Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Stephen Clayton, a 2001 Collins Hill grad, referees a AAAA match during the state championships at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth on Thursday. Clayton has been a wrestling official for the past 10 years.
Stephen Clayton’s first day as a wrestling official wasn’t very smooth.
Fresh out of high school, Clayton bought a referee shirt at a sporting goods store on the way to the tournament. That’s all he had.
He didn’t have a whistle, green and red wristbands or a flip disc. Just a shirt.
The Clayton File
• Who: Stephen Clayton
• What: Wrestling official for Metro Atlanta Wrestling Official Association
• Age: 28
• Occupation: History teacher at Parkview High School
• Education: Graduated from Collins Hill in 2001; earned bachelor’s degree in history from Georgia College and State University in 2004 and master’s degree in education in 2005
• Background: Was a state runner-up in 2001; Was named the Gwinnett County Takedown Club Official of the Year in 2008 and 2009; Gwinnett County Takedown Club Newcomer of the Year in 2001; voted best official at the state tournament in 2010 by Georgia National Wrestling Alliance; has been an official for 10 years and refereed the state meet the last season seasons
• Family: Wife Kellie; sons Barrett, 3, and Wyatt, 11⁄2
If You Go
• What: Traditional state wrestling tournament
• Where: Arena at Gwinnett Center
• When: Today, starting at 8:30 a.m.; Saturday, starting at 9:30 a.m.
“I showed up and I was ready to go and I was like: ‘OK, who has them?,” Clayton said.
A decade later, Clayton is no longer the naive rookie. The Collins Hill grad has emerged as one of the state’s top wrestling referees. This weekend’s traditional state tournament at the Arena at Gwinnett Center is his sixth state meet.
“I would say it’s a big deal, especially my first year,” Clayton said. “It’s a nomination process and it’s based on how you officiated during the year. It was a huge surprise for me and I was ecstatic.”
Clayton was a state runner-up wrestler as a senior at Collins Hill in 2001. While in college he wanted to stay involved with the sport and make some extra money, so he began officiating.
That year he was named the Gwinnett County Takedown Club’s Newcomer of the Year.
Since then he’s evolved into one of most respected officials in the state. Clayton was named the state tournament’s top official last year by the Georgia National Wrestling Alliance.
“That guy is awesome,” said Bud Hennebaul, President of the Metro Atlanta Wrestling Officials. “He can officiate the NCAAs, he’s that good. He’s got really good judgment.”
Clayton was selected to officiate the state tournament for the first time in 2006. The selection process requires you to pass an open and closed book exam to be nominated.
“You have to, especially for the state tournament, really know the rule book,” Clayton said. “It’s such a big deal to want to make sure you’re well versed with the rule book.”
Officials are always scrutinized by coaches, fans and parents. Clayton has had a few incidents along the way. Like the time he was officiating a youth tournament and had a parent follow him to his car to discuss a call.
Or at an area meet in 2005 when he hit a kid with stalling and the crowd erupted. Parents rushed the mat and Clayton had to have an escort to leave the gym.
And there’s his former coach, Cliff Ramos, who gives him the hardest time.
“When he was at Collins Hill, I didn’t see him very often,” Clayton said. “Now that he’s at GAC, I see him a ton. He’s really the one coach that gives me the most grief.”
But Clayton takes it all in stride. He said there’s rarely incidents where coaches will dispute his calls.
“I don’t know what the deal is, but I don’t get much flack from coaches,” Clayton said. “They beg for stalling calls. Afterward they’ll say he was pinned, but that’s about it.”
If there’s any downtime at a tournament, Clayton meets with other officials to go over calls or scenarios that may have happened on their mat. With the addition of the state sectional, it has made the quality of wrestling that much better at the state meet, but it’s also increased the intensity.
“I wouldn’t say it’s tougher. With a 16-man bracket the wrestling is a more enjoyable and exciting,” Clayton said. “It’s more stressful because it’s so important. The coaches are on you and want calls for their kids.
“It’s a lot more fun to do the state tournament because it’s a lot more pressure.”
Clayton still remembers what it was like walking down the stairs for the state finals with the spotlight on him and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” playing. He’s excited to be a part of that.
“I do like that part. I don’t want to sound cliche, but it’s exciting for the kids and it’s great to be part of something like that,” Clayton said. “It’s one of the biggest tournaments in the country. For a lot of these kids, it’s the pinnacle of their career. It’s great to be a part of something like that.”