The date is a little hazy and so is the location. In fact, they can’t even all agree if it was an 11 man game or a 6 man contest. What they do agree on is that the ole boy was big, dressed like he just got off a tractor; and he was clearly not happy.
I am having 7 am coffee with seven veteran high school football officials. The group represents 70% of the high school officials in the McCook, NE area. There are two five man crews, located out of McCook, that have worked high school games together for years. Between the seven men, they have 209 years of high school football officiating experience. Arthur Skinner is the long tooth of the gang, with 40 years of blowing his whistle on Friday nights. Nick Johnson is the pup, with a mere 12 years in stripes. The others are Bob Elder (31 years), Brian Esch (26 years), Jim Hall (31 years), Paul Wood (24 years) and Darren Esch (25 years).
The unhappy farmer approached the crew as they departed the field for the half time break, and gave them the line that would become their manta, of sorts, for future self-evaluations of their craft: “you guys are so bad,” the farmer said, “even the women are pissed off.”
Since then, I was told by the group, “We now evaluate ourselves after each game by comparing notes and seeing if we had pissed off the women.”
That type of camaraderie is why both crews go out in every type of weather imaginable for the privilege of been the target of outrage from half of the crowd almost every Friday night from August to November. All agreed they got into officiating because they loved playing the game in high school and wanted to stay involved. The pay, about $75 a night, is for certain, not a driving motivating factor.
Several mentioned they had considered coaching, but for various reasons, had gone into other lines of work. Sometimes, their occupations can overlap with their officiating duties. Paul Wood is the County Prosecutor. He recalls a time, “years ago,” when the star of one high school team was in jail. Wood was scheduled to work the “big game” that Friday night. “I worked the game. He stayed in jail,” laughed Wood. Bob Elder owns several successful sporting goods stores throughout southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas areas. He is chided by his partners, “we always got to go find Elder to get the game started. He’s always over on the sideline somewhere trying to sell a coach some shoes.”
With so many years of officiating experience at this impromptu breakfast, as can be expected, the anecdotal stories flowed like the early morning coffee: A coach in 6 man that still wore his high school letter jacket on the sideline’s during games; a mismarked field that when the first down chains were placed on the 10 yard line and stretched to the goal line, went three yards deep into the end zone; a contest interrupted by two dogs on the field during the game “making puppies;” an official with a medically implanted penis pump that for some reason malfunctioned during the game; and so on.
Both crews are highly regarded around the state and are often given the assignment of working the biggest games in the area, including several state championship contests. “We don’t ever have them,” says McCook Coach Jeff Gross, “because they are all from McCook, but I know both crews are well respected by coaches around the state. They are two of the better crews.”
The relationship with coaches, all present agreed, was important. Brain and Darren Esch both recognized that the roles of both officials and coaches were interwoven in that both were in service to the young people on the field. “Football is a great learning experience and that is why we are out there, for the kids,” Darren Esch said, while recognizing that the role of the coach is more deep and committed, - a coach is involved in a vocation that is his livelihood; while an official takes a couple hours a week to follow a avocation that caring for his family is not dependent upon. “Coaches are under a lot of pressure,” said Brian Esch, “we know that and respect that.”
Arthur Skinner, with his 40 years of experience, was asked about the changes he has seen over the last four decades. “The players are so much bigger, so much faster and so much stronger than they were when I started,” said Skinner. Credit the upgrade to weight training, says Skinner. “In the old days a 250 pound lineman was often just a kid who was way overweight, fat. Today, that 250 pounder is likely (to) be nothing but solid muscle. The collisions on the field now are so much more physical than they use to be. And then of course, the issues with using the head as a weapon, the big concern today with concussions. The game today is just so much more physical, so much faster than when I started.”
All agreed that the lack of younger officials entering the trade is a concern, especially for McCook. “These guys have been together so long,” says Nick Johnson, speaking of 12 years prior, when he first picked up his whistle, “it is hard to break someone new in.” The problem with getting new people involved, says Elder, is timing. “Every game counts,” he says. “There really is no place for a guy to learn without the pressure of making a call that might be the wrong call and cost a team a game.” That, all agreed, is a problem in a job that you are expected to be perfect your first game, and then improve as you become more experienced.
Jim Hall noted the watershed effect that is going to hit the area in the not too far distance. "Most of us got started about the same time and for a lot of years we have taken care of the schools and they know we are here. When we get out, it will be around the same time for all of us and it is going to take a lot of new people to take our place, or there will be a big void. And that day is not that far off. We really need to start training some younger guys, the next wave, so to speak.”
Football officials execute their duties, when compared to their basketball bretheran, in relative obscurity. With the exception of a pass interference call (or no call), most often a football official will not be in the sight lines of the spectators or participants. “We like it that way,” Johnson said. If after the game, no one can remember who the officials were, then they have done a good job. Johnson is the only one of the group who currently officiates basketball. “In basketball,” he said, “the officials get a lot more notice. Sometimes that can lead to guys in basketball who are out there with big egos. That can cause problems. People did not come to watch the officials. We need to remember that,” he said.
So why do they do it? To get it right, says Skinner. “That is a good feeling after the game, when we know we did the best we could. We hustled, we were in position and we gave the players a good effort. We are a part of the game, a part that without us the game couldn’t take place.” Edler concurred, “We take pride in doing our job with the best effort we can give. That is why we go out there each Friday night.”
How long will they continue? All seven answered, with non-committal laughs and shoulder shrugs- inconclusively. My best guess; as long as there are women to piss off, these guys, for as long as they can, will every Friday night in the fall, don the stripes, warm up the whistle and do their duty.