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Officiating for the love of the game
FAIR OAKS, Calif.
The last time I ever officiated a football game was Jan. 4, 1998. It was the AFC divisional championship game between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs. I remember a tough call in the end zone, on a Tony Gonzalez incomplete pass. And I remember missing an illegal contact foul committed against Ed McCaffrey.
Mike (right) chats with his team before the game.Nancy Gay
It’s funny how something like that -- a missed illegal contact call -- stays with you forever.
Almost 13 years later, I realized the exhilaration of being on the field never left me. So I came back.
Back to where it all begins.
A freshman game, at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., just outside Sacramento. The Cougars of Del Campo were playing host to the Bruins of Bear River High in Grass Valley, a small school in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that brought a large collection of fans for this road trip.
Two years ago, when I decided that I was going to retire from the NFL after the 2009 season, I decided at that point I wanted to go back and officiate high school football. I’ll never forget the reason why I got started officiating in the first place.
I was a junior at Santa Clara University, a guy who needed some extra money, and I was told about officiating Pop Warner games on Sundays in East Palo Alto, about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. I was told I could work three games on Sunday for $10 a game. I would come away with $30 cash.
I couldn’t resist, as I needed the beer money.
My father officiated football for 33 years, and so I had a bit of a background in officiating before going to that Pop Warner game. What I didn’t realize about officiating at that level is that it was all about the kids.
Young kids playing football. For the love of the game. I fell in love with officiating for THAT reason, and that reason alone.
After East Palo Alto, I joined the local high school officiating association in San Jose, and worked for several years at that level. Like most officials, the more I got involved, the more I wanted to challenge myself to move up the officiating ladder.
From small colleges in Northern California such as St. Mary’s and UC-Davis to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and on to the Western Athletic Conference, the path eventually took me to the NFL. But I realized as I was making these jumps that at each stop, the games got further away from being about the kids.
Even in Division I college football now, it’s not about the kids. It’s a business. As you go on to the NFL, it’s about the money. It’s a job. When you get into the NFL, it’s a job.
So finally, after 29 years, I’m back where I want to be.
I’m showing up on a Thursday at 6 p.m.in the heat of late September to officiate games played by 14- and 15-year-olds who call me “Sir” and say “Thank you.”
After nearly 13 years away from actually working a game, I questioned whether or not I could still do this. I was 48 when I left the field and now I’m 60. What I found out was it felt like being bucked off a horse. You’ve got to get right back on.
And I got back on. Halfway through the first quarter, I realized that I could still do this.
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I realized that I could still relate to the kids, that I could help make this game an enjoyable experience for these young men who practice hard and play this game. It also struck me that the game of football won’t survive without kids getting involved at a young age like this, at the grass-roots level. We have to keep kids on the football field and playing this game.
I want to be a part of that.
I want to be a part of the game to make sure that these kids are as safe as they can be. And that they play fair and play by the rules.
In my first game back, I think I taught them how to respect the officials -- or at least I hope I did. And to understand that the officials are really there for their benefit.
Who knows how much longer I can do something like this? But as long as I am physically able, I want to be with these kids. I want to officiate at this level. Maybe the game will benefit. And maybe the kids will benefit, too.
I know one thing: I will benefit from it. I’m back officiating, and it’s purely for the love of the game.