It takes more than you think to wear these stripes

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 22, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - No official at any level who is being honest will tell you that they get every call they're responsible for making during a given football game correct 100 percent of the time.

"I went to an officials' conference where Mike (Pereira) ... who is a former NFL referee that Fox uses on its NFL broadcasts, was speaking, and he said a 97-percent correct call ratio for any crew is pretty standard at any level, and that goes for high school, college and all the way up to the pros," said Larry LaBree, a 42-year veteran official who has served as the assigner for the Whatcom Skagit Island Football Officials Association since 1989. "His point was, if that's the case, why is it that the other three percent gets so much attention when you're getting 97 percent of the calls correct?"

In Week 2, there were 710 plays run in the eight games involving Northwest Conference football teams contested in either Whatcom or Skagit County, or an average of 89 plays per game.

If the officiating crews at those games got the call right on 97 percent of those plays, that means they got the call right an average of 86 times per game and missed it on an average of a little less than three plays. Regardless of what the final score might have been, it's pretty safe to say that no offense and no defense was successful in all but three plays last week.

Yet what percentage of the insults hurled from the stands were intended for the men wearing black and white? Probably more than three percent. Part of that might be because fans don't realize how much work goes into being a high school referee.

"I can only assume, but I'm sure the general perception (of fans) is that we show up on a Friday or for an afternoon game, do the game, take the uniform off in the parking lot and throw it in the trunk and go home and never think about football again until it's time to do another game," said David Donnelly, who is in his 14th season officiating high school football.

But the truth is far from that.

There is actually a lot of work that goes into being a successful official - and not just at the pro and college level.

In general, officials in the WSIFOA spend hours every week preparing for their 21/2 hours under the lights on Friday nights.

"I don't think most people realize that these guys have real jobs and real careers, and this is just a sidelight they have to manage, along with their families," LaBree said. "I'm not sure the public realizes the sacrifice these guys have to make for the love of the game and the commitment to doing something that is important - and high school football, as long as it continues to be popular, is a big deal."

PRESEASON PREPARATION

Like the teams they will be throwing flags on, officials begin preparation months before there's a hint of fall in the air.

When area teams hold spring games or scrimmages, members of the WSIFOA show up on their own dime to work games and hone their skills.

Officials do the same for the final summer scrimmages most teams hold about a week before the start of the season.

In fact, those scrimmages are a good time for new prospective officials to get their first on-field experience, and it's the perfect time to teach.

"Sehome had a spring scrimmage on the turf field up at Western (Washington University)," LaBree said. "They had parents along the sideline, and actually the parents of the quarterback were running the chains. We're out there doing business, and we've got a lot of young officials with us, so we're teaching. ... So the mother comes up to me after the scrimmage and says, 'You know, my sons have all played football all their life, and I've gone to every one of their games, and I've learned more tonight than I ever knew about football before.' She said it was amazing."

The teaching and the learning doesn't end on the field.

In late July, the WSIFOA begins holding weekly meetings at Burlington-Edison High School for two to three hours every Tuesday. Those meetings continue throughout August and the first few weeks of the season into September, and are held every other week for the duration of the season.

"We start with teaching the rules, but more importantly we want to teach the proper techniques of where you stand on the field, how the game is played, where you move to, how you look for things, your keys - all those sort of things are what we're trying to teach people," LaBree said.

The meetings, especially after the season has started, also present opportunities for the association to discuss scenarios and situations that arose during games.

DOING HOMEWORK

As much as the Tuesday night classes and preseason training help officials, nothing beats a little one-on-one time with the rule book.

Donnelly estimated he spends approximately three hours per week, in addition to the classroom time studying the rules or participating in online officials' forums.

"The guys that spend time going to the book, they come to the meeting and their books are so ragged," Donnelly said. "They're highlighted, they're written in and worn out. It's to the point where we take them down to the shop and have them comb bound so that you can flip through them easier."

Donnelly said officials have even been known to get together, throw a couple burgers on the grill and a few beers in the cooler and talk scenarios to make sure they'll be ready for whatever Friday night throws at them.

"It's the one sport where the more you put in getting to know the rules, the better chance you have to advance," LaBree said. "There are some guys that don't see it that way, but you can tell who puts in the time and who doesn't."

WATCHING THEMSELVES

As more and more football teams are using the digital age of video to evaluate and teach, so too is the WSIFOA.

All of the Northwest Conference teams are now using Hudl, a software company that helps teams collect video from games and generate video, play diagrams and coaching presentations to help teach their teams. Hudl also allows teams to easily trade video with opponents.

The WSIFOA has reached an agreement so that the association also will receive a copy of the film, so that it can distribute the film to officials so that they can watch games they officiated the previous week.

"I'm most interested in having guys watch the game they just worked," LaBree said. "We can have official X, and in his mind he's hustling all night long and doing all kinds of stuff and then watch himself on film and see that he's taking plays off. It's a good way to critique yourself."

The WSIFOA also will be able to gather plays to highlight calls of interest to discuss and critique calls that were made during their Tuesday night meetings in Burlington.

"What I'd really like to do is get a camera set up in Civic Stadium from up above (on the roof of the south stands) where the game films are taped, because we want video of the dead-ball time, when penalties are being called and measurements are made. Those are things you don't see on film, because coaches don't care, but it's a big part of what we do."

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

Civic is already the site where LaBree does most of his evaluations of officials. He tries to schedule every WSIFOA official through the stadium once a year so that he can get a look at what they are doing right and areas to work on.

"The thing we try to emphasize is this is an educational tool, not a critical component," LaBree said. "We try to avoid individual performance, and instead focus on the group and things that we all can improve on. ... I never want to tell the guys they missed a call, because from where I'm sitting in the press box, I can't honestly say whether they were right or wrong. I might ask them to describe what they saw in this specific instance and ask if they could have put themselves in a better position to make a call, but I never say they kicked a call."

LaBree said the WSIFOA has a couple of other retired officials who travel to different sites to evaluate officials throughout the season, and the state is doing some statewide observation of officials to offer critiques after games.

Referees, who serve as crew chiefs that range from four-man crew on the middle school, freshman and junior varsity levels to five-man in varsity games, also are asked to submit a report on how the crew did and on any areas of concern that should be discussed.

"As an up-and-coming official, you never want to go back into the locker room and hear everything was rosy or that you did a perfect job," Donnelly said. "You just don't learn anything. The first thing you ask is, 'What did I do wrong and what can I improve on?' That lets them open up and be a little more constructive in a critical way."

THANKLESS JOB

So with all this work to prepare and improve, understandably biased coaches who aren't afraid to voice their displeasure and a couple hundred "experts" in the stands who think they not only know the rules better but had a better angle on every play on the field, why would someone want to put on the stripes?

It certainly isn't for the pay - LaBree said the WSIFOA pays $45 to $50 for middle school, freshman and junior varsity games and $55 per varsity game worked.

"It's about enough for the beer and burger after the game," Donnelly joked.

Donnelly said what he actually gets out of officiating football games is much more communal.

"There are two aspects - I really like being around the kids," he said. "I'm fortunate that I work as back judge and referee. When I'm the back judge, I'm hanging out talking to the linebackers and the deep backs, and we're joking around. When I'm the referee, I'm talking to the quarterback and just making it light. We both have jobs to do, but if I can leave a game and feel everyone had a good time and that I was a part of that, that's ideal.

"Secondly, I like the camaraderie. We have a tight group of brothers and sisters that come in, and I like that, and it's our way to give back to the community."

And then, of course, there's the thrill of the game and being a part of it.

"I like high school football," LaBree said. "I think there is nothing more all-American than Friday nights under the lights. It doesn't matter where you go in the country, Friday nights under the lights is important. ... It's especially fun to get an assignment that happens to be an important game, maybe late in the season, when you know there's a lot riding on it, and you go out as a crew, and you prepare, and you work hard, and things go well, and you walk off the field knowing, 'We nailed it.' You might have had some small mistakes here and there, but basically, 'We nailed it' - it's a great feeling."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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