The game is for kids:
As I continued to gain experience as an official for youth athletics, it was becoming apparent to me that some of the focus of the fundamental principles of sports were being distorted and the most important of these fundamentals was that the game was about and for the kids! It is an eye-opening job to be an official for a youth sport’s contest because as an official, one is able to witness incredible talent, happiness, sorrow, hurt and conflict in just 1 hour’s time. I have had the agony of being a part of games where the coaches and the fans were treating the on field contest as a personal reflection of who they were and how their life was going to change if “their team” won the game. The interesting thing in this thinking is that at one time, I was part of that group who used to think about myself rather than what the game or contest was really suppose to help us realize. The realization for me was that being a part of such an amazing component of our youths’ lives was a joyous occasion where, we were able to witness growth, maturity, development of friendships and the learning of lessons that tend to play a major part in who they will become as they progress into their teenage years and beyond. Once I realized that the game is for the kids, I became a better coach, official and most importantly, Father!
The playoff game:
In the organization that I was coaching and officiating in, the format for the playoffs was started with teams playing in the 8 – 9 year old league. I had officiated many games for this age group and had also coached teams in this group. During most of the time that I was coaching and officiating my experiences were very pleasant and often, playoff games became lop-sided simply because one team just had a faster player than the other team did. During a mid-October afternoon, I had the privilege of being the referee for a game that, based on the records of the 2 teams playing, appeared as though the game would not be a close contest. The game pitted the Titans who were 6-0 against the Irish who were 3-3. This particular playoff game would determine which of these 2 teams would represent their conference in the league’s championship game. As an official in this organization, I did my best to meet with my crew about 45 minutes prior to the game and discuss anything that needs to be discussed about the teams, coaches and rules in order to be prepared for what might happen during the game and to make sure that I have an understanding of how well prepared my crew mates are. It is also important to note that the head coaches in this organization are all volunteers and are responsible for their team, themselves and their fans. All of this would come into play on this specific Saturday afternoon. As I met with my officiating crew (there were 3 of us which was normal for games at this age group), we all got on the same page as far as our responsibilities and what I was expecting from them during the game. Onto the field we walked, talked with both coaches and conducted the coin toss and we were ready for action.
I rely on my wings:
From the outset of the game, it became apparent that the Titans were a team that was faster and bigger than the Irish and at halftime, they were winning 21-8. The second half started with the Titans returning the kickoff for a touchdown and after failing to succeed on the extra point try, they were winning 27-8 and then, the game became interesting. While the Irish were returning the ensuing kickoff the starting running back for the Titans who to this point had scored 3 of their 4 touchdowns went down and grabbed his ankle and started to cry. Keep in mind that these are 8 and 9 year olds. After the play was over I walked over to the young athlete and as tears rolled down his cheeks, he tried to stand up and was unable to do so. The coach of the Titans came onto the field as did the player’s Mom and together they were able to carry him off the field. This was significant because not only did it remove the Titans’ fastest player from the game, it also lifted the spirits of the players on the Irish. The Irish took the ball down the field and in for a touchdown and a single point conversion which made the score 28-15. The fourth quarter arrived with Titans leading by that same score and with the Irish having the football and driving towards another score. Once the Irish found the end zone and made the single point conversion by running the ball into the end zone, the score was closer at 28-22. The Titans were without their fastest running back and were unable to make any progress on offense and with roughly 2 minutes to play in the 4th quarter punted the ball away to the Irish. In the 8 and 9 year old league a “punt” is a march off of 20 yards towards the defensive team’s goal line and once this “punt” was completed the Irish had the ball at their own 30 yard line. The Irish had 2 timeouts and 50 yards to go in order to go ahead and possibly win the game. The Irish ran right, ran left and then ran up the middle and found themselves at the Titans’ 5 yard line with 25 seconds remaining and no timeouts left. At this point in the game, fans on both sidelines were cheering and clapping for their young athletes and “their team”. It was a very electric atmosphere to be a part of and what happened next was one of the most euphoric and depressing experiences that I have had as an official. It was a quarterback sweep around the right side of the offensive line and the quarterback was hit at the 1 yard line. As the quarterback was falling to the turf, he reached the ball out towards the goal line and I watched for a signal from the official on that side of the field (known as a wing official). From my vantage point, it looked like all 22 players were in one big pile around the quarterback and I heard a whistle blow and then looked at my wing official who had yet to make any signal. As I was walking over towards my wing official, the official from the opposite side of the field was running in towards the play with his hands up in the air signalling a touchdown. As I blew my whistle and signaled for the clock operator to stop the clock, a stocky man was coming onto the field. I asked that all of the players please go to their sidelines and I huddled with my wing officials to discuss what they saw. The wing official that was closest to where the play was happening stated that the ball did indeed cross the goal line and the official on the opposite side confirmed that he had seen the same thing. I turned toward the sideline and signaled a touchdown and the crowd on the Irish side of the field was cheering and the players were jumping up and down. The stocky gentleman who had come onto the field then returned to the field and barreled into me. I could not make out what he was saying outside of the swell of obscenities that was coming from his mouth and then I saw the head coach come out onto the field to try to restrain the man. A woman came out onto the field and I heard her say something to the effect that he was embarrassing himself and his son. As I attempted to remove myself from the brewing conflict, I realized that the man had raised his fist towards me and was beginning to swing it. As I moved back to avoid being knocked over or worse knocked out, I asked one of my wing officials to go and get the league commissioner. Just as my wing official was starting to walk towards where the league commissioner was located, I saw 2 police vehicles pull into the parking lot adjacent to the field. I also looked just off to the side of where I was standing and I noticed that the woman who had come onto the field was kneeling beside one of the Titans’ players who was crying and she was hugging him as the police came onto the field to restrain the man who was threatening me. Right in front of me the police officers restrained and then handcuffed the man and walked him to their vehicle. Deep inside of me, I felt tears for the 8 or 9 year athletes who were there to witness this selfish act and the results. I wanted to hug the young crying Titans’ player. This game and incident sticks with me today and each of them has taught me several valuable lessons about youth sports not the least of which is that, youth sports are for our youth and as fans, participants and most importantly, as parents we need to give the time that our young are participating in sports to them, wholly! Let them experience the joy of playing, excitement of making new friends and the opportunity to grow by dealing with emotions and situations that will help make them better for themselves, their families, our communities and the World!