PETALUMA — It was Wednesday night and Pete Dardis was fading. If he responded at all to a question it was with just a word or two. The cancer was claiming him. He had less than 12 hours. So I nuzzled my face into the crook of his neck, against the right side of his face and, in whispering, I said something.
“You know, Pete, I have a 12-year old son. If he can grow up to have the same integrity and character you have, I will have done my job as his father.”
My right forearm was resting against Pete’s right arm. In a movement so slight almost to be considered microscopic, Pete lifted the pinky finger on his right hand and gave the side of my forearm a quick, short brushstroke.
That was Pete. Understated. Subtle. The man became a local legend in football officiating by having a personality the very opposite of the environment he occupied and, yes, controlled. Emotion runs like an exposed electrical wire through football players. Sometimes, many times in fact, it’s what separates high school teams otherwise equal in skill.
As the referee, Pete was very much the conductor of this orchestra of colliding testosterone. His ability to modulate that was matched only by being a walking, talking rule book. Dardis, who passed away Thursday morning at 77, was so competent in his craft it begged an obvious question I never asked.
If he was that good, could Pete Dardis have made it in the NFL?
Bill Richardson would know. Richardson is now in his fourth year as supervisor of instant replay for the Pac-12 Conference. Richardson worked in the NFL for four years in the same capacity with an eight-year stint scouting officials for the NFL. The last time Richardson was on the field working a game was the 1998 BCS title game when Tennessee beat Florida State.
Richardson and Dardis both entered the sport as high school officials in the mid-’70s. They worked about six games together back then. He watched Dardis officiate the 2011 CIF Open game between De La Salle and Westlake Village. The men have maintained a friendship for over 40 years.
Richardson knows the demands of the job. Try this one on for size — the Pac-12 has height and weight requirements for officials. If, for example, the difference in body weight from the previous year is as little as four pounds, the official initially may be given a warning or he may lose a $3,000 game check as a referee.
So, could Pete Dardis have been an NFL official?
“When I scouted for the NFL,” Richardson said from his home in Lincoln, “we asked a lot of questions. Was a guy a drinker? A troublemaker? Did he have a solid family? Was he a good citizen? What was his life like away from football?
“Pete has a great family. He checked out correctly on all of it. Pete had all the tools. He was poised. He was prepared. He looked good in the uniform.”
That last sentence is not to be dismissed. A football official has to project authority, commanding a presence, without coming off as a bully. He’s a statement just standing there. He cannot be compromised or intimidated. And he cannot lose his cool.