Ref for life

Bob White is no longer a licensed referee in Indiana. A car crash robbed him of his mobility and cost him years of pain and physical and mental rehabilitation.

But as he sits in his wheelchair at the center line of a basketball court at the Keenan-Stahl Boys and Girls Club on the near south side of Indianapolis, he looks happy, like he’s in his element. He’s refereeing a basketball game, with several excited eight-year-olds running up and down the court.

“That’s the first time I’ve refereed since the wreck,” he says. “It was fun. Even though it’s just little kids, it’s the first time I’ve put the (striped) shirt back on.”

He laughs. “That shirt is from 1998. It’s the only one I still have.”

Bob officiated for over twenty years, working high school, college, and semi-pro football, along with high school basketball and baseball. He was a founding member of the Crossroads Officials Association, and actively worked to mentor new referees. Even after he was a seasoned varsity official, he’d occasionally work freshman and JV games alongside novice referees to help them develop.

But eleven years ago, that all ended suddenly when he was in a car crash in Indianapolis. Right after umpiring a baseball game.

“I had just gotten married about six months before the wreck,” he says. “I was working in the pharmacy at Community North Hospital, but I sold my house and we moved to West Lafayette.

“I found out a week before the wreck that my wife was pregnant. A friend of mine in Whiteland was having a cookout. My wife was in the car behind me and witnessed the whole thing. A lady T-boned me who was texting, and she didn’t have any insurance.”

Bob was in the hospital for months with traumatic brain injury, almost died a few times. After that it was years of rehab.

“After I got home, I was still doing rehab three times a day. I had to re-learn how to talk, how to eat, everything.

“And then, five years ago, my wife divorced me.”

Bob is 100% disabled from the crash. He says he was angry for a long time, but he gradually decided not to spend the rest of his life in self-pity. He threw himself into service to the community, accepting presidency of the Boys and Girls Club, working at the food pantry, and organizing sports and activities at the club. Making other people happier, healthier, and safer.

“I just try to be positive every day when I wake up and think about the things I can do rather than the things I can’t.

“It makes you feel good to help out. Some of the kids appreciate it and some don’t. But I went to the club as a kid. Sometimes we forget where we came from.

“I really miss being around kids and refereeing. At least at the club, I’m around the kids.”

“(Referees) get yelled and screamed at, but we’re going to protect each other. We’re the only ones that have each other’s back.

“And what better place to be on a Friday night than Southport Fieldhouse in front of five thousand fans, smelling the popcorn, hearing the band play, and you’re in the referee’s dressing room, all fired up like you’re going out there to play.”

During his convalescence, Bob got a lot of support from his officiating crew and other referees.

“People don’t realize that referees are a small fraternity. The ref community came together for me. They bought me an accessible van, really stepped up and took care of me and my family. It was pretty eye-opening.”

As I sit with Bob in the bleachers at the Club, he’s a bit annoyed. He scheduled a basketball tournament for this Saturday morning and got eight outside teams to commit to playing. He even verified the schedule with the coaches over the last few days, or at least attempted to with some who didn’t return his calls. Not one of them showed up. He’s left with two half-court games for the Club kids. They have to play short-sided to keep the age range reasonable. Next to the court sits a pile of prizes donated by local merchants. Bob spent a lot of hours driving around to various businesses, hustling donations for the Club and promotional items for giveaways.    

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An empty gym. In Indiana. In November.

I’m not sure how I’d deal with this kind of frustration. But I can’t help but admire how Bob does. He says he’s going to start on next year’s event earlier, find some way to get other teams to show up. He plans to start making contacts this month.

As I stand to leave, he asks me whether I’m busy the day before Thanksgiving. He’s looking for more volunteers to work at a community dinner that day at the food pantry.

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