For some of us, officiating is a vocation, for others it is an avocation. For almost all of us, however, it is a passion that offers feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.
But some in the officiating community have been privileged to be part of unique occasions that have transcended the world of sports and brought people together for a show of community support or celebration, or perhaps both. Here is an account of some of those transcendent moments for sports officials.
Boston – 4/17/13
For Brad Kovachik April 15, 2013, started like virtually any other day on the road. Kovachik, who is now in his 20th season as an NHL linesman, was in Boston to work that night’s game between the Bruins and the Ottawa Senators. It was Patriots Day, a major holiday in Massachusetts, and Kovachik started that fateful Monday by stopping by Fenway Park to catch a bit of the Red Sox’ traditional Patriots Day game. From there he walked back to his hotel, the Boston Marriott Copley Place, passing the finish line of the ongoing Boston Marathon on the way.
He was resting in his hotel room when he heard a loud noise. “The way I can best describe it is like a cannon went off,” Kovachik said. “I was 40 stories high, too, and I heard this cannon go off. Then, like five seconds later another cannon went off.”
The sounds were not cannons, of course. They were two bombs that exploded roughly a block and a half from Kovachik’s hotel.
“Within five or 10 seconds I started hearing sirens,” he said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This just doesn’t seem right.’ I turned on the TV to one of the local stations and within two minutes they said there were bombings at the marathon. It was kind of surreal. I was in that spot probably an hour before it happened.”
Thinking back to the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Kovachik thought about how to best get away from the hotel “as quickly as I could,” he said.
He made his way to another hotel where Brad Meier, one of the referees scheduled to work that night, was staying. The game was postponed and Kovachik, a father of two, was eventually able to reach his wife by telephone and let her know he was safe.
Coincidentally, Kovachik had been assigned to Boston’s next scheduled home game, against Buffalo, on April 17, 2013. Joining him were linesman Scott Cherrey and referees Francis Charron and Dan O’Rourke.
Prior to the opening faceoff at TD Garden there was a video tribute to the victims of the tragedy. Next, anthem singer Rene Rancourt, accompanied on the ice by the Boston Fire Department Color Guard, began an a capella version of The Star Spangled Banner and the crowd quickly joined in as the officiating crew stood at center ice.
“Everybody on the ice was very emotional that night,” Kovachik said. “Probably shed a tear. You got goosebumps and tingles for all the wrong reasons.”
Kovachik notes it was pretty much business as usual on the ice once the game began, although perhaps a little quieter than normal. “Obviously all the (Bruins) players live in that community,” he said, “so it was definitely harder on them. I’m sure they had friends and family down at the site, so it probably hit home for a lot of those players on the ice.”
The Sabres prevailed over the Bruins that night, 3-2, in a shootout. But what happened at TD Garden transcended the final score. For a few hours, the Bruins and the Sabres, with the assistance of the four officials, were able to provide a sense of something resembling normalcy to a populace doing its best to cope with a tragedy.
“I think that’s the great thing about sports,” Kovachik said. “It gives people a little getaway after something like that happens.
“I think back to 9-11 and how important it was that the Yankees kept playing. I remember President Bush throwing out the first pitch. It gives everybody an escape and shows how a city like Boston can come together and, to a certain extent, move on and pick up the pieces.”
Cincinnati – 11/2/14
When Lauren Hill and her Mount St. Joseph University teammates took the court against Hiram College on Nov. 2, 2014, the occasion was much more than a basketball game.
Suffering from terminal brain cancer, Hill, a freshman and a former high school basketball standout, wanted desperately to play in a college game while she was still healthy enough to do so. The NCAA granted an exemption that allowed the Mount St. Joseph-Hiram game to be played ahead of the official start of the season. In response to the attention Hill’s situation generated, Xavier University made its Cintas Center available and a crowd of 10,000 turned out.
FOR JON HERSHBERGER, THE OCCASION WAS PARTICULARLY MEANINGFUL; HE IS A CANCER PATIENT HIMSELF, HAVING BEEN DIAGNOSED IN 2010.
For Jon Hershberger, the occasion was particularly meaningful; he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and is still fighting the disease. When the game was rescheduled, he approached his longtime assigner Dave Vendrely about the possibility of working it.
“Any time I hear about or see somebody fighting this disease it hits home,” he said.
As it turned out, Vendrely had the same idea and gave Hershberger the game. His partners included Linda Miles and Matt Barker, who in addition to being a longtime officiating partner was also a close personal friend.
During their pregame, the crew discussed how the game was to start. By mutual agreement between the two teams, Mount St. Joseph was set to run a play off the opening tip to give Hill a layup opportunity. The play worked as designed and Hill scored the first two points of the 2014-15 college basketball season while earning a spontaneous outpouring of emotion from those who witnessed the event.
After that it was business as usual, although Hershberger, who has worked at the collegiate level for some 15 seasons, said it took him time to get settled in. “It took me probably a good five or six minutes of the game clock to get my first whistle,” he said. “Once I got my first whistle then I forgot about the surroundings.”
With half a minute to go in the game, Mount St. Joseph coach Dan Benjamin put Hill back on the floor. She scored the last two points of the afternoon in an unprearranged moment that touched the hearts of the fans in the stands.
“The place was electrifying,” Hershberger said.
Mount St. Joseph emerged victorious, 66-55. Hill spent a total of 47 seconds on the floor.
Hershberger says it took an immense amount of courage and determination for her to do so. “When we got there, we got talking to some of her coaches and teammates,” he said. “They weren’t even sure Lauren was going to make it that day. She wasn’t sure she was going to feel good enough to make it to the game. … The pain and suffering she was going through was just inspiring for me. There are days when I feel sorry for myself, but when I do, I think of people like Lauren and other people who are fighting this disease or have been taken away because of it. I tell myself I need to stop feeling sorry for myself because Lauren did this … If she could do it at 18 then, by gosh, I need to do it.”
Postscript: Lauren Hill played in a total of four games for Mount St. Joseph. She died on April 10, 2015, at the age of 19. On Nov. 14, Mount St. Joseph and Hiram met again at the Cintas Center as part of the inaugural Lauren Hill Tipoff Classic, which raised funds for pediatric cancer research.
Dry Ridge, Ky. – 9/18/15
When Chris Veir stepped on the football field on Sept. 18, 2015, in Dry Ridge, Ky., to work the game between Grant County and visiting Rowan County, it was not only the climax of two years of hard work but also a display of intestinal fortitude.
On June 6, 2013, Veir suffered a broken right leg while working the Kentucky East-West All-Star game. He underwent surgery a few weeks later and screws were inserted into the bone. At first his recovery went well. But one of the screws loosened and in September Veir underwent a second operation when things took a stark turn — Veir was faced with the choice of either trying to grow the bone back together, which likely would have permanently limited his mobility, or having the leg amputated. He had roughly 16 hours to make a decision.
Veir chose amputation, opting, he said for, “Function over vanity.”
But the decision was a difficult one and in the aftermath of the procedure, which was performed on Oct. 2, 2013, the 47-year-old Veir struggled with his faith. He was fitted with his first prosthesis in December and gradually adapted to his “new normal.”
“I can’t just get up and go,” he said. “There is planning involved in everything.”
From the start however, Veir, a food broker by profession, was determined to get back on the football field (he also works basketball). His officials association supported him, and contributed funds toward having a left-side gas pedal installed in his car.
Veir, who is also a youth-league assigner, worked a handful of games below the varsity level to prepare for his “official” return.
Per standard association protocol, he spent part of the Grant County- Rowan County game on each sideline, one half as the linesman and the other as the line judge. Naturally, he’s had to make some adjustments.
“I hate to say it, but I’m still immediately thinking, ‘Where’s my out?’ he said. “How can I cover the play and make sure I don’t get hit? Before I got hit (in the East-West game) I was pretty quick on my feet.
“Now, for a second or two, I have to think about it, ‘I’m going to back up, I’m going to back out this way.’ I want to cover the play but I don’t want to be in the middle of it.”
There are times when Veir has to adjust his prosthetic leg during a game, but he is able to do so within the span of a timeout without delaying play. He says the players and coaches he’s worked with have been extremely supportive.
“The kids at Grant and Rowan couldn’t have been any nicer,” he said. “They’d see me coming and clear out a space on the bench for me to sit down. Both coaches couldn’t have been any better. It was a great experience.”
San Francisco – 9/23/01
Bill Leavy had a lot on his mind when he arrived at 3Com Park in San Francisco on Sept. 23, 2001, for the game between the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams. It was his first regularseason assignment as an NFL referee, but the emotion in the air that day had little to do with football.
Just 12 days earlier the U.S. had been attacked by terrorists who hijacked four airliners and were responsible for the loss of more than 3,000 lives.
The NFL had cancelled the previous weekend’s schedule but the Rams-49ers contest would be one small step on a road toward something approaching normalcy.
For Leavy, the emotions of the occasion hit particularly close to home. He spent nearly three decades as a police officer, firefighter and Secret Service agent in San Jose, less than an hour’s drive from 3Com Park, before retiring in 1997. He knew that when he took the field he would be surrounded by comrades; not just his crew but also members of the San Francisco police and fire departments who would be on the field for the national anthem and the coin toss.
Prior to game time, Leavy and head linesman Gary Slaughter were alone in the locker room while the rest of the crew — umpire Ron Botchan, line judge Charles Stewart, field judge Casey Moreland, side judge Don Carlsen and back judge Phil Luckett — attended to pregame duties elsewhere.
Leavy and Slaughter were joined by replay official Bill Richardson, a longtime referee in the Pac-10 who himself was a retired San Francisco firefighter. Richardson had brought two things with him, a San Francisco Fire Department hat and a request.
“The guys wondered if you would wear this during the coin toss,” Richardson said.
“I wasn’t sure if I should do it,” Leavy recalled in an interview with Referee that was published in 2006. “After all it was my first game as a referee and I was concerned what the office would say. I finally decided it was the right thing to do. When we went out on the field I stuck the hat in my waistband.
When he and Slaughter went out on the field for the toss, Leavy made an announcement recognizing the police officers and firefighters in attendance, then took off his own white hat and put on the one Richardson had given him, to a thunderous ovation. For a few moments, the referee was a firefighter once more.
“There were a lot of things going on in my head,” Leavy said. “That was a special feeling.” “He actually had trouble speaking,” Slaughter said. “It was a very emotional moment for him. I’m surprised he got through the coin toss.”
Ottawa, Canada – 6/11/15
Margaret Domka reached the pinnacle of soccer officiating on June 11, 2015, when she took the pitch at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa to referee the Women’s World Cup Group B match between Thailand and Ivory Coast.
Domka, a high school Spanish teacher from Milwaukee, was the only American referee appointed to work the tournament.
Standing in the tunnel waiting for her cue to lead the teams onto the field, she took a few moments to reflect on how far she had come.
“I was just thinking how incredible it was to be there,” Domka said, “and thinking about all the people that had helped me get to that point and all the support that I have.”
As she waited, Domka knew she had allies in the stadium; some supporters had made the trip to Canada to watch her work. “I know there were a lot of people supporting me at that moment,” she said, “waiting to watch me come out of the tunnel.”
The goosebumps, however, did not prevent Domka from focusing on the task at hand. “I was thinking about what I was going to do and how I was going to try to make myself have the best performance possible,” she said.
Domka recognized she was representing the closely knit American soccer officiating community.
“I was the only referee chosen from the entire country,” she said.
As she waited, Domka thought of the mentors who had helped her climb the officiating ladder. She started refereeing at age 13 to pick up a few extra dollars and at first wasn’t sure she wanted to stick with it. But with help, she persevered.
“There are people who have been with me all the way through,” she said. “I have mentors who were with me when I first started and kind of pushed me up through to state-level mentors. Then I was thinking about my national level mentors and also the people who have helped me internationally.”
Domka is particularly grateful to Joe Krzyaniak, the referee administrator for the state of Wisconsin, for his support.
“Joe has always been supportive of everything that I’ve done,” she said. “He’s always been positive about my career and there certainly have been times when I’ve had questions about whether I should continue, whether the commitment and dedication was worth it. … He’s celebrated with me and he’s cried with me. I think that’s so important, to have someone who will stick with you even when things are rough.”
Besides working the Thailand- Ivory Coast match in the center, she worked two additional World Cup matches as the fourth official.
Pell City, Ala. – 10/17/14
When Pell City High School in Alabama squared off on the football field against visiting Chelsea on Oct. 17, 2014, it didn’t take Eric Pollard and his crewmates long to realize they had their hands full. Tensions between the two teams kept the seven-official crew busy. Pollard, who has worked football for nine years and previously worked various levels of soccer for 15, was assigned as the linesman.
The emotional timbre of the evening changed midway through the third quarter, however, when a Chelsea receiver went over the middle for a pass and was undercut by the cornerback applying coverage on the play. The receiver landed on the back of his head and upper neck and was unconscious on the grass surface. After a few moments, the officials sent the teams to their benches and a stretcher was brought onto the field. Shortly thereafter several players from both teams started walking across the field toward each other with their teammates just behind them. The crew immediately formed a line between the teams to prevent any hostilities. But it turned out the student-athletes had something else in mind, a joint prayer.
“A couple of players on each team talked to our referee,” Pollard recalled, “and explained what they wanted to do. We said, ‘Sure.’
THEY HAD A TEAM GROUP PRAYER AND THEN THE PA ANNOUNCER STARTED SAYING A PRAYER OVER THE PA SYSTEM. IT GOT VERY, VERY QUIET IN THE STADIUM.
“They had a team group prayer and then the PA announcer started saying a prayer over the PA system. It got very, very quiet in the stadium. Everybody knew how serious the situation was once the stretcher was on the field.”
The reaction of the players to the potentially serious situation left a lasting impression on Pollard.
“That gave me huge goosebumps,” he said, “to see student-athletes recognize that a football game is just that, a game. Life is short and tempers will pass, but we all should stick together for the good of the game.”
Thankfully, the player was not seriously injured, apart from a concussion.
Pollard, who is also a high school teacher and coach, said it gave him a good feeling to see student-athletes adhering to principles he tries to impart himself.
“We teach sportsmanship and character all the time,” he said. “It was great to see that everybody realized that it was just a game. No matter how heated, no matter what the score was at the time, this was just a game. There are more important things, more serious issues at hand. It was good to see that everybody knew where the line was and was able to reflect on that.”
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