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High School Football Refs: Ghosts Of The Gridiron

Officials working the game pitting Battle Ground High School against Heritage High School (from left): umpire David Gile, back judge John Moeller, linesman Rick Langeland and referee Rick Gilbert
Tom Goldman/NPR
Officials working the game pitting Battle Ground High School against Heritage High School (from left): umpire David Gile, back judge John Moeller, linesman Rick Langeland and referee Rick Gilbert

Football is often called controlled mayhem, and we have the officials to thank for the controlled part. Not that they're looking for thanks — any self-respecting referee, line judge or umpire would prefer to be relatively invisible during play.

Yet if you take a close look, you'll find more than black and white stripes and whistles.

Pre-Game

It's a Friday football night in Battle Ground, Wash. The Tigers of Battle Ground High are hosting the Heritage High School T-Wolves and as the opening kickoff approaches, the stadium fills.

In a locker room not far from the field, five men are slipping into white knee-length pants and black and white striped shirts. They go through a seemingly mundane, albeit important pre-game checklist: Who does what when they measure for a first down? Where will they stand on a field goal attempt? And how will they handle an ejection for unsportsmanlike behavior?

"If we have an ejection, take your time," says referee Rick Gilbert. He's the man in charge of the five-man officiating crew. "It's a big deal when somebody's ejected, OK? Be sure you've got it right."

Their day jobs include driving instructor and airline gate attendant, but on many fall evenings, they are linesmen and back judges and umpires.

They work varsity high school games for about $55 plus mileage — and, says Gilbert, for love of the game.

"I played high school football like a lot of young men do," he says, adding, "and I just couldn't get away from the Friday-night activity of wanting to go to a football game. So about 20 years ago, I started doing games, working my way up."

Gilbert is the man in charge. As president of the Evergreen Football Officials Association, he oversees more than 100 officials in southwest Washington state. Still, Gilbert says he gets nervous before every game he works.

The Game Plan

After the coin toss and the opening kickoff, the boys from Battle Ground and Heritage begin to slug it out. The five-man officiating team establishes its game plan: positioning themselves in the right spots and working together at the same tempo.

After scoring plays, the officials get back into their positions by running straight toward the sideline, then turning 90 degrees up the sideline. They never go diagonally across the field, because, says Gilbert, it would call too much attention.

"The best game is one where the officials are totally incognito," he says. "You don't even know they're there."

But the junior member of his crew, umpire David Gile, is making his presence known — at least to his colleagues. He's rushing the tempo — for instance, putting the ball down too quickly to start the next play.

At halftime, Gilbert talks to Gile, who assures the other officials before the second-half kickoff that he got the message.

"I promise to slow down," Gile says as the others laugh.

"If not," says line judge John Pellerin, "the first round's on you!"

Controllers Of Mayhem

Pellerin is a chatty fellow. His position during the second half on the sideline, right in front of the Battle Ground team, gives him the opportunity to jaw with the coaches — especially after one play when they don't like where he placed the football on the field.

"That's a bad spot!" the coaches yell.

"I think it's very good. I think it is very good," Pellerin yells back.

Other times, Pellerin becomes a safety monitor. To a wide receiver on the Heritage side, he barks, "No. 23, button up the chin strap!"

He's also peacemaker, running up to two players starting to fight after the whistle.

"Hey, hey, hey!" he shouts as he approaches them. "That's it! That's it!"

To be the controllers of mayhem, high school football officials must be certain in their actions. Yet this game, won by Heritage 43 to 37, ends with uncertainty.

On the last play of the game, the Heritage quarterback throws the ball out of bounds on purpose. It's intentional grounding. The players shake hands and head for their locker rooms.

Meanwhile, the crew huddles on the field, wondering if Heritage should be penalized, thus giving Battle Ground an extra play.

A Clunky Ending

They ultimately decide nope, game over, and they run off the field toward their locker room.

Once inside though, Gilbert and linesman Rick Langeland still appear troubled by the uncertain ending. They leaf through their rulebooks, until Langeland finds what they're looking for.

"OK, the period shall not be extended for an untimed down if the foul specifies a loss of down," he reads. Gilbert is relieved. "There you go," he says. "That takes precedent."

As they pack up their striped jerseys, yellow penalty flags and officials' baseball caps, there's a sense of relief in the locker room. It was an active game with lots of strange plays, yet no one complained about the officiating. There were no incidents, no fan abuse of officials — despite the clunky ending.

"It may look terrible out there — everybody trying to figure out what you're deciding," Gilbert says. "But you have to get it right. We took some time tonight on some of our stuff that probably didn't flow real quick. But we got it right. And that's the key to the whole thing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.