soon as they are available and practices how he will say the names.
Whitehead wrestled for Franklin Central in the early 1970s. He never got past regional but was a Marion County runner-up and a sectional runner-up.
He retired from the Kroger Corporation after a long career spent in packaging development. He lives in Louisville now and spends time golfing with his son when he gets a chance, working around the house and tending to his vinyl record collection.
"I have a 45 vinyl collection with about 3,000 records," Whitehead said. "I started collecting in the 60s, but I really started in earnest when I found a great Goodwill Store near Indiana State University. At the time, vinyl was junk. But now it's very collectible."
Whitehead said he has no intentions of quitting his announcing gig at the state finals. He plans on announcing for as long as he's allowed to do so.