By Jeff Bro Olsen
Let’s cut to the chase. Brian Bakke, a gifted athlete, got a raw deal in life being born with cystic fibrosis, an inherited life-threatening disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system.
But don’t tell that to Brian or his father, Jeff, the retired East Grand Forks High School head wrestling coach. They know that life throws spitballs and knockdowns. You just get right back up.
Jeff Bakke, a smaller version of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a former infantry officer in Vietnam, didn’t coddle his son. No sir!
Off the mat, they were father and son. On the mat, it was combat, and Coach Bakke would encourage his son to get out there and kick butt or give it his best shot.
It’s been an extraordinary life for the kid who was predicted to die at an early age.
Consider this: He won the Minnesota High School State Tennis doubles title. Try that while spitting phlegm into a cup between sets. He just won’t quit in any endeavor.
So, the sun has shined brightly on an only son, who beat incredible odds on the mat as a wrestler and as a referee.
On Saturday, November 23, at the Crookston Inn and Convention Center, Brian was honored for his lifelong courage as one of Minnesota’s finest referees. He was also hailed for his tenacity and decency over the past 27 years during his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum-Minnesota Chapter.
Spencer Yohe, the chairman of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, couldn’t say enough about how impressed he is with the newest inductee.
“Brian is an excellent official. He is exceptional and has been one of the best officials in the state of Minnesota, year in and year out.”
In Spencer’s closing statement, he recalled what Jerry Kramer, NFL Hall of Famer, had learned from his legendary Green Bay Packers coach.
“Coach Vince Lombardi always said, ‘Strive for excellence, and we’ll make this whole world a little better place to live in.’
“This whole world is a heckuva lot better off because Brian Bakke lives in it. Hopefully, he’ll live a long time yet. I don’t know how much higher of a compliment you can pay a person with Brian’s qualities. Excellence should probably be his middle name. Obviously, they don’t come any more courageous than he is. To face the odds he’s had to face is remarkable. He’s all quality, that’s for sure.”
Brian “Buck” Lindberg, a fellow referee with 36 years of experience in Section 8 in northwestern Minnesota, appreciates Bakke’s talents.
“Brian’s been one of the top officials in Minnesota for many years now. He grades out as one of the top officials year in and year out for the last 15 years or so. He’s in the top three probably,” he said. “We pencil him in when we do the state tournament selections in picking state tournament refs for the semis and finals just about every year. The top 12 officials in the state always work the semis and finals.”
Lindberg noted that Brian is the epitome of a Courage Award recipient.
“He’s very deserving of this honor. His dad has said over the years that if his son hadn’t been an athlete and in such good shape, he probably wouldn’t be with us right now,” he said, remarking on the volume of pills that Brian has to take daily.
“You actually take all of these?” Lindberg asked Brian as he gulped down a handful of pills. “Yep, it’s what keeps me alive,” said Bakke.
Alan “Swede” Olson, another fellow referee from the Fosston area in Section 8, singled out Bakke’s professionalism.
“I can’t think of one who is better in the state of Minnesota. He’s fair. A good ref is out there to award the points but is hardly ever noticed. I think that describes Brian. He’s awarding the points, but he’s not there to be in the show. When you watch Brian, he walks the outer circle, is not in the middle of it, and when it’s time to award points, he’s right there and in control and explains what he’s doing. It’s not a mystery what he’s calling there,” said Swede.
“Brian has overcome some great obstacles. With what he has, he puts himself in jeopardy every time he goes out on the mat. Some kid could have a bug, and he’s told me, ‘There’s a lot of times I shouldn’t be reffing because there’s some kind of respiratory bug going around.’
“He enjoys it, and he says, ‘I have to do something.’ You’ve got to admire that.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Brian, a 1991 East Grand Forks High School graduate, has had more medical challenges than probably any other wrestler/referee in Minnesota or nationally.
“I love the sport, and I enjoy being around the athletes, coaches, and the family atmosphere,” he said, adding that cystic fibrosis doesn’t truly identify him. But it has dogged him his entire life.
“My dad didn’t baby me, but in a lot of ways, he was protective. I think I would have been the same way with my son,” he said, noting that his parents, Jeff and Sue, were first informed when he was less than 24 months old that their son wouldn’t live into his late teens.
“My dad, especially, just being involved in wrestling, said, ‘He’s going to be involved in sports and other stuff,’ even though doctors told him that wouldn’t be a good idea at that time because it could severely damage my heart.
“Well, Dad said, ‘We’re going to take that risk because he’s not going to just sit inside in a bowl and wait to die, so to speak.’ I’m very thankful for that. It instilled in me some habits that are helping me cope and live a good life now.
“When I was diagnosed at two, the prognosis was I’d live to nine or ten. Then, when I got to that age, it was 18. I think now, the national average is 40. It’s different in Minnesota because Minnesota has one of the top clinics in the world, and that’s where I doctor at Fairview at the U of M.”
As a high school wrestler, he was competitive. Probably, very few knew about his debilitating illness.
“As a senior, I might have been sixth. Fourth in the region was my highest,” he said. “I wasn’t really a big third-period guy because, by the time I got towards the end of the 2nd period, my lungs had just had enough, especially toward the end of the year. Early in the year, I did all right. As the season wore on me and grinded on me, I would always pray before matches, hoping that I could just get that little burst of energy to get me over the line in the third period. It is what it is.”
“I was never higher than a 19 pounder. During the season, I would occasionally wrestle at 125 but would always cut down to 19 for the tournaments.”
It was 1992 when he became a wrestling referee. He laughed recently when recalling being the home referee when Roseau came to town that winter.
“Jason King was undefeated, and he wrestled Dana Paulson (later a two-time state champ for Roseau), who won by a single point on a controversial reversal I gave to Paulson near the end of the match.
“I’ll tell you what. I lived at home at the time, and my dad didn’t want me anywhere on the main floor. I stayed in the basement for a week. He was so ticked off because he didn’t agree with that. He thought there should have been no points awarded at the end of the match. It was an interesting time at the Bakke house. That shows how competitive my dad was.”
Maybe he was destined to be a referee, much like a child becomes a doctor because he or she was greatly impressed with a lifesaving physician.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “There’s a reason why I got into officiating. It was because of an official I had in middle school. It made such an impact on me. I wanted to officiate because this guy – I’m not going to mention any names – but this individual was from the East Grand area. He knew Dad, and he knew me, and I was nervous as heck. It may have been my first match as a sixth-grader, and I locked hands probably two or three times. I knew I did it. I remember looking at this official, and it was the disgust and disappointment on his face because of the way I saw it, he knew I should have known better than that. Your dad’s a wrestling coach, and the expectation is that you’re supposed to be a good wrestler.
It’s kind of the old cliché. You don’t get remembered for how successful you were or what state tournaments you did. It’s all going to be how you treated people. I remember how he treated me and how terrible I felt.
“Originally, I got into officiating just to get some extra money during college. But I always remembered how he treated me, and I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to treat these guys with the utmost respect. I’m going to work my butt off to try not to ever miss a call,’ which is not realistic. But I always want to treat these kids with respect because you know what they go through. Even with kids who are not very good, they come off the mat, or I’m raising the other kid’s hand, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you just keep your head up and keep battling,’ because they could be somewhere else doing God-knows-what. But they’re in the wrestling room, and they come out there, mano-a-mano, on the mat, and I want them to have the best experience possible. Because I’ll tell you what, that experience I had from that official was horrible. He made me feel like crap.”
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“And I just never want anyone to feel like that. So, that’s where my philosophy comes from. Hard work, absolutely, but it’s going to be how I treat people. I try to live my life like that, but especially in wrestling. How I treat these athletes is number one for me by far.”
He considers himself a very fortunate person. On two counts! He’s outlived the daunting life statistics for cystic fibrosis, and he’s a proud family man.
“Kaylen and I were high school sweethearts. I got lucky! She probably thinks so too. We have a son, Leyton, 15, who’s a freshman in East Grand Forks,” he said, adding that his family has been very supportive of his officiating.
“Cystic fibrous is really a family illness. They worry when they hear me cough. Is it just a normal cough, or is it an exacerbating type of cough? Is he going to be hospitalized? Is he going to recover? So many things go through their heads. Both of them think about CF on a daily basis because it’s always in your face. The therapies you do, the medications you take. It’s a daily battle, and they’ve been incredibly supportive.”
Take many pills?
“Probably around 40 to 45 pills daily. That’s down. Years ago, it was up to 70 pills a day. I take pills four times a day on average. I also take pills with every meal. I have to take antibiotics, use bronchodilators and nebulizers, and I do vest treatments. We’ve been blessed with good insurance. Those are $16,000 to $17,000 per vest. I have two different vests. It’s a daily grind.”
Are you done officiating?
“The past two or three years, I have been thinking about maybe tapering down a little bit,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful that more young guys become wrestling officials and serve this great sport in the evenings and weekends.
“I’ve always said this about wrestling. It’s always going to be a tough, hard-nosed sport. It’s never going to get easier. It’s just the nature of the beast. Wrestling doesn’t lend itself to that instant success. Oftentimes, you’re going to get it handed to you before you start handing it out.”
Brian recalled one young official who got severely chewed out by one of the coaches at a tournament.
“He said, ‘Bakke, I could be hunting right now. I could be ice fishing. I don’t need this. Yes, it’s decent money, and I enjoy the sport, but I’m not going to take this.’
“I thought to myself, ‘What do I say to this kid?’ Inevitably, we’ve been trying to talk to coaches. ‘You see a new guy. I know it’s hard, but you have to give him a little grace so he can work his way into becoming a good official. It just doesn’t happen right away.’
“Most officials that I’ve ever been around and the ones that I respect, trust me, we know when we make a mistake, probably a lot quicker than the coaches do. And we don’t want to make those mistakes. I’ve always said, ‘I’m hoping to have the perfect dual or the perfect match,’ knowing it will never come, but at the same time, that’s what I want to be able to provide for these kids, a 100-percent fair match.
“I don’t see myself retiring any time soon. I maybe would cut back a little bit, but I still enjoy it. Once the fall comes around, you kind of feel the chill in the air and you start thinking about the gym, the smell of the mat and all that stuff and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m excited again.’”
Coming up is his 28th year of officiating in the greatest sport in the world.
DAD KNOWS BEST
Jeff Bakke, 73, is one proud dad with his son being honored with the National Medal of Courage Award.
“I’m so happy. He works his butt off. It’s tough. I never really babied our son. They wanted us to when he was really young, but there was no way. We couldn’t stop him from anything, and I think that was very beneficial to him.
“He just turned 47 in September. We used to do bronchial drainage by hand. We had a table, and he would lay flat on that, and we would pound on his back. After he graduated from high school, they came up with the vest. Now, they’ve come up with a different version of the vest, which does it all the way around at the same time, so you don’t have to do it manually.
“He spits into a cup, sometimes it’s fairly clear, but sometimes it’s just a dark green, thick mucous. It takes about an hour each time, morning and night.
I usually go everywhere with him. He could go alone, but I feel better being with him.
“Cystic fibrosis Is what is called a recessive gene. All I know is my wife is a carrier, and I’m a carrier. Every child that we had had a one in four chance of the disease. Michelle, our daughter, does not have it, but Brian does. After Brian was diagnosed with it, we were done. We weren’t going to take a chance.
“They have one boy, but they adopted him. They don’t know if Brian’s wife is a carrier. But, for males that have cystic fibrous, it’s almost impossible for them to have children because the mucous, besides screwing up your lungs, it affects every gland in your body that has a duct. So, the pancreas is affected. That’s why he has to take all these enzyme pills for digestion. For males with CF, it’s almost 99 to 100 percent that they cannot produce offspring.
When he found out that, he was just devastated. We all were.”
Ever critique Brian on his officiating skills?
“Oh no! He’ll get in the car after a match, and we’ll be driving home, and he’ll say, ‘How’d I do?’ And I say, ‘You did really well,’ and he will say, ‘There were a couple of maybe things that were a little controversial,’ and I’ll say, ‘Not in my mind, and not just because you’re my son. I viewed it the same way you did it. Obviously, the coaches couldn’t dispute that because they didn’t raise a big fuss.’”
“He’s always self-critiquing himself. He’s always trying to get better and improve. He gets upset even if he misses one call. For the most part, he does a helluva job. He gets everything right.”
THE WRESTLING FRATERNITY
Later, after the ballroom had thinned out at the Crookston Inn on Saturday evening, Steve Ricard, the chairman of the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame Committee, put the finishing touches on a very special evening in which the wrestling fraternity, which includes coaches, wrestlers, referees, fans, and friends, had duly honored a very deserving middle-aged gentleman with the Medal of Courage Award.
“Tonight Brian was inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame-Minnesota Chapter for the Medal of Courage Award, and he was also inducted into the Dave Bartelma Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame as a contributor,” he said, adding that it was a very nice turnout. Many individuals had spoken movingly of the courage that Brian has demonstrated on and off the mat.
“The best quote I heard all night was from Bob Thorson (retired Fertile-Beltrami Hall of Fame coach) who said, ‘It sure gives you a perspective on what’s important in life.’”
There hasn’t been a single day in his life that Brian has been able to kick back and breathe normally.
“The influence that Brian has had on others, and also the influence that others have had on him was evident. They were there to support him tonight,” said Ricard, recalling that he hadn’t known Brian until he saw him officiating.
And he was impressed!
“This was a very special honor. It’s not easy to be selected into the hall of fame that I run. It’s 24 sections of refs and 12 or 13 committee members, and it takes 67 percent of the vote to get in by both parties to go in as a contributor.”
The Medal of Courage Award is just what it implies. It takes courage because of certain health conditions that preclude a normal life.
“Fortunately, there aren’t that many people eligible for the Courage Award because, thankfully, they haven’t had those hardships,” said Ricard. “Brian was very moved by the award. He was very appreciative and very humble. He is as humble a person as I’ve ever seen receive this award. How do I say this? If he had to meet his maker tomorrow, he would be ready. I thought it was a really special night with the fine turnout of old coaches and referees from Hutchinson and the Cities. It was worth the effort to come up and do this.”