Paul Packer was inducted into the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame here Sunday. He’ll be the first to tell you he shouldn’t have been there.
And it’s not a statement born out of modesty. The former PIAA champion and longtime official from Bald Eagle Area was nearly killed in an horrific industrial accident at Cerro Metals in Bellefonte in 2004.
“October 21st, 2004,” he recalled. “I’ll never forget that day. I got banged up pretty good. I used up all of my nine lives in one shot.”
He was nearly decapitated in the mishap that broke all of his ribs — separated them from his sternum and shoved them under his sternum — broke both of his collarbones, his nose, his jaw and gave him a compound fracture of one of his arms. He has not yet regained full flexibility in his upper body and he can tell you if it’s going to rain before the Weather Channel.
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“I know if it’s going to rain three days ahead of time,” he said. “And if it rains on consecutive days, I have pain like you wouldn’t believe. But I thank God every day that I’m still here. One of my cousins told me the reason I’m still here is that God isn’t done with me yet.”
The accident terminated Packer’s 37-year career as an official the day after he had gone to a rules interpretation meeting. It was a career which saw him work all over the state, including several PIAA tournaments. He was one of the most respected and requested officials in District 6. That’s the reason for his selection to the Hall of Fame. He’s already in the District 6 and BEA halls.
But before he put on the striped shirt, he wore the blue-and-gold singlet for BEA and won a PIAA title at 95 pounds in 1972, beating Dennis Zuk of Carlynton, 3-0, in the finals. It was the last 95-pound championship. The next year the PIAA changed the weight class to 98 pounds. It was a typical Packer match with the points coming on an escape and takedown. He was notoriously tough on top.
During his years at BEA he was coached by Joe Humphreys and Dick Rhoades, both of whom are also in the National Hall of Fame. They are two of six members with BEA connections already in the Hall, the others being Lloyd Rhoades, Curtis Markle, Rep. G.T. Thompson and Ron Bracken.
Humphreys launched the elementary program at BEA and also served as the varsity coach. When he left for Penn State after the 1970 season, Rhoades took over and built the program into a district and state power before retiring after the 2000 season.
Packer still remembers those early days in Rhoades’ career.
“We would go to practice and we’d drill our takedowns and then we’d go to conditioning,” he said. “Dick was more into live wrestling and conditioning. We were always in good shape. If we lost, it wasn’t because of our conditioning. I used to come off the mat breathing through my nose. We knew we could wrestle three hard periods. No one on his teams was out of shape. When I think back to those days, it puts a smile on my face. In the postseason we’d have kids from other schools come in to practice with us, and they’d be crawling up the stairs to lay down in front of the doors to get the cool air. His practices were grueling.”
He learned that conditioning was also important once he began officiating. Dual meets weren’t so tough but the tournaments were a grind, especially the three-day PIAA event which used to run from 8 a.m. until possibly 10:30 or 11 at night. But it was the tournament trail where he had the most fun.
“The dual meets you’d just show up, do your job and leave,” he said. “But in the tournaments you got to interact with the other officials. That’s when I had the greatest times.”
But there were also a couple of times that weren’t so great.
“My second year at states, I split my pants,” he said, laughing. “And I was wearing white underwear. That was a rookie mistake. And another time I had a heavyweight step on my sneaker, and I stepped right out of it. Another rookie mistake.
“And there was one time at the regionals where a heavyweight knocked me down intentionally. He had done the same thing the week before, and that official wound up having knee surgery. I cozied up to him and told him if he tried to do that again I’d toss him out of the tournament. I never had another problem with him again.”
Having worked in probably a hundred venues if not more, he said the toughest place to officiate was at Sugar Valley, the long-gone tiny school in Loganton, which got absorbed into the Bald Eagle-Nittany and then Central Mountain district.
“It was so small and they had a stage right there in the gym,” he recalled. “It was so hard to protect the kids from going off the mat and into that stage. It’s not like it is now when you have those big mats.
“Another time at Sugar Valley I was on the edge of the mat and some lady put her hands on my behind. I was like ‘Whoa.’ But the fans never bothered me.”
Packer was one of four brothers who wrestled at BEA from 1965 through 1973. They were all on hand for his induction Sunday, part of a large contingent from his alma mater.
“I’m honored to be going in with the group I’m with,” he said of his induction class. “It gives me chills. It’s an honor to be mentioned with their names. Aside from the birth of my three children, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s hard to describe how elated I am. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”