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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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.

BLOCK: 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:

RICK GILBERT: 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.

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.

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.

GILBERT: Unidentified Man #2: Heads.

GILBERT: Unidentified Man #2: Tails.

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

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

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

DAVID GILE: I promise to slow down.


JOHN PELLERIN: If not, the first round's on you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOLDMAN: 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.

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

GILBERT: There you go.

LANGELAND: I think I can go with that one.

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.

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: Tom Goldman, NPR News.


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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