GARDINER – He stood alone, watching high school wrestlers win and lose. Hands in his coat pockets and standing just inside the entrance to the Gardiner High gym, he seemed to be just another fan. Except he wasn’t.

He walked to the other end of the gym, standing by the wall where bracket sheets are posted, listing the outcome of matches at the Tiger Invitational, one of the oldest of Maine high school tournaments.

“Leonard? Leonard Mc-Kay?”

After a second or two he looked at me. The dulled pain in his eyes was hard to bear. He looked desperately tired, like he hadn’t slept in a week.

“Why are you here?”

McKay looked away. “I’m part of this. Why wouldn’t I be here?”

A bit more than 10 years ago, his son wrestled on these mats, the center of attention. Fans cheered his takedowns and those moments when he turned an opponent over on his back, setting up another pin. Back then no one had more career victories at Gardiner than Elijah McKay, the two-time state champ.

Today the cheers for McKay have been replaced by sadness and anger. Saturday, far from Gardiner, the district attorney of Lake County in California filed murder charges against Robby Alan Beasley from the Augusta area, and Elijah McKay. If the charges remain unchanged, the two face life in prison without parole, or perhaps the death penalty.

“I can’t talk about that,” said Leonard McKay. His eyes went back to the mat and up to the scoreboard. You wondered how much registered. He wrestled as a youngster, although not for the varsity. He was a classmate of Matt Hanley, the current Gardiner coach who was Elijah’s middle-school coach.

Leonard McKay is one of 16 children. His father, Clarence, returned from World War II and once was a newspaper photographer and later very active in the local Catholic church and local history. The McKay family is prominent in Gardiner but not in the sense of power or influence. Their threads are woven deep into the fabric that is the community.

That’s why there seemed to be pain of another sort in the high school gym. “Do I feel hurt? A little,” said Matt Hanley.

His brother, Fran, was McKay’s varsity coach. His nephew, Francis, was McKay’s teammate.

“This is different from football. You don’t have that connection in football like you do in wrestling. It’s more personal. With me, it’s my church, my family and my wrestling family.”

Wrestlers can’t carry the baloney of their lives onto the mat. The sport can strip them naked emotionally. Physically you can’t get any closer. You smell opponent’s breath and feel his sweat mixing with yours. No high school sport is more personal and perhaps less recognized.

Where’s the media when championships are won? McKay’s acts shouldn’t be wrestling’s black eye.

Hanley’s wrestlers know of McKay if they didn’t know him. His 116 victories and two state titles are milestones anywhere. His achievements were examples to follow. His life’s choices are examples of tragedy.

It’s been a difficult year for Gardiner. Daniel Fortune, a former star athlete in football and baseball, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the home invasion and machete attacks on the Guerrette family of Pittston. His foster brother, Leo Hylton, who also went to Gardiner before transferring to Belfast, pleaded guilty and faces 50 years. Matt Dineen, a Gardiner teacher and hockey coach, is serving 120 days of a 364-day sentence for three misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual touching of a 16-year-old student.

Others may understand that all this can happen anywhere. Here, the community feels hurt and a sense of family betrayal. They once applauded and cheered these athletes and this coach who once represented the pride of success.

“My eight seniors from last year all went on to college,” said Hanley. “I think six of them are home (for the holidays) and sitting over there. Two-thirds of this year’s team is on the honor role.” Hanley was defending his wrestlers and his sport, and he shouldn’t have felt that need.

Around the world this Christmas season, millions are celebrating a birth. In this place along the Kennebec, they are mourning the loss of lives of the living and the dead.

Leonard McKay was back among family Saturday. He stood alone.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]