Vineyard was presented one of nine A.F. Bridges Awards by representatives of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA). The award is presented to individuals in nine officiating districts across the state.
“I was completely surprised and humbled,” said Vineyard when discussing the award. He explained that only one official is recognized each year in each respective district.
He said a committee in each district selects nominees for the annual award, with nominees selected from all TSSAA-sanctioned sports, not just wrestling.
Vineyard was previously honored for his dedication to the sport when he was named “Wrestling Official of the Year” by the Chattanooga Officials Association a few years ago.
Vineyard is well respected by regional wrestling coaches for his expertise. He has officiated 20 years in Southeast Tennessee, and five years prior to that in Knox County.
He was born in Knoxville to Carolyn and Walt Vineyard Sr. He attended Claxton Elementary School through the third grade, until his truck-driving father and family moved to Cleveland where he was enrolled at North Lee Elementary School.
He said his first experience with wrestling came at Bradley Junior High School. “When I was in the seventh grade, coach Bill Curtis stopped me in the hallway and asked me to come out for the wrestling team,” Vineyard said. “He had a spot open for an 87-pound wrestler, and I weighed 82 pounds.”
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said of the opportunity to join the wrestling team.
With approval from his parents, Vineyard practiced the same day he was approached by coach Curtis ... and wrestled in a match the next night.
“I didn’t even know how to line up,” he said of his competition against a Cleveland Junior High wrestler. “But, I won and I guess that kept me with it.”
Vineyard continued with the Bradley Junior wrestling team, and then wrestled for the Coach Turner Jackson and the Bradley Central High School varsity from 1984 through his graduation in 1986.
He says his accomplishments as a wrestler were not that great. “I had a winning record, but I never placed in the state,” he said. “My high school records pale in comparison with many of the local wrestlers of recent years.”
Vineyard graduated from Bradley Central in 1986 and went on to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he majored in electrical engineering. During his time at UT-K he had his interest in wrestling revived. This happened when “at a Karns High School football game I met Karns wrestling coach (Dan Dugger), who I had wrestled against,” Vineyard said. “He suggested that I get involved in officiating.”
Two weeks later Vineyard officiated his first match. “I enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” he said. In addition to working with the Knoxville Officials Association for five years, Vineyard also volunteered with a summer wrestling program in the Karns community.
With his graduation from UT-K in 1991, Vineyard returned to Cleveland “to look for a job.”
He was hired by Cleveland Utilities in November 1991 and began work in the Engineering department. He has since advanced to become manager of CU’s Information-Technology Division (for the past eight years).
Vineyard also met his wife, the former Lesley Raines, at Cleveland Utilities. They were married in 1999 and have two daughters, MacKenzie and Emma Caroline.
“I could not have continued with my officiating if it had not been for the support of my family,” he emphasized.
Vineyard has continued with the sport for the past 20 years. He also officiated college matches and tournaments, but gave that up about 10 years ago for more time with his family and to focus on high school wrestling. “I’m proud of the fact they selected me to officiate the Southern Conference tournament for three consecutive years,” he said.
Asked if it is more difficult, or easier, to officiate high school wrestling in the Chattanooga-Cleveland area due to the success of regional teams (especially Bradley Central and Cleveland), Vineyard said, “It is probably easier because fans, coaches and wrestlers are much more knowledgeable about the sport. Still, you’re not going to please all the people, all the time.”
This highly regarded wrestling official says the sport can be dangerous at times, even for officials, and requires a great deal of physical ability. “I’ve been kicked in the head several times and once had my nose broken at the start of a three-hour match,” he said. “I’m proud to say I finished the match.”
Vineyard says he enjoys the sport, and feels officiating is a way he can give back for what wrestling has given him over the years.
“I love to help the wrestlers, especially the younger wrestlers,” he said. “In junior varsity matches I’ll correct their mistakes and not penalize them. That’s not true in varsity matches. I’ll still correct them, but they will be penalized.”
Vineyard expects his officiating to continue for some time. “As long as I enjoy it, and I’m physically able,” he said. “This sport (for officials) is more strenuous than you might imagine. We’re continually on the move to get in the right location (to make calls).”
“This ability is among the criteria we’re evaluated on throughout the year,” he said, emphasizing that evaluations are used to determine nominees each year for TSSAA’s A.F. Bridges Award.
Bridges was the director of the TSSAA in the middle of the 20th century (through the 1950s, 60s and into the 70s).
Vineyard was asked how he got the nickname “Tater,” and if had anything to do with wrestling.
“I’ve had it from when I was born,” he said. “It was about the time the comic strip character Snuffy Smith had a baby. The baby was named Tater and dressed in a long baby’s gown. I was very small and wearing a gown, and my uncle J.C. Vineyard said, ‘He looks just like Tater.’ The name has stuck with me every since.”