GEORGE — If you ask 66-year-old wrestling referee Gerald Entzel of George when he plans to hang up his whistle, he’ll tell you he has no plan.
“As long as I have my health and can do it, I will go as long as I can,” he said as the latest season came to a close.
Entzel completed 50 years on Jan. 2. He was 16 years old when he passed a test to be able to referee junior high wrestling. He took on high schools right after his own graduation.
Entzel’s story isn’t really about sports. It’s about old-school upbringing in America. He started to work as a little kid and hasn’t stopped.
“I was on a tractor at the age of six,” he said. “I remember doing chores at the age of four.”
Entzel was born an eastern Montana farm boy. His father raised beets, corn, wheat, beans and alfalfa in the community of Miles City.
“We were the largest sugar beet farmers in Montana,” Entzel said. “We raised 300 acres a year.”
The Entzel boys started working about as soon as they could walk. Entzel and one of his brothers combined their efforts to plow fields.
Driving the tractor, Entzel’s brother was too small to reach the lever that turned the two-bottom plow over at the ends of the field. Entzel rode on the hitch to pull the lever.
“Yes, it was dangerous, but that was how we did things,” Entzel said.
With his family, Entzel moved to the Columbia Basin before the start of high school. The Entzels farmed on the north slope of Frenchman Hills, just above what is now the Tonnemaker Hills Farm on Dodson Road.
“We raised 300-350 acres of beets out there,” he said.
The farming operation later moved to the George area of Road 1 NW. Entzel and his brothers continued to operate the farm after their father died in the early 1970s. It finally ended up with the youngest brother.
Entzel left the farm in 1980 to join the Grant County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. He was an imposing figure, carrying 230-250 pounds on his 6-foot-4 inch frame.
A few people he had to arrest offered resistance, but it was never more than he could handle. Having been a wrestler himself, he knew how to control an opponent. The vast majority did not test him.
“There was a persona about it,” he said.
That persona flowed over to the mats over the years as Entzel refereed from Connell to Oroville to Coulee City.
“I don’t have much trouble with coaches (or wrestlers),” he said.
Entzel worked his way up to investigator and detective sergeant. He spent some of his patrol years in the ORV division, working the sand dunes areas in the county and the Wahluke Slope before it was fully developed.
“I learned to put out trash cans, or I would have garbage to clean up,” he said.
Wrestling has been refined over the years. Entzel takes a test every year to be able to continue to referee.
“Safety of the athlete is our No. 1 responsibility,” he said.
The sport was more physical back in Entzel’s day. It was not uncommon to pick up an opponent and slam him to the mat. Now the slam must be controlled.
“Back then, the wrestlers started in the neutral position for the first round,” Entzel said. “They had no choice for the second and third rounds. One boy started down in the second round. The other boy started down in the third round. Now you can choose, and if you’re up, you can signal me you’re going to give up an escape.”
The wrestling mats have changed. Some schools had square mats in Entzel’s day. The round mats were only 26 feet in diameter, compared to 28 feet today. There was no center circle, which later made it easier to recognize and call stalling.
Back in the day, there was one near fall call of three points for a five-second count. There was no 2-point near fall.
Entzel wrestled at Moses Lake High School his first two years. He finished at Quincy. He was good, but he never made it to state. Back then there was one tournament for all schools, and eastern Washington sent only one wrestler at each weight.
Entzel wrestled in the 191-pound class even though he normally weighed between 200 and 210. He had to drop from 265 one year.
Refereeing kept Entzel in the game all of these years. He’s been fortunate to witness some of the best teams and individuals Washington has produced. Moses Lake has won the most state titles, and there is a championship program at Othello. Royal and Warden have won titles.
One of Entzel’s fond memories is Dan Strode of Moses Lake, who lost only one match between junior high and high school and was Washington’s first three-time state champ.
As a wrestling family, Entzel will always recall the Mitchell brothers of Tonasket. One of them, Patrick, led Royal to the district and regional 1A titles this year, his first as head coach of the Knights.
At 66, Entzel may just be the oldest active ref in the state, or at least the only one with 50 consecutive years of service. Part of the longevity comes from experience. Instead of chasing the fast-moving wrestlers around the mat, he anticipates where they will be next.
Another reason for the longevity is just a matter of toughness developed in the windy hot and cold fields of eastern Montana. Entzel suffered nine heart attacks in the 1990s and had open-heart surgery. He refereed through all of that.
Entzel loves wrestling mostly because of the individuality of the sport. The wrestler doesn’t have teammates to share the glory of winning or the agony of losing.
“You can’t blame the guard that didn’t block or the tight end that dropped a pass,” he said. “You’re on your own.”