Ten-year-old Chris Stover wanted to be a soccer official, but the rules said he had to be 11. The assigner “felt sorry for him and wanted him to work,” recalls his mother, Mari Stover. So he was on the field at 10, working youth matches just like his father, Rick Stover, a longtime basketball and soccer official in Vancouver, Wash. A desire to supplement allowance grew into a passion. By the time Chris started his senior year of high school, he was named Washington’s District 5 Soccer Official of the Year, a passion he only set aside upon his U.S. Air Force Academy appointment.
Rick says that all Chris learned in officiating stayed with him as he worked his way up to the rank of captain, piloting more than 100 successful helicopter rescue missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He understood the leadership aspect,” Rick said. “There’s a power position, but you need other people to work to get things done.”
Indeed, when Chris would show up for work at the Royal Air Force Lakenheath base in England, he would frequently bring coffee for the enlisted men on duty. “And enlisted people and officers don’t usually mesh,” Mari said.
Chris died in January 2014 when his helicopter crashed on a training mission. The unspeakable loss spurred Rick, Mari, their daughter Kelly and local officials to action. It also inspired an unexpected gesture of love for Rick before a game.
Rick’s officiating family approached Mari and him with support and an idea: to start a scholarship in Chris’s name. Capt. Chris Stover Scholarships go to local students who either play varsity basketball or are involved in ROTC. The committee, composed entirely of basketball officials including Rick, selected the first recipients last summer. Rick and Mari support other worthy causes, including the That Others May Live Foundation, which aids families and children of Air Force rescue heroes killed or severely wounded in their duties.
Rick received a simple but poignant bit of support before a high school girls’ basketball game in December. Right before the national anthem — always a difficult moment for Rick — he noticed that one player from each team had walked over to stand next to him. “I had no idea,” he said. “All of a sudden they roll the flag down, and I thought, ‘Why are two players standing beside me?’ And then I figured it out.”
The two coaches told Rick they had organized the show of support in order to humanize the people wearing stripes and to remind them of the importance of relationships in sports.
That’s a lesson that Rick Stover and his fellow officials continue to pass on in memory of a fellow official turned hero.
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