November is high school football playdowns time across Ontario. If you’re an experienced official, and available to work games, you can put a lot of kilometres under your car tires.
Click on Google Maps, top up the gas tank, pack ALL your gear into your travel bag, say goodbye to the wife (again) and grab a large Tim’s or McD’s coffee. Good old No. 77 has car, has flag and whistle, and will travel.
The past five days, though, have been a bit of an odyssey, even considering the distances Ottawa’s football officials often travel.
The week’s itinerary (distances are rounded):
- Orillia on Tuesday, 800-km round trip.
- Kingston on Friday, 350 km.
- Peterborough on Saturday, 600 km.
The “short” drive, for those unfamiliar with Ontario geography, is a four-hour round trip. The longest well over eight hours.
The playdowns are run by the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations. This year, the Senior AAA regional champs meet in Hamilton Nov. 28-30 in the so-called OFSAA Bowls. There are also regional AA-A finals for smaller schools and junior squads, meaning 2-3 weeks of action after the league season. It also means more travel, as top teams play outside local leagues.
It might seem downright wacky to some folks (including some of our spouses) that we drive six or eight hours to officiate a two-hour game.
But such is passion. If you love the football, the camaraderie and have the time, it doesn’t seem odd at all. We covet these elite-level assignments, and work damned hard to give the players the best games we can
We talk football games past, on-field mechanics, rules and endless variations of possible scenarios during our drives to the fields. The intricacies of pass interference and hand-fighting between defenders and wide receivers turn into hour-long discussions – or arguments.
We arrive at least 90 minutes before kickoff for pre-game meetings with officials from other associations (split crews are the norm if we travel outside our district). Then comes the payoff.
The Drug? The Game…
For that two hours on the field, we are as locked-in as the players and coaches. That’s our drug, our fix. It’s why we call ourselves the “Third Team” out there.
The game is a personal challenge. Be prepared. Be in position. Read the play. Make good calls. Stay cool. Think ahead. React quickly when something happens.
It’s a rush.
When it’s over, most days, we feel pretty good about our performance. If the teams decided the game and we made no major gaffes, there will be handshakes and smiles.
If not, there will be handshakes (hey, we are still a team), but only tight-lipped silence. And the prospect of a much longer drive home.
Coaches, players, fans, you can be happy with us or not. WE know how we performed, and we are our own toughest critics. Especially at this time of year.
Most of us have played, or coached. We know what it feels like when you think you got “screwed” by the refs. In a big game, the ramifications of a mistake are magnified.
But that’s the risk we take every time we hit the field: That we might make a mistake. It’s why we prepare so diligently. It’s why we too “shorten the bench” at this time of year.
Good or bad, we debrief both as a crew and then much more extensively during that drive home. Two hours, or three or four, is a long time to discuss odd plays, penalties, close calls, talk about strengths and weaknesses, or bookmark topics for future training sessions.
It’s all part of our passion for the game. By this point in the season, the officials getting assignments are the best, most conscientious folks available. We’ve worked all year for this handful of great games in the crisp, cold fall air.
We wouldn’t miss it for the world.
I don’t think my wife really gets it, but she does accept it. For that, I think I owe her a nice dinner.
In another week or so, when the playdowns are done…
A few parting, random thoughts:
- Fog is NOT what you want to see after you’ve driven four hours to Orillia, done a pre-game, reffed a game, had supper and face a four-hour drive home.
- Guys named Malcolm, Greg, John, Justin and Gabriel are awesome travel companions. And even better officials.
- The decorum of teams and coaches who reach this level is, generally, excellent. In fact, I think it’s a big part of the reason WHY they reach this level.
- This week, thankfully, no “tight-lipped silence”. Just great teamwork with our comrades from Georgian Bay, Kingston and Kawartha.
- When you’re on your third long road trip in five days, WHO brews the coffee is less important than how strong you brewed it. Take note Timmie’s and McD’s.
- Three guys need only a few minutes to destroy a 50-pack of TimBits after a game in Peterborough in wind, cold and rain.
- Sunday was the perfect day for our first howling November blizzard…