By Tom Kendra
Kirk Antekeier makes friends everywhere he goes, the realtor/referee with the larger-than-life personality and a matinee idol flock of hair that most men his age can only dream about (he’s 66, which is hard to believe).
Those connections he makes often come in handy, but never moreso than earlier this year.
Kirk ran into an old buddy, Dirk Bonnema, who he worked with back in the 1980s when he was a wine salesman at Modern Beverage in Holland. Bonnema was a young kid working in the warehouse and told Kirk back then that he was studying to be a doctor – so from that moment forward, Kirk called him “Doogie Howser” (Kirk has a nickname for everybody).
Doogie and Kirk – who did indeed become a doctor, and is now a cardiology specialist at Trinity Health Medical Group in Muskegon – arranged to get together for a round of golf, which they finally did on June 9.
Amidst all the usual golf course banter that day, Kirk mentioned to his friend that for the past year or so, he had a pain right in the middle of his chest, which got worse when he was officiating and exerting himself.
At that moment, the BS and joking stopped abruptly, Bonnema looked Kirk directly in the eyes and said:
“I’ll see you in my office on Monday morning.”
One week after that Monday appointment, on June 19, Kirk underwent triple bypass, open-heart surgery at Trinity Health Hospital in Muskegon to clear out life-threatening blockages.
“The way I described it to him, he knew there was something wrong immediately,” said Kirk. “I thought I was just feeling it from being overweight and out of shape. He saved my life.”
Since that life-saving and life-changing day, Kirk has run the gamut of emotions from shock to fear to grateful to motivated.
He is now in that motivated stage – motivated to be there for Barb, his high school sweetheart at Muskegon Catholic Central, where he played football, basketball and baseball, and now his wife of 43 years.
He is motivated to enjoy life with his two grown daughters, AlexaRae and Kendall, and three grandchildren.
He is determined to continue his thriving real estate business as an agent at Core Realty Partners, where he can peer out at downtown Muskegon from his office window in the refurbished Lumberman’s Bank building.
But there is something else, beyond all of that, which drives him to attack his rehab, stick to his new diet, get his cardio in four or five mornings per week and go for his nightly, four-mile walks with Barb.
“I want to blow the whistle,” said Kirk. “I love officiating. I need to be on the hardwood, man. So I’m working hard and pushing myself so that I can be out there when the season starts.”
Officiating basketball games all over West Michigan as a member of the USA Officials Association has proven to be a perfect fit for the extrovert, who loves every aspect of it – from the event officials he knows at every school, the excitement of a Friday night game, watching kids have some clean fun and, of course, joking around with coaches and fans.
“He knows people everywhere we go and he loves to reconnect with them,” said Matt Houseman, who has worked with Kirk on two- and three-man basketball officiating crews for more than 20 years. “After awhile, I have to ask him: ‘Are you running for mayor or officiating a basketball game?’”
“I have to be myself, man,” said Kirk, who says he feels like a kid again every time he goes to a school to officiate.
The fact of the matter is, once the game begins, Kirk is a very highly rated official who is dead serious about what he does and works hard at getting better.
Houseman said that Kirk (who also has officiated football and baseball in years past) is always the one at halftime who wants to initiate discussions about game situations and how they were handled and always talks about specific calls on the car rides home. He also is a regular at the association’s five annual training meetings.
Kirk said he is thankful to Dave Fisher, one of the founders of the local officials’ association, for getting him started in reffing when he was in his 30s. Over the past 30-plus years, Kirk has worked with many different partners of all ages, but most often with Houseman, Fisher, Dave Young, Curtis Adams, Dave Borgman and Ben Hylland.
The thing about Kirk is that it makes no difference to him what level of play he is officiating – he takes all of it very seriously.
In fact, when asked about some of his favorite memories and games through the years, he doesn’t bring up the big regional battles he’s worked in packed gymnasiums, but rather the squeaky Saturday morning fifth- and sixth-grade games he’s labored at for years in the Catholic-Christian Elementary League.
“You work those younger levels and you’re really doing a lot of teaching,” said Kirk, who surely got his outgoing personality from his father, Jerry, who for years owned Ar-Jer’s Clothing in Muskegon. “I tell those kids why I had to call something and they listen. I tell them if they want to clutch and grab each other all day, go out for wrestling.”
He remembers after one youth game, a mom approached him and told him it looked like he was having more fun out there than the kids.
Kirk’s reply: “You’re right. And thanks for noticing.”
While Kirk has always been Mr. Positive, looking for the good in every situation and quick with a joke to lighten tense situations, he is now even more grateful and thankful after his open-heart surgery.
And he knows it will be emotional when he returns to the court to do what he loves.
“I know that it was God that brought Doogie and I back together at the right moment this summer,” said Kirk. “I’m lucky to be back out here in the game of life. I’m going to make the most of it.”