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They wear black and white striped jerseys that you can see for miles. And still they try not to be noticed.

They blow shrill whistles and wave their hands in the air. And still they try not to be noticed.

High school football officials will tell you their goal is to let the game play out as unfettered as possible; for folks to leave the stadium not giving the officials a second thought.

To notice them is to criticize. To call out to them from the comfortable confines of the stands is usually to signal that you know the rules better than they.

And of course, you don’t.

“Usually the person who yells the loudest knows the (rules) the least,” said Joe Demeter, of Oakland and who officiated Friday night in the North Coast Section playoff game between Rancho Cotate and Analy high schools.

And everyone with a little bit of high school ball under his belt is an expert — made even more so with the benefit of video replay in slow motion.

High school officials don’t have that luxury. Even with a state-mandated minimum 18 hours of annual training and sometimes decades of experience, calls are missed. Boos — and worse — ensue.

To some extent, it’s part of the game. But officials say that increasingly, the level of abuse hurled at the men and women who are very close to volunteering their time to make sure these athletic contests can be played, is making young refs quit and keeping many from even signing up.

“It is hard to get people to come out and take verbal abuse,” said Spencer Crum, youth football leagues assignor for the North Bay Officials Organization.

“It’s pretty tough at times. Some games are better than others, obviously,” he said. “If you can get on or off the field and no one knows your name or who you are, you have had a successful game.”

Success is key because perfection is impossible.

“No one has ever worked a perfect game, it doesn’t matter what level,” said Pete Dardis, the high school football assignor for the North Bay Officials Organization.

“Human error will take place somewhere in one game or another,” he said.

Like when Petaluma High lost to Analy on Nov. 6 on a last-play Hail Mary that with the help of slow-motion and freeze frame looked like it may have been shy of the goal line but which was called a touchdown. Or two weeks later when an inadvertent whistle in a crucial play changed the course of the contest between Petaluma and Rancho Cotate.

You watch those games or read the follow up stories and you ache for the players and the coaches.

But ache for an official?


Those moments — because they are just a moment, not a whole game — are an official’s worst nightmare, when the focus lands on the guy in stripes instead of the kids on the field.

“It’s a very difficult avocation,” Dardis said. “It’s a very, very difficult situation. It happens so quickly and if you are not in the right position you can miss it.”

And face it, you can be in the best position in the world and still make a mistake. It happens.

But also consider what these guys are putting into the game.

They take game days off from their “real” jobs, or take off early, all season long to travel to and work games and to get paid just more than enough to cover the cost of gas.

So many times and in many ways this past week I’ve asked variations on the same question: Why?

The answers are different, but not really.

“How many 59-year-old guys can say they get to run up and down the football field?” said Jim McGeough of Castro Valley.

McGeough left Oakland at 2:30 p.m. to be the head official at the Rancho Cotate versus Analy playoff game at Santa Rosa High Friday night. With a pit stop at Round Table with the rest of the crew who worked the game, McGeough arrived home at 12:30 a.m.

And he was paid the princely sum of $90.

But don’t tell him he’s crazy to essentially volunteer his time. He loves it.

“I love the kids. I love the sport,” he said.

He must. He’s been doing this for nearly 40 years.

Officials say they tune out the blowhards and the crazies. They are trained to leave the field almost immediately after the final whistle, lest some genius offer to give them a primer on the rules.

Most say they’ve been threatened, insulted and berated. But they also talk about staying near the game, being able to give back to a sport that they love, enjoying the company of student-athletes. The crew working the playoff game Friday night? Two drove down from Eureka, most have decades of experience.

You don’t keep doing this if there isn’t love there.

The talk in the locker room among officials after Friday night’s game was kind, not blustery. It was curious, not know-it-all. No game is without its bumps, they go over them and move on.

“Fraternal” is the word McGeough used.

To see the officials behind the scenes is to gain new perspective when Larry Loud Mouth bellows from the stands. Or when the rooting section chants a chorus of a curse word that’s a synonym for cow poop.

It’s certainly not particular to just football. Basketball refs say they get it worse because they are so close to the action. Soccer referees get it too. Everybody’s an expert.

At a recent under-9 State Cup soccer game of exactly zero consequence, a grown man (I’m using the term loosely) had to be escorted from the sidelines by men in a golf cart not once but twice after he came back from his first ejection wearing a disguise. As if a new hoodie could mask a moron.

Call the 22,000-member National Association of Sports Officials and the phone tree offers this option “ … for assault information, press three.”

The officials I talked to would prefer we don’t notice them. The greatest compliment is to nearly forget they are there.

But in these days of smart phones and instant slow-mo analysis, the verbal dog-piling and second guessing is almost immediate.

Referees sound a lot like coaches and student-athletes when they talk about mistakes and moving on, about imperfect games and blown calls. They have all made them and they’ve all gnashed their teeth over them. They are working on their game too.

And they keep suiting up and showing up. Your kids can’t play without them.

To a person, the officials I spoke with this week said their goal is to be as discreet as possible, to go about their duties in near anonymity and let the game unfold without a heavy hand.

They are not looking for thanks, but simply a well run game.

To say thanks might break the spell.

But go ahead and break it, they might not mind, just this once.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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