All Part of the Game

Fall has fallen upon us, whether I’m ready for it or not, and with it comes a school year pretending to be normal. This includes sports, which includes middle school volleyball and football. While I have threatened, every year for at least 10, to retire from my officiating duties, I somehow always pull my whistle out and go back for more.

A few weeks ago, when the athletic director sent out an interactive sign-up sheet for volleyball that I barely knew what to do with, I signed on for working all the Tuesday-Thursday matches on the schedule, but I stopped short on the three Saturdays that are game days.

Game days are an efficient way to get a lot of volleyball into a season that for whatever reason is compressed into one month, even in non-covid times. You invite three visiting teams rather than just one and then play a lot of matches. I think one day there were seven, which was enough to kill even the most diehard volleyball fan.

Game days also start with the first match at 8 a.m. The last time I had a schedule that started at 8 a.m. — this is true — was back in 1984, when I began my 10-year run at the newspaper, where I became the sports editor, which started me on this officiating path.

Over the decades the start to my work day has been pushing back and back, now some days not getting underway until 11 (although I strive mightily for 10:30). Readjusting my schedule, even if it’s just for three volleyball game days, is hard not only on me but all the domesticated animals who help themselves to my home and have certain expectations about their morning food, medication and exercise.

Since I wasn’t at all sure I had affixed my name correctly to Mary’s electronic schedule, I sent her an e-mail and told her I’d signed up for the weekdays but not the weekends. “I think my enthusiasm for multiple matches is waning,” I wrote.

It’s not all about the enthusiasm, either. Last season, which because of the pandemic was earlier this year, I just felt like I was being slow on some calls and often not as quickly decisive as I needed to be. I found my attention wandering. Some of it may have been trying to adjust to wearing a mask and holding an electronic whistle in my hands along with the pencil and notecard I use to track rotations and keep score (not that I don’t trust the scorekeepers, but sometimes I don’t), but I think some of it is that I might be closing in on my 35th year of officiating.

Mary, who has known me for a very long time, replied that she knew my enthusiasm was waning, and that she had hesitated to send me the schedule at all. But I know why she did: when I went back to print it so I would know when to be at the middle school, there were still a lot of holes needing to be filled.

Then the first home match of the season got “moved.” I don’t know if that means moved to an out-of-town location, postponed, cancelled, the opposing team had a covid outbreak . . . It was not taking place last week. Mary sent out an e-mail thanking everyone who had planned to work and noted it freed up an afternoon, and “who can’t use a free afternoon?” I did not complain.

Football was still scheduled for last Saturday, however, at a nearly-respectable 10 a.m., so I showed up there to work the clock — not that the clock was working. I ended up using the timer on my phone — a first for me, and I was a nervous that it was going to disappear and not come back, and since the Gunnison coach was more fond of yelling than coaching, I figured that would be the icing on his losing cake.

On the field with me were two officials. By the time you get to big-boy football, perhaps high school but certainly college, you have an entire team of officials: back judges, side judges, umpires, referees, whatever the “F” and “H” stand for . . . there are a lot of guys in stripes. For middle school, at least around here, the count is usually three.

Saturday it was just two, and one of them was probably a college boy in his first officiating duty. That left Bob to not only run the field, but to coach the new kid as well.

Bob, a former Gunnison High School athlete, has been officiating for a long time too. Last year during a break in the action he told me he had been having trouble finding work locally due to the pandemic, so he was working part-time for the Department of Corrections, commuting a few days each week to Canon City.

Saturday I asked if he were still commuting, and he turns out he got put in charge of whatever program he works on (some sort of counseling, I think), and now he works Monday through Friday in Denver, four hours away from home. He hadn’t bothered to re-certify as an official because of that, but he said he was still getting calls for high school games because everyone’s short-handed.

Of his stint on the middle-school field he said, “I can’t say no to Mary.” I allowed as how I understood.

Watching Bob work the whole field mostly by himself, getting chewed on endlessly by the Gunnison coach, made me feel sorry less for him than for Mary. Volunteers — even when paid — seem harder to come by these last few years. In trying to make it look seamless, there has to be a lot going on behind the scenes, and sometimes no matter how hard you work, you’re liable to come up short, with essentially one official to monitor the entire football field, all 22 players on it, and their coaches.

Reflecting on that over the weekend, I decided I’d better check with Mary to see if she had enough help for this Saturday’s volleyball game day. Before I got to her, however, she sent me an e-mail — it arrived in my inbox at 2 a.m. — asking if I could work two matches, at 10 and 11.

Bob is right: it is hard to say no to Mary. And to the kids, who have no concept of all the work she puts in to let them play their games. So I guess I’m not phasing in my retirement this year, either. Maybe next year . . .

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