Controlling chaos

Officials focus on getting it right — and enjoy the games while they’re at it
By: Eric J. Gourley, Journal Sports Writer
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on football officiating in the foothills. For Part I, visit Jerry Stannard has been officiating high school football longer than anyone in the foothills. In 41 years on local gridirons, he’s developed a thick skin for criticism. “That’s why you wear a striped shirt,” jokes Stannard, 66, who still works full-time as a maintenance millwright at a power plant. “White likes you here and black doesn’t like you over there, because you change colors all the time.” The Lake of the Pines resident had a complete right knee replacement last June, but he has avoided many of the nasty injuries his Northern California Officials’ Association cohorts have sustained over the years. Bob Gilbert, a 29th-year football official, was taken out on a play during a game at Oakmont High in 1990. He still vividly remembers his torn up knee, a leg broken in three places and a surgery that kept him on crutches for three months. Still, the good memories — like officiating Del Oro’s 18-15 win over Rocklin in the 2005 Division II championship, “still the greatest game I have ever worked” — outweigh the bad for Gilbert, who was born and raised in Sacramento before becoming recreation manager at the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Park District. Stannard and Gilbert are two veterans of the NCOA’s Sacramento chapter, which had 235 paid members as of last Monday. The association provides five officials for each varsity game throughout the Sac-Joaquin Section — a referee, an umpire, a line judge, a back judge and a head linesman. Officials in the NCOA are classified by seniority and capability, and ranked through game experience and classification tests. Veteran officials work their way up to a Group 1 rank, while an entry-level official begins as a Group 5. Most weeks, officials from the five groups are assigned to crews at random. “For critical games like playoffs and other big games, they’re going to assign at least three experienced officials,” said Dan Costello, a 14th-year official from Auburn who directs the association’s group education program for second-year members. “On average, to get to a Group 1 level you’re probably talking at least eight years because you have to get game ratings from other Group 1 officials before you can move up.” First- and second-year officials spend 25 hours in class over 10 weeks beginning the first week of August Instruction for veterans lasts 12 hours over six weeks and is specifically designed to refresh mechanics and integrate new rules and points of emphasis. Three new rules were incorporated this season — a personal foul for a horse-collar tackle, a rule regarding numbering exceptions for scrimmage kicks and an unpopular rule about sideline control. “The class time and training only go so far in building confidence,” Costello said. “We need to manage a dozen different thought processes all at one time on the field, so the focus is on just not screwing up and blowing a play dead when a guy is running to the end zone. “The bottom line during a game is to get it right. When we gather on the field for a discussion during a game, it is not about where to eat on the way home. These discussions typically take one of two forms — what did you see, and how will we enforce.” Between blowing whistles and throwing flags, NCOA officials are as subject to injury as any player on the field. “In my first year officiating years ago, I tore a calf muscle trying to stay with a runner down the sideline,” Costello said. “I have crowns on both front teeth when a player got up quickly from a pile as I was retrieving the ball. Three years ago, I had surgery on my foot to repair a fractured toe after a player stepped on my foot.” Despite the risks, officiating in the foothills is about creating camaraderie and making memories, from the “pre-game” — a meeting of the officiating crew prior to each game to stretch and discuss rules — to the frequent Friday night gatherings of NCOA members at Bunz & Co in Roseville after games. “There is something special about walking onto a field on a Friday night,” said Greg Ellis, a 21st-year official and the vice principal at Inderkum High. “The screaming fans, the respect that is shown then the national anthem is played just brings a tear to my eye. Everything stops to respect our country. When they talk about the game, it’s the entire culture that football promotes. It’s powerful.”