Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This morning when I went to get our garbage bin ready to bring out to the curb, I knew I had to go back in and get my camera. There lying on the top of the bags of garbage was a pair of black football referee shoes, circa 1980.

He really did it. He said he was going to, and he really did it. “This is my last season refereeing football,” Tom said numerous times this fall. He would look glumly out the window at the rain falling as he laced up his antique cleats. It really was a miserable October in Minnesota this year. “I’m getting too old for this,” he would mutter. “It cuts into my fishing time.” But then he’d come home after the game, quietly satisfied that at age 65, he could still outrun the other referee who was 20 years younger and he could still keep up with a 14-year-old receiver as he ran 60 yards for a touchdown.

Tom started out back in the mid-70s coaching junior high football. Yes, he was very cute. All the 8th grade girls had a crush on him. He coached at that level for about four years.

Then, in 1981, he joined a team of officials who worked 9- and 11-man football games throughout west central Minnesota. He was the field judge on that four-man team. Every Friday night, he’d head out for some place like Battle Lake or Wheaton or Morris.

The highlight of his refereeing career was when his four-man team was chosen to work at the 1987 State Class A Prep Bowl at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Everybody has their 15 minutes of fame, right?

He laughs about another night when an irate father from Morris, Minnesota, yelled at him during a game, “Throw that flag, you striped runt!” It became the standing joke of the crew.

The low point came in the fall of 1988 after a game in Wheaton, Minnesota. The coach of the Wheaton team was a loud, abusive yeller who verbally rode the referees from the start of the game to the finish. The crowd picked up on the coach’s tone and were merciless to the referees, too. After the game, as the referees were leaving the field, a fan followed them, shouting and swearing. When Tom just kept walking and didn’t respond, the fan shoved Tom from behind. It was at that moment that Tom decided he wouldn’t referee at the high school level any more.

There’s something about a man in uniform! (1990)

When our son became involved in sports, it was more fun for Tom to just go to his son’s games as a spectator than referee someone else’s. So Tom took a break until about 1994 when he returned to refereeing junior high games—which he did for 15 years until he threw his cleats in the garbage this week.

Over the years, the referee gear was rained on, snowed on, and washed a million times. Polyester—the miracle material. There were a few injuries and slips in the mud (crowds love when the referee takes a dive).

It was even used as a Halloween costume back in 1983.

1983: Superman, Football Referee, and Witch

Now it’s 2009. For the past several years, Tom only took 7th and 8th grade games. Less pressure down at those levels, he said, although sometimes he still ran into coaches and parents who forgot that the game was about the kids, not about them.

It was a great run—but there’s something kind of sad about those antique 25-year-old ref shoes in the garbage this morning. I think he just didn’t want to be tempted again next fall when the phone call came from the Athletic Department to just ref “one more season.” He needs to be able to say, “Gee, I’d love to, but I threw away my shoes.”

And if you need him next fall, he’ll be out fishing. But probably missing football just a bit.


Anonymous said...

He shoulda had a little bugle playing taps when he threw them in the can. A salute to the fallen referee ceremony.

BergieAFD said...

I will miss seeing Uncle Tom running on the field. My boys really enjoyed having him as a referee the past three years.

Anonymous said...

I watched him ref a 7th grade game about 5 years ago. It seemed like there was more 'coaching' going on than 'ref-ing'. I think that's the real reason he stuck with it. Congrats on a great career, blind zebra.