Padecky: High school referee Peter Dardis lives life by his own rules

At 77, the well-known former football referee is entering the last days of his life.|

Some of us, whether by intent or misfortune, pass in front of us without being noticed. They are born, live and leave, and we didn’t know they were around. They are invisible, not even a wisp of fast-moving fog to record their presence.

Pete Dardis is not one of those people. Pete Dardis is no more invisible than an Arizona sunset. His family, his friends, his admirers, even his detractors (I hear there’s two of them), all tip their cap in his direction. For nearly five decades Dardis took the most thankless, the most demanding, the ?lowest-paying job imaginable, and turned it into something others have tried to copy, with so many of his brethren left frustrated, settling for envy.

Dardis wasn’t just another guy wearing a white cap. He established policies and protocols adopted by the California Interscholastic Federation - the CIF. He has conducted clinics, assigned officials for decades and wore that white cap as a referee for 38 years. He’d forget his Social Security number before he’d forget a rule.

“Pete wasn’t the gold standard (of officiating),” said Tom Bonfigli, Cardinal Newman’s basketball coach who back in the day officiated football games with Dardis for 27 years. “Pete was the platinum standard.”

Now, at 77, Dardis is entering the last days of his life. He has Stage 4 lung cancer. Dardis is treating his final moments with the same equanimity as he did when a coach was across from his nose bellowing hot air and disgust.

“I don’t think I ever felt sorry for myself,” Dardis said. “I never asked God, ‘Why me?’ One thing I have asked God for is more time. Most people want that.”

What Dardis did want was quality of life. In 2015, when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Dardis passed on treatment. No radiation. No chemotherapy. He has seen a daughter-in-law go through that, suffering from the deleterious side effects of the treatments, dying at 50.

“I didn’t want to go through what she went through,” Dardis said. “I wanted to live my life.”

Not exist. Not just take up space. And that’s what he did. For the better part of three years Dardis lived pain-free. His 6-foot-2 frame handled his 195 pounds as it always has. Then Dardis caught the flu in early March. His body became vulnerable. Pete thought he got over the illness but now looking back on the events that followed, he’s not sure.

In June, his son Rick and wife Misty took Pete on a sports fan’s dream journey. They flew to Chicago to catch a Cubs-Dodgers game at Wrigley Field, then flew to Albany, New York, to motor up to Cooperstown and baseball’s Hall of Fame. They drove to Springfield, Massachusetts, to see basketball’s Hall of Fame. Then it was to Boston to see a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. The nine-day trip finished with a visit to Madison Square Garden. It was not without incident but comparatively trouble-free.

He went on another Hawaii trip, to celebrate Rick’s 30th wedding anniversary, when he experienced severe shortness of breath. That has led Dardis back to his home in Petaluma and some serious seat time on his sofa.

“Do I have any regrets (passing on treatment)?” Dardis said. “No. I spent quality of time with my family, not throwing up.”

Dardis has kept his illness relatively private, if for no other reason that he doesn’t want pity. He has never been a glory hound. Never has been Me First, You Second. Fawning, excessive emotional release, it runs counter to a man who has been a calm sea in a profession with raging currents.

Not that he wouldn’t care or appreciate the attention.

“What better thing can you hear than ‘I love you, Pete,’” Dardis said.

Well, Pete, you’re gonna hear it now. When I told Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin of his illness, Cronin gasped and put his head in his hands. Tom Kirkpatrick, the legendary Healdsburg coach, went silent on the phone, to the point I had to ask Tom if he was still there. “My heart just sunk,” he said. Trent Herzog, now at St. Vincent’s after being at Casa Grande, burst out “horrible,” like he wanted to choke “horrible.”

“When I was at Piner,” said Cronin of his high school days at quarterback, “I might thank an offensive lineman for picking up the blitz. Pete would hear it, walk by and thank me for exhibiting good sportsmanship. I’ve never heard of any official ever doing that. That was the most amazing thing to me. Still is.”

That’s the only time Dardis would ever step out of his role as Controller Of The Mayhem. That’s what officiating a football game is. Twenty-two bodies beating on each other, scrambling for success. Not being able to comprehend the process, that’s one of the five most common mistakes Dardis said officials make. Lack of knowing the rules, being out of position to make a call, afraid to make a call and being intimidated by being harassed by coaches are the other four.

Truth to tell, Dardis forgot to add one more mistake, one he never made. If he was ever accused of seeking revenge on a team or coach who disrespected him, such an accusation would send him into a fury.

“Integrity was very important to me,” he said. “I wanted to treat everyone fairly, no matter the circumstances. I always wanted to treat people the way I would want to be treated.”

That Dardis could resist the temptation for payback says more about the man than if he had memorized the entire rulebook (which is just a rumor). That’s why Dardis could remain so calm. He rose above raw emotion because he had set a standard for himself that he would never compromise.

“Pete was always level-headed,” said Ed Conroy, Rancho Cotate’s retired coach. “Sometimes I’d get so excited, so wrapped up in the game I could be a knucklehead out there. Pete would come over in his calm way and just being that way would calm me down. He was incredible.”

In a sport that welcomes, even encourages ego, Dardis was on the other side of the fence on that one. As a president of the North Bay Officials Association (now the North Bay Officials Organization) Dardis would recommend each year to CIF two referees, two line judges and two back judges as candidates to work CIF’s state championship games. He never recommended himself.

“How would that have looked?” Dardis said. “I lead this organization and I submitted my name? I would be seen as a conceited ass----.”

In 2010 the CIF said enough was enough. Pete, we want you to submit your name. Aargh, was his first response. Pretty please with chocolate sprinkles on top. Dardis did. Guess what? Dardis was named referee of the state’s biggest prep game, the 2011 Open Game. Turned out to be De La Salle vs. Westlake Village. It’s such an honor an official is permitted to participate only once.

Honors? Oh yes, honors. Dardis won’t tell you he’s in the Marin County Athletic Hall of Fame, the first official to be so awarded. In 2012, that same year, Dardis received the North Coast Section Distinguished Service Award.

But he’s leaving out one award: The Pete Dardis Award. Because there isn’t one. “That’s a great idea,” Kirkpatrick said. “There should be one.”

Gil Lemmon, NCS commissioner, said such an honor would be developed easier locally than statewide. Wouldn’t need CIF approval if it’s The Pete Dardis Award that covers Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. Voted on by the coaches annually. To the official who was most consistently outstanding.

Or to put it another way: Dardis guesses he’s officiated 1,500 games. Heck, if every school that had him as an official chipped in $50 as a thank-you, they could name a section of freeway after him. Forget the trophy.

“I’d like to think I was respected by everyone,” Dardis said. After a pause for effect, he added with a grin, “Of course we know that’s not true.”

Of course. If it were true, that everyone respected him, who would believe it? Who would believe a coach would bury his head in his hands when told an official - his natural adversary - was in harm’s way? Who would believe an official who wouldn’t promote himself, who wouldn’t scream at coaches, who would compliment a player on good behavior? Who would believe a high school official would go to a school mid-week after a game to show film to a coach who needed more of a detailed explanation of a disputed call? Who would believe a high school official would run a camp in Fresno that would attract NCAA and NFL officials?

Do you know anyone like that? I do.

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