John Bieniewicz’s brethren in the community of soccer referees want his tragic death to be the ultimate teachable moment and are getting some help from the world of boxing to make it happen.
Officials with the Michigan Soccer Referee Committee are consulting with West Bloomfield’s John Lepak, who has promoted boxing events and worked with high-profile fighters throughout his career. Lepak is expected to participate in training Michigan referees in the coming months to reinforce the ways they should handle overly aggressive behavior on the soccer field.
Bieniewicz, 44, died after police say he was punched in the head by an irate player during an adult match June 29. He died two days later as a result of the blunt force trauma sustained in the attack.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Hosana Lutheran Church in Redford Township. Viewing will be 2-9 p.m. Tuesday and 2-7 p.m. Wednesday at Harry J. Will Funeral Home in Livonia.
On June 30, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office charged Dearborn resident Baseel Abdul-Amir Saad, 36, with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder. He has been charged with homicide.
The incident drew national attention. Locally, the issue lingers in the minds of sports fans. On Sunday, fans of the Detroit City Football Club were to raise “red cards” in Bieniewicz’s honor during a game at Cass Tech High School.
Francisco Villaruel is a district director of instruction for the referee committee and said Bieniewicz’s death is an opportunity to reinforce officials’ training.
“This is the third time in the history of the U.S. that we’ve had this kind of tragedy, so it’s a rarity,” he said. “We don’t want our officials, especially the young children who officiate, to think they have take self-defense instruction.”
Lepak trained in his youth at Detroit’s Kronk Gym and has worked with boxing luminaries such as Mike Tyson and Emmanuel Steward over the years. He knew Bieniewicz initially through a Listserv centered on fans of Sports Review magazine.
“Anyone who ever interacted with John, you immediately felt like you knew him because he was so easy to be around,” Lepak said. After learning of Bieniewicz’s passing, Lepak contacted the referee committee.
Despite Lepak’s background, he is not being brought in for self-defense education. Mike Wint is the state director of instruction for the group and said part of every referee’s training for games at the adult level includes steps for handling aggressive play and players.
“We’re always looking to increase the understanding of what aggression looks like, how to recognize it, defuse it and how to position yourself so you are protected by distance,” he said. “I can teach referees this, but these people have been hearing me talk about it for years. It’s time for us to bring in new voices.”
According to prosecutors, Saad struck Bieniewicz in the head after being ejected from the match. It is unclear what Bieniewicz might have done differently, and none of his peers believe he did anything wrong.
Witnesses said after issuing Saad a yellow card earlier in the match, Bieniewicz issued a second yellow card after enduring taunts and obscenities from the player. A second yellow card results in a red card and ejection.
“As (Bieniewicz) presented the red card, the player reeled back and swung, hitting him across the face and kind of in the neck,” Scott Herkes, who was playing in the game, told The Detroit News last week. “He dropped immediately.
“... First, it was just complete shock and disbelief, then guys rushed in to separate the two. We don’t know if he would have continued the assault, but a lot of players converged to calm everything down.”
Lepak said there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” with the current training for referees.
“A lot of it has to do with body language training — how to neutralize and calm a situation, how to develop a stronger mutual respect between players and referees and to keep in everyone’s mind this is a game,” he said.
Wint said Michigan’s referees will take time to mourn Bieniewicz’s passing and then try to incorporate Lepak’s help into training sessions, possibly as early as August.
“I think it has to be this summer. ...,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to do what we need to do to extend some additional instruction. We’re not giving a new message but we may be delivering it in a slightly different way, maybe with a different focus.”