BELLINGHAM - David Donnelly admits the way he became an official in the Whatcom Skagit Island Football Officials Association in 2000 was not all that normal.
"I sought the association out," Donnelly said. "I contacted my former high school (athletic director) at Sehome, Colin Cushman, and he gave me (WSIFOA assigner Larry) LaBree's name. ... I think I'm a little bit original by seeking them out. We actually try to pull people into the group most of the time."
Whatever the WSIFOA is doing seems to be working, as LaBree said the association has about 70 officials this season.
With 22 high schools in the area the WSIFOA covers, that's generally enough to cover all the football games played on the varsity, junior varsity, freshman and middle school levels. Generally, they need 50 to 55 officials for a full Friday night varsity schedule.
"We're very fortunate, because a number of other associations in the state and around the country are seeing a serious numbers crunch," LaBree said. "But that being said, we're always looking for people that are passionate about the game and want to put in the necessary work to be officials."
LaBree said the WSIFOA goes to the tree in an attempt pluck new officials, heading out to area high schools close to graduation to find good candidates through the schools' athletic directors.
"We find if we can make that kind of link, we might be able to keep those guys," LaBree said. "They can really sink their teeth into it if they take the challenge."
LaBree said basketball referees also tend to make good football officials, because they already "know how to handle the heat in the kitchen in basketball."
As you would expect, the association has a training program in place, designed to help all new recruits succeed.
First-year referees are broken off into a separate group during the meetings the WSIFOA holds on Tuesday at Burlington-Edison High School, so they can learn the rules and the nuances of being an official. Second-year officials have their own group, before they join the general population of veterans in their third year.
"One thing I like about our association is the two-year apprentice program," Donnelly said. "It's good to have those first- and second-year guys separate. When you come into our association, you basically have the understanding that you will not see a varsity game your first year and most of your second, unless you have some previous experience. The guys know it's going to be that way, but it gives them a goal."
Instead, apprentice officials get teamed with mentors to help show them the ropes during middle school games. As they show knowledge of the game and a willingness to learn and improve, they can work their way up through the ranks.
"From my perspective, the guys that are in the books and doing the training are the guys that are going to be seeing the Friday night lights early in that second season," Donnelly said.
And once they taste that experience, most are hooked.
"The feeling is, if you can keep a person for three years, you've got them hooked, and they're going to become a veteran official and be there 10 to 15 years," LaBree said. "It's getting to that three years that's the tough part. Some guys think they should be doing the championship game in Tacoma their second year, and that's just not going to happen. Other guys don't realize if you are committed to it what the reward can be. But if you stick with it, I've found it to be very rewarding."
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.