MARENGO – Two hundred wrestlers from McHenry County and beyond locked arms and shook hands Sunday morning at Marengo Community High School to help out a fellow wrestling family in need.
Wrestlers of all ages – ranging from 4 to 46 – competed in a benefit wrestling tournament at Homer “Bill” Barry Gymnasium with all of the proceeds going to Marengo varsity coach Tim Keefer and his family, who lost their Marengo home of 20 years when the house next door exploded early June 11.
Tim Keefer, his wife, Kim, and two of their children, Austin, 19, and Hailey, 17, were home when their neighbor’s house exploded about 5 a.m. More than 50 homes were damaged in the blast, and 18 – including the Keefers’ – were deemed uninhabitable.
Marengo assistant coach Chad Miller, who began organizing the tournament on the day of the explosion, estimated that they raised between $5,000 and $6,000, with possible additional money from concessions.
Entry for the event for wrestlers was $20, and admission for the event for spectators was $5.
“If it was $100 we could give to the Keefers, or if it was $1,000 ... anything is better that nothing, because literally they lost everything,” Miller said. “I reached out to all of the high schools in the McHenry County area, and I think we’ve got most of them represented here, which is cool.
“Wrestling is a strange sport, and people are very passionate about it. When they see one of their family members struggling, they’re willing to step up and help out in any way possible.”
The tournament featured different brackets based on age, from youth wrestlers to high school. College wrestlers and older were in the open bracket. Wrestlers and teams from nearby and communities as far away as Iowa participated, and the field included past state champions, such as Crystal Lake Central’s Lenny Petersen.
Wrestling rivals such as Harvard and Richmond-Burton were there, too. But nobody was a rival on Sunday. Harvard volunteered to run a scorers table, while referees and state officials donated their time to show support for the Keefers.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Richmond-Burton wrestling coach Tony Nelson, who had children wrestling. “I heard what was going on and I committed right away. I wouldn’t have missed this. I think the turnout is awesome. Being short notice and the summer time, you don’t know what to expect.
“Being from different areas and backgrounds, the one thing we always respect about each other is we have to put in a lot of work to be a wrestler. I think all of that work that’s involved, that’s so character building ... you just meet a lot of good people that are in it for the right reasons.”
Keefer said the support shown by the Marengo and wrestling communities is more than he and his family anticipated.
“I’m just overwhelmed by the support,” said Keefer, a coach at Marengo for 17 years. “The amount of wrestlers that came out and the amount of support ... it’s just overwhelming. Me and my family appreciate it very much. It means a lot to us.
“I know I’ve put a lot into the sport. That’s the thing (about wrestling) ... they always reach out to help one another. If it’s a bad time, they know it and they reach out to you. It was our family that got hit, but there was also 18 others (families) that lost their homes. Hopefully next year we can keep it going, return the favor and give it to somebody else.”
Miller, who also is the head coach at Marengo Youth Wrestling Club, said it typically takes two to three months to put together an event as big as Sunday’s. Miller had about 10 days to organize.
“As soon as I put it out there, I was getting phone calls and emails from everywhere,” Miller said. “I saw Tim Sunday morning (June 11) at about 7 in the morning, and they have his house going down. By 9 a.m., I was talking to (Marengo District 154 Superintendent) Dave Engelbrecht and told him I needed the gym.
“When I saw Tim that morning, he still had his hospital blue socks on, his red flip-flops, a torn-up Marengo wrestling shirt, and some torn-up Marengo wrestling shorts. I told him, ‘Man, we’ve got to get you some new clothes.’ ”
Joe Koester, 46, of Woodstock read about the Keefers in the newspaper and didn’t think twice about helping out. Koester, a 1988 Marengo graduate who wrestled with Keefer in high school, had not talked with his old Indians teammate in about 15 years, he said.
“Tim is a great guy,” Koester said. “I figured, ‘What the (heck)?’ Instead of paying $5 and watch, I’d go ahead and wrestle it. It definitely hurt, but it was worth it. I haven’t touched a weight since ’88. ... The wrestling community has always been tight, sportsmanlike. We’re all friends.”
Duane Nelson, a Marengo native and coach for Marengo youth wrestling, wrestled Sunday with some of his younger pupils watching. He was shocked to hear about the Keefers’ home, saying, “You never expect it to hit home like that.”
“I wrestled underneath Keefer for my last two years of high school, and I’ve been close with the family ever since high school,” said Nelson, 29. “I wanted to help support the Keefer family and support the sport itself.
“We call it the family sport because either your whole family is in it, or you’re not in it. Out of six siblings, all of my brothers wrestled, my sisters did the scorebook for wrestling, my mom drives the school bus for Marengo High School. We don’t get support from anywhere else, really, so anybody that does the sport sticks behind each other that’s in the sport. Especially in smaller towns [like] Marengo.”
The Keefers are currently living in a rental property and hope to start rebuilding in four months. Tim and Austin made it out of the house with minor burns in the explosion, but the Keefers are beyond grateful for their health and support of both the Marengo and wrestling communities.
“We’re just blessed that all of us got out safe,” Keefer said. “There was 20 years of memories in there ... so it’s going to be hard to replace that. We can replace cars, houses and all of that, but family, you can’t. The wrestling family is part of that too, and you can’t replace that.”
Donations to support all of those affected by the home explosion in Marengo are going through the nonprofit Marengo-area OutReach Enterprises.