Brian Graham watches the action as he served as the second official at the annual Battle of the Burgs between Augsburg and Wartburg on Feb. 5. Photo by Jason Bryant.
By Jason Bryant, MTC Storm
Missouri native Brian Graham had an interesting week.
Graham, a member of the Minnesota Training Center in Greco-Roman, spent his Super Bowl weekend wrestling at the annual Dave Schultz Memorial International in Colorado Springs. While Graham didn’t place after sustaining a hip-pointer in the consolation semifinals of the tournament, he did pick up a one-point win over 2008 Olympic champion Islam-Beka Albiev of Russia.
A week later, Graham was back on the mat, but this time as an NCAA wrestling official. Working with lead official Tim Shiels, Graham stepped to the raised platform at Augsburg College’s Si Melby Hall for the annual Battle of the Burgs as Wartburg battled rival Augsburg.
Then he jumped on a plane, bound for Iran to compete in the Takhti Cup.
Wartburg would win the dual comfortably, but for Graham, it was just another chance to get out on the mat.
“I like to get out there on the mat and watch wrestling just as much as anyone else,” said Graham. “I get the opportunity to score it and be out there with the wrestlers. It’s pretty fun in this atmosphere at Augsburg College.”
Graham started officiating while still in college at Missouri Valley. He’d received his collegiate certification and jokingly asked his coach, Mike Machholz, if they needed any officials for the upcoming tournaments the school hosted.
“Sure enough, he said yeah, we’ll need you guys,” said Graham. So after the Missouri Valley Open, Graham then headed to Conway, Arkansas to officiate the first college wrestling tournament in that state in over 50 years at Central Baptist College. He was again on the mats at his alma mater later that season for the Missouri Valley Invitational.
“It was an eye-opener for me, but I’m used to the college style, so it was a pretty easy transition into it,” said Graham.
Augsburg and Wartburg hold a special place in wrestling and their rivalry, stemming from past coaches Jeff Swensen and Jim Miller, have the two teams facing off for the Swens/Milboy Belt, which will go home with the winning team each season. Augsburg puts the mat up on an elevated stage and brings their mat light to illuminate the wrestling surface, blacking out the rest of Si Melby Hall.
“This dual was pretty awesome,” said Graham. “It was super electric, everybody was on their toes. My heart rate is going just as much as the coaches on the bench. It was an exciting match for me. I love the sport of wrestling, so anytime I get a chance to get on the mat, I’m going to do it.”
Shiels, who lives in Apple Valley, likes the fact Graham is pursuing it.
"It's huge," said Shiels. "We need more young officials and we need to constantly recruit new ones."
Graham’s balancing two career goals – make a World and Olympic team and eventually officiate the NCAA Division I championships. “That’s the ultimate goal in the future right now,” said Graham about getting the Division I championships assignment. “I don’t have enough time (right now) because I’m traveling overseas, but I want to be on the main stage eventually doing the finals, maybe there’s another (Kyle) Dake coming up and I’ll get to do that national championship.”
"To have a passion like he has for wrestling is impressive," said Shiels. "To be doing matches while he's still competing; how many guys are going to do that? He does a good job and wants to get better."
With Graham serving as the assistant official at a match held at Augsburg, where the Minnesota Training Center athletes regularly practice, he did see a few familiar faces. Chad Johnson, a four-time Division III All-American and two-time champion at Augsburg wrestles for the Storm in freestyle, as does current Augsburg heavyweight Donny Longendyke, a White Bear Lake native. Travis Rutt, an All-American at Wisconsin before ending his collegiate career at Oklahoma, is also an assistant coach and member of the Minnesota Training Center.
“I try not to say too much to him,” said Johnson after the match.
“It is weird, I try to look at him, but he won’t look at me,” Johnson joked. “It’s one of those deals. He looks good out there, does his job correctly.”
“We’re all professionals here,” said Graham. “I’m going to do my job, so will the coaches, I’m not going to play favorites for anybody.”
Shiels, who's officiated the best wrestling in the country for a number of years, was pleased with Graham's performance.
"He did mention (the relationship)," said Shiels. "But he was making certain everything was professional and he didn't make an issue out of it."
But even with five years experience around the college mats, the Battle of the Burgs was still a notable event to call.
“This is probably the biggest center-stage match I’ve done so far,” said Graham. “I had Rutt a couple of years ago at the Kaufman-Brand Open and I see Division I guys all over the place. I haven’t done any Division I duals or tournaments, but I see D-1 guys at those open tournaments.”
Shiels believes the door is open for Graham to move up the officiating ladder.
"You're going to see a lot of the younger guys start working the regionals," he said. "They have to meet certain NCAA guidelines in terms of how many dates they work, and while I don't think he'd get a shot this or next year, but the next. He's got the makings of being rather good."
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