Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun on the Field

As we approach the football season, my mind wanders back to the days when I worked as a high school football official. The life of an official is really not what most people think it is. By mid-summer we were always deep into a rule book that was sometimes convoluted in its explanations, requiring us to interpret situations. Then came time for the annual examination. Yes, football officials must pass examinations before taking to the field. Once the exam is passed, then we could get down to the real business.

Football officials are typically organized into associations. At the college and pro levels the officials are supervised by the conference or league. Our association met each week to review games the previous week and to assign games for the next Friday night.

My officiating days began with me operating as the umpire. The umpire is the official who stands behind the defense and is probably the most vulnerable of all of the officials on the field. More than once I have had close calls with a big offensive halfbacks plunging through the line directly at me. Usually I could side step quickly and get out of the way without injury. However, I do remember once when I stepped the wrong way and the running back hit me head on and put me on my keester.

Because I am not as big physically as many of the officials with whom I worked, I was moved to the outside as head linesman. Much safer! Or so I thought. I remember one night in a game at Gulf Breeze High School, a young man who attended the same church with me was carrying the ball and running full out. Drifting around his left end he crossed the sideline and hit me full force, not because he was aiming for me but because he could not stop his momentum. Hitting me on the lower part of my legs, I was upended and turned a complete flip in the air and landed on my backside, hurting everywhere. He was so apologetic about what had happened, but I never blamed him. But as with all football games, the show went on. I simply watched more carefully during the remainder of the game to ensure that I wasn’t hurt again.

One of my most memorable experiences occurred while officiating a game in Jay, Florida. Jay is a small farming community in northern Escambia County where, in the 1970s oil was discovered. Overnight Jay was transformed from a sleepy rural community to a place where numerous multi-millionaires lived in comfort. In one case, the first item a farmer friend of mine bought was a luxury tractor, complete with air conditioning, AM/FM radio, CB radio and any other trinket he could imagine. In the early 1970s that was luxury extraordinaire. They loved their Friday Night Lights.

On one rather drizzly Friday night, Jay was playing and the game was close. Both teams played well and the score remained close in spite of the numerous penalties assessed to both teams. One particular penalty that I called was a major setback for the Jay team and probably contributed to its loss that night. As I was leaving the field—under police escort—an old lady, probably in her 70s came onto the field, umbrella in hand, shaking it at me and threatening to hit me with it because of my “horrible eyesight and the way I called the game.” Fortunately, the police intervened and escorted me to my car, and I left rather in a hurry. I shall never forget the look in that lady’s eyes. I had harmed her favorite team, and she was ready to fight me. While I laugh at this incident now, it was really not funny then.

After ten years of officiating football both in Tennessee and Florida, I left that part of my life behind. But I can say without equivocation that it was one of the most fun times of my life.