Late summer and autumn Friday nights are time for high school football. The bands play, the cheerleaders cheer and crowds fill bleachers to watch two teams striving for victory.
But there is a third team on the field, one that would prefer as little notice as possible. In an atmosphere in which colors differentiate friend from foe, this team’s shirts are the very definition of neutrality — black and white vertical stripes.
They’re the football officials, often inaccurately referred to collectively as referees (the head official is the referee, and the rest have different designations). To the players, coaches and fans, they are sometimes a scapegoat, but never a hero.
“Nobody — no parent, no brother or sister, girlfriend or boyfriend in those stands — cares about any of us,” said Louis Metevia, Baton Rouge Area Football Officials Association president. “They come to see their sons out there playing on the football field, so if we can get away without throwing a flag at all, as officials, we love it.”
And they all get their start somewhere. When the 2014 season begins in a few weeks, a new crop of officials will be among them.
Beginning in July, BRAFOA began training prospective officials. It includes weekly meetings to cover rules, with Saturday morning sessions in which veteran officials take the role of players and enact all manner of situations so the trainees can get a better idea of what they should expect to see in a game.
For James Jarreau, 59, of Gonzales, it began 12 years ago. After his son finished playing high school football, Jarreau didn’t want to quit going to high school football games. He happened to meet some officials.
“I ran into these guys and asked, ‘Do you need anybody?’ They said, ‘Yeah,’” Jarreau said.
A growing area population means more schools fielding football teams, thus more games needing more officials. At the same time, means some drop out each year.
“We need a lot of people that can run, and we make no bones about it,” said Ronald Kemp, who has officiated for 37 years. “A lot of us are getting older and older and older. We need the younger wheels.”
Veteran official Al Toups told newcomers as much during an on-field training session in July.
“Some of you guys are young and think you can run with them,” Toups said. “But the older you get, the slower you get. They never get old. They’re always the same age.”
Some new officials are only a little older, but many are far removed from their playing days — if they played at all. Having played football is not a requirement to become an official, although the vast majority played at the high school level or above.
“I just wanted to be around the game again,” said Brett Sandifer, 28, who played football at Nicholls State University. “I missed it. I want to be around it.”
Being an official, as trainees quickly discover, becomes more than being around the game. It’s being in the middle of it. If they aren’t careful, they’ll have cleat marks to prove it.
As the first Saturday training session, they learned how to position themselves, not only to see the play but to stay safe. When a runner comes toward them on the sideline, they learned to move up the field so the play gets in front of them, out of harm’s way. At the goal line, they may need to back up to avoid being run over.
As much as the rules themselves, things like where to stand, where to look, where to move and how to communicate with other officials seemed daunting to the first-timers. Making sure the offensive formation and movements are legal, trying to see what’s going on when players are in the way, concentrating on their job rather than just following the ball — it’s a lot to handle.
“You feeling confident now?” veteran official Fred Earhardt asked trainee Mike Barrow.
“Not yet,” Barrow said.
“I’m a rookie when it comes to all the rules of football, especially high school,” said Shaun LeRoi, 35, of Zachary. “Like they said, you don’t know as much as you think you know just from watching TV. I’ve officiated games from my recliner plenty of times, but none of my calls stuck.”
Although they began with fairly simple and occasionally obvious formation and false-start penalties, the veteran referees put the trainees on the spot with plays that tested their vision and decisiveness — dropping the ball near the goal line, where the rookie linesman must decide if a touchdown was scored, a fumble took place or a forward pass was thrown.
The goal is to get them accustomed to the fact that officiating involves being alert to an environment in which unpredictable things happen quickly.
“The game has gotten so much more fast than it was five years ago, even,” said John Langlois, the BRAFOA assignment secretary and a head linesman for Southeastern Conference football games. “When you’re on the field vs. in the stands, the speed of the game, you don’t really get the perception of the game in the stands that you do once you’re on the field.”
Getting on the field, that won’t happen right away for the trainees. In the first year, they’ll mostly be used as clock operators while still learning the officiating ropes. In the meantime, they are encouraged to officiate youth and junior varsity games so they can get experience.
Officials must pass a rules test and are paid based on their levels of experience, and their position in the officiating crew. Clock operators might make about $40 per game, said former BRAFOA president Ronald Kemp. The most experienced on-field officials average $75-85 per game, Langlois said. Officials must buy their own uniforms and equipment, which total about $200. So, they’re not in it for the money.
“We get them from all walks of life — doctors, lawyers, plant workers, management guys, guys that work at the post office, guys that work at the bank,” Langlois said. “It’s the love of the game that keeps them in it.”