High School Football Refs: Ghosts Of The Gridiron Football is often called controlled mayhem, and we have the officials to thank for the controlled part. But any self-respecting football referee would prefer to be invisible during play. "The best game is one where the officials are totally incognito," say high school football ref Rick Gilbert. But take a close look. There's more than black and white stripes.
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High School Football Refs: Ghosts Of The Gridiron

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High School Football Refs: Ghosts Of The Gridiron

High School Football Refs: Ghosts Of The Gridiron

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Football is often called controlled mayhem, and we have the officials to thank for the controlled part. But not that many football fans thank them, and that's okay. Any self-respecting referee, line judge or umpire would just as soon be considered a ghost of the gridiron: on the field but not seen.

As part of our high school football series, Friday Night Lives, NPR's Tom Goldman gives us a view of the field from the referee's standpoint.

TOM GOLDMAN: It's pre-game, Friday night. A stadium in Battleground, Washington is starting to fill for a game between the Battleground High Tigers and Heritage High T-Wolves.

In a locker room not far from the field, the walls are plastered with inspirational slogans like: A champion knows, the greatest sin is fear, the greatest mistake is giving up. But those messages are lost on the five men slipping into white, knee-length pants and black-and-white striped shirts as they go through a pre-game checklist:

Mr. RICK GILBERT (Referee): All right, let's go over the measurements. If it's close, John(ph), you'll stop the clock?

JOHN: Yes.

GOLDMAN: Rick Gilbert, the game's referee, sits on a bench, prepping his officiating crew on everything from how to signal touchdowns to handling the worst-case scenarios.

Mr. GILBERT: If we have an ejection, take your time. It's a big deal if that somebody's ejected, okay? Be sure that, you know, you've got it right. You've got it right.

GOLDMAN: Their day jobs include driving instructor and airline gate attendant, but on many fall evenings like this one, they are linesmen and back judges and umpires working varsity high school games for about $55 and mileage, and, says 60-year-old Rick Gilbert, for love.

Mr. GILBERT: I played high school football like a lot of young men do, 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.

GOLDMAN: To where he is now, the man in charge. In his white referee's hat - the others wear black - Gilbert takes control of the Battleground field a half hour before game time. He calls the teams together moments before kick-off.

Mr. GILBERT: Okay, I have the coin. The football is the tail. Helmet's the head. What are you going to call?

Unidentified Man #2: Heads.

Mr. GILBERT: He's going to call heads. That's the helmet. If I drop it, we'll do it again. Pardon me?

Unidentified Man #2: Tails.

Mr. GILBERT: Tails, tails, sorry. Thank you. Tails, here we go.

Unidentified Announcer: So let's bring them on out. How about them Tigers? Let's get them fired up.

GOLDMAN: Things go more smoothly after the opening kickoff as the boys from Battleground and Heritage High begin to slug it out. The five-man officiating team establishes its game plan: proper positioning on the field, working together at the same tempo. Four of the five appear in synch, but umpire David Gile(ph), the junior member of the crew, is rushing things. For instance, he's putting the ball down too quickly to start the next play.

At halftime, Gilbert talks to Gile, who assures his colleagues before the second-half kickoff he got the message.

Mr. DAVID GILE (Umpire): I promise to slow down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN PELLERIN (Line Judge): If not, the first round's on you.

GOLDMAN: Line judge John Pellerin is a chatty fellow. His position on the sideline, right in front of the Battleground team, gives him the opportunity to jaw with coaches, especially after one play when they don't like where Pellerin placed the football on the field.

Unidentified Man #3: That's a bad spot.

Mr. PELLERIN: Oh, I think it's very good. I think it is very good.

GOLDMAN: At other times, Pellerin becomes a safety monitor.

Mr. PELLERIN: Twenty-three, button up the chin strap.

GOLDMAN: And a peacekeeper, as two players start to tussle.

Mr. PELLERIN: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, that's it. That's it.

GOLDMAN: 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, the Heritage quarterback throws the ball out of bounds on purpose. While the players shake hands and head for their locker rooms, the crew huddles on the field, trying to decide whether to penalize Heritage and give Battleground an extra play.

The officials ultimately decide nope, game over and run off the field toward their locker room. Once inside though, Gilbert and linesman Rick Langeland, a bit uncertain about that ending, leaf through their rulebooks, until Langeland finds what they're looking for.

Mr. RICK LANGELAND (Linesman): Okay, the period shall not be extended for an untimed down if the foul specifies a loss of down.

Mr. GILBERT: There you go.

Mr. LANGELAND: I think I can go with that one.

Mr. GILBERT: That takes precedent.

GOLDMAN: As the officials pack up, putting their caps in hard plastic cap carriers - Pellorin puts a strip of Bounce in his to help absorb the moisture - there's a sense of relief. It was an active game with lots of weird plays and challenging calls for the officials, yet no one complained, there were no incidents, no fan abuse, despite the clunky ending.

Mr. GILBERT: It may look terrible out there, everybody trying to figure out what you're deciding, 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.

GOLDMAN: We earned our money, one of them jokes. Another laughs: Yeah, some money. Let's go spend it on pizza.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: At our Web site, you can find more stories from our high school football series Friday Night Lives. And you can see photos of high school games across the country. They were submitted by listeners. Those are at npr.org.

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