Back in the saddle

Inveterate (and maybe even veterate) readers may recall that I was having back trouble in late winter/early spring. After a failed attempt at relief through a chiropractor, I wound up going back to my doctor and getting a referral to a different orthopedist. One who would not immediately jump to surgery as the only option. The new doctors tried a cortisone shot followed by physical therapy, and within a few weeks I was almost completely pain-free and able to resume normal exercise.

The back pain had become so troublesome by March that I had to cancel all of my soccer referee matches for the spring season. I tried my first game, but the pain was so bad that I had trouble even getting into position as an assistant referee. (Note: for non-soccer fans, the AR only has to move one half the length of the field. But it’s critical to stay even with the second-to-last defender or the ball to help with offsides calls. Meaning you often have to go from standing still to a sprint.) Luckily, the game was suspended after about five minutes due to lightning. When I got home, I notified all of the assignors that I was out for the foreseeable future.

When the fall season began a couple of weeks ago, I felt pretty good but knew the lack of exercise had affected my stamina. I signed up to referee, but only scheduled one game per day. I planned to wait and see how I did with a U-15 rec-plus contest to make sure I could still keep up.  


In the weeks leading up to the match, I did some running on a nearby empty soccer field to simulate a game. I alternated between jogging, sprints, and walking for about 40 minutes. Games are 70-80 minutes, but I knew adrenaline would help quite a bit. Plus, running in the hot sun on an empty field is boring. (Insert your own “soccer is also boring” joke here.)

The game was on a warm Thursday afternoon at 5 PM, just a short drive from my house. It was listed as a dual whistle game (two referees, no AR) which means each official is responsible for an entire sideline plus one half of the field for all calls. (Technically the soccer field is known as a “pitch”. But I can’t say that, because I think it makes me sound like Robin Leach.)

I got to the field about a half-hour early. The home team coach was one of those overly-friendly types that you just know is going to blast you from the sideline every time he disagrees with a call. We shook hands and he asked me a couple of questions about how the match would be called. Normally I give very ambiguous answers in this context. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for controversy. If you say “Yeah, I’m not going to call it close on throw-ins this early in the season” and you call a violation on a kid who fires the ball in overhand, you can bet the coach will be screaming bloody murder. But the questions were pretty safe and I was able to answer just by giving him the substitutions rule.

Then he complained briefly about referee positioning in his last match (“they both officiated from the center circle”), paid me, and went back to his bench. (Unlike basketball, it’s customary for the coach to pay the referee in cash prior to kickoff. Which feels awkward, but, you know….when in Rome.) As we got closer to kickoff, I inspected equipment on both teams, checked the goals, and completed the coin toss. Still no second ref present. Now, I’ve officiated matches alone before. It’s more running, for sure, but the real problem is that you can’t really judge the sidelines or offsides effectively. And no matter how much coaches claim they’ll “take it easy” on complaining, in the heat of the game that commitment is forgotten.

I asked the home coach to recruit two parents to watch the lines for me, but a woman came up and said that her 17-year-old daughter Kylie* was waiting for a later game, was a certified referee and would be willing to help out. I gratefully accepted, and after I handed Kylie my spare whistle we started the match.


The visiting coach had mentioned that it was his first season, and apologized in advance for his lack of experience. (I must confess I was glad to hear this. First match back, and at least one coach probably won’t be in my ear.) There were a couple of screw-ups on substitutions, but nothing too bad. Anytime I was close to his bench, I’d gently tell him the proper process, and he’d thank me profusely.

The home coach was in game mode. He constantly yelled at his players, but didn’t say much to me. In the first half I was moving sideways on the field along his bench area, but the ball was booted long and I had to swivel and run suddenly. As I spun around I felt my elbow strike a soft middle-aged paunch and heard “Ooof”. I turned my head and saw the coach doubled over holding his gut. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but managed an “Ouch, sorry coach” as I kept running. I heard him wheeze out “No, no, that’s OK, my fault.”

I have hoped for this kind of thing in other circumstances. Mostly in basketball. But this time it was entirely accidental, and he was right. It was his fault. I’m supposed to be within two feet of the sideline; he’s not. Anyway, at the next stoppage I asked if he was OK, and he laughed and said yeah, repeating that it was on him.

Later a ball was kicked to a visiting player deep in the home side and the coach started yelling “Offside!”. The player’s shot hit the crossbar, bounced on the ground and the goalkeeper caught the ball deep in the goal mouth. As I signaled goal scored, the coach said “Matt, they were offside!”. I just shook my head no, and signaled for kickoff.

I don’t mind talking to coaches, but there was no basis for discussion. There’s no instant replay, I didn’t think the kid was offside and the coach did. What would we talk about other than yes he was/no he wasn’t?

The second half was pretty uneventful, and the home team won 6-3. Both coaches thanked Kylie and me in the handshake line. I gave Kylie half of the money, admonished her to report the income on her tax return and sat on the ground to change shoes.

I was hot, sweaty, and a little tired, but my hip wasn’t hurting at all. I knew my knees would require ice and Tylenol, but that’s standard. I really felt like I could do another game if I had to. But I didn’t have to. Because I’m retired. And I “don’t do business that don’t make me smile”.**    

*Not her real name. She’s a minor, yo.

**“Treetop Flyer”, Stephen Stills. He was referring to drug smugglers, and I’m a middle school soccer referee. But, still.       

One coach enters, another leaves

I went to Jeffersonville High School over the holidays to sell books at the First Annual Ted Throckmorton tournament. The event featured a pretty good lineup with Northeastern entering play at 7-1, Indianapolis Scecina (6-1), under-performing-but-always dangerous Indianapolis Cathedral, and undefeated Danville. Regular readers will note that Danville was one of the four teams featured in Thirty-Two Minutes in March. Coach Brian Barber had told me last spring that they were scheduled to play in a tournament in Jeffersonville over the holidays, and that I should drive down and sell some books.


On the first day, most of the Indiana teams played schools from Kentucky. In the earliest game, Northeastern swamped Fox Creek Christian (KY) 85-45. Fox Creek had only six players, and one of them fouled out….in the first quarter. I didn’t get to see much of the game since my table was in the hallway just outside the gym, but when I peered around the corner I saw a lot of gassed, dejected players. When the team left, I saw their frustrated coach lead them out to the parking lot and slump into the driver’s seat of the school van. I tried to look the team up online, but since Kentucky doesn’t seem to have their own John Harrell, I didn’t learn much. According to MaxPreps (which varies wildly in accuracy since it’s updated by fans), Fox Creek has won only once this season.

Later that morning, the Danville Warriors bested 7-1 Henryville in double overtime. I’d spoken via text to Coach Barber before the season after seeing a number of references to his hospitalization on Twitter. He’d told me he had a serious medical issue, and that the Throckmorton would be his first game back. I looked in on the Danville game as much as possible, and, as the score indicates, it was a tight, hard-fought contest. When Danville was leaving for their hotel, I caught up with Coach Barber at the door to see how he was doing. He looked drained and had obviously lost some weight.

But, as usual, Barber was friendly and jovial. I said “Ho-hum, another easy Danville win.” He laughed and shook his head, talked about how exhausting it was as his first game back. I didn’t stay for the rest of the tournament, but the Warriors apparently responded to their coach’s return. They ran the table over the next two days, beating Scecina by twenty and Northeastern by four, then winning the championship 56-55 over Cathedral.

Danville is now 11-4, and Barber is headed to yet another winning season there, his seventeenth in 18 years. In their other two games in Jeffersonville, Fox Creek lost to Henryville by 55 and to 4-5 Forest Park by 36. Lawrenceburg, KY is only 53 miles from Jeffersonville, but I can only imagine how long the ride seemed.


Over the past weekend I ejected a coach from a basketball game for the first time. It was a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) game. For fourth graders. I won’t identify the school, but here’s what happened:

From the tip-off, the coach was shouting “FOUL!”, “TRAVELING!”, “DOUBLE DRIBBLE!”, etc., every time he saw (or imagined) a foul or violation. Late in the second quarter during a dead ball I said, “Coach, I’ve heard enough. We will make the calls.” He said, “I’m just coaching my team.” (I don’t understand how calling out your opinions on calls qualifies as coaching your team, but, OK.) I said “That’s fine, but you need to stop officiating from the sideline.” He said “OK, OK”, and, for the most part, complied.


Late in the third quarter, there was scramble on the floor for a loose ball, and my partner and I both immediately stopped play and signaled for a jump ball. One of the players was lying on the floor crying, and the coach stormed out across the floor, screaming at me, “MY PLAYER GETS HIT IN THE FACE AND YOU DON’T CALL A FOUL?” I immediately whistled a technical foul, and then walked over to the player and coach. The coach then looked up at me and yelled, “YOU GIVE ME A TECH FOR CHECKING ON AN INJURED PLAYER?” I said “No, I gave you a technical for your behavior. Do you want another one?”

(In hindsight, I should have phrased the last part differently. I realize it may have sounded like I was baiting him. I should have said something like “You need to calm down if you don’t want another one”. Having warned him in the first half and seeing him come onto the floor without being summoned, he probably deserved ejection anyway. But, I digress.)

He answered, “I don’t care”, so I called the second technical and ejected him. After the game, he came back into the gym (in violation of CYO rules), saying he wanted to “congratulate the other team”. The gym manager warned him to restrict his comments to congratulations, and we moved on to the second game of the day.

I’d be interested to hear any other perspectives on this, especially if you don’t think the ejection was warranted. 


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.    


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.