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The Match of His Life

Featured Photo from The Match of His Life

Local wrestling referee and mentor Wayne Garber is honored with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the sport

Longwood resident Wayne Garber easily recalls the time when wrestling became a part of his life, and when he talks about the sport, his eyes light up like a man talking about his greatest passion. Wayne was around 10 years old, living in Miami, when he remembers watching a high-school state wrestling champion – a boy of small stature, like himself – going head-to-head in impromptu wrestling matches on his front-yard lawn against football players almost twice his size... and completely dominating them.

“He used to beat up on these bigger high-school athletes, and they’d be crying after a while,” Wayne says. “I thought, wow, I want to wrestle one day. I want to be like this kid.”

Wayne, now 52, didn’t start competing in wrestling until several years later when he was a sophomore at Forest High School in Ocala. But the married father of three has been consumed with and dedicated to wrestling ever since – as a competitor, a coach, a referee, and a mentor.

Wayne’s devotion to wrestling was finally recognized with his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at its Honors Weekend at the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista hotel. He received a Lifetime Service to Wrestling award, which recognizes years of dedication to the development of leadership and citizenship in young people through the sport of wrestling.

“Wayne and I started going to this annual dinner about 10 or 12 years ago,” says Gayle, Wayne’s wife of 26 years and his biggest fan. “The last few years, people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Why isn’t Wayne up here [being honored]?’ Then, at one of the dinners, someone told me that they were going to nominate him.”

The award, which honors a handful of Floridians each year, brought tears to Wayne’s eyes when he was notified of                his selection.

“It’s such an honor to be recognized by my peers. It’s humbling,” Wayne says. “After being an official for approximately 34 years, this is just something that I never expected. I’m just very honored and grateful to be accepted into this special group.”

Basketball, believe it or not, was actually the first competitive sport Wayne played. As a kid, he lived across the street from a junior high school and developed quite a good hook shot while playing on the school’s basketball courts. But Wayne quickly discovered that his lack of height was a huge disadvantage.

By age 14, his family had moved to the tiny town of Williston, just west of Gainesville and Ocala. The local high school did not have a wrestling team, so Wayne tried out for basketball as a freshman and was cut after day one.

“The coach just saw how short I was and didn’t even want to look at me,” Wayne says. “I knew then that I didn’t want a coach to decide whether I made a team. I wanted to determine my  own fate.”

The next year, as a 4-foot-10, 94-pound sophomore, Wayne transferred to the much-larger Forest High School, where his sister was a teacher. For two years, he commuted 30 miles each way to school, and by his senior year, his parents moved to Ocala. Wayne wrestled three seasons for the Forest High Wildcats, starting in the lowest weight class, 98 pounds, and was wrestling at 128 pounds by his senior year.

At the University of Florida, Wayne helped a classmate start the school’s wrestling club, and Wayne took over the club when his classmate graduated the following year. Also during his college years, Wayne became a wrestling official and would referee high-school matches.

After graduating in 1986, Wayne worked in Georgia for a few years, continuing to referee and volunteering to help coach at the local high school. He moved to Central Florida in 1988 and quickly got involved in the wrestling community. In addition to refereeing, Wayne also helped start wrestling clubs for children and adults, volunteered his coaching skills as an assistant at Lake Mary High School, and helped kids in need get wrestling equipment through anonymous donations.

It didn’t take long for Wayne to develop a reputation as one of the area’s top officials – someone whose fairness, integrity, and knowledge of the sport were undeniable.

“I’ve been involved in wrestling pretty much my entire life,” says Wayne, who – at a fit 5’6” and 154 pounds – stays in shape by wrestling once or twice a week as well as lifting weights and doing calisthenics. “I don’t do it to get rewards. I do it for the kids and for the love of the sport.”

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