“Your life is like the morning fog, it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.” (James 4:14 NLT)

It hardly seems possible, but it will soon be 45 years of officiating high school soccer, basketball and softball for me. There are many wonderful memories. The cross-town rivalry games, exciting overtime contests and state tournaments. Opportunities to witness outstanding young athletes in competition. Forming and maintaining life-long friendships with fellow officials.

Other “not-to-be-forgotten” times include the soccer game when during the second half of play, a deep male voice yelled from the bleachers, “Refs, you suck!” It was only a few seconds later, when a tiny voice from the same location shouted, “Refs, you suck!” My father’s oft-spoken words came to mind, “Children close their ears to advice and open their eyes to example.” But that’s a subject for another time.

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Then there was the day when I sat in the bleachers at a baseball game. An elderly lady next to me in a friendly voice asked, “Who are you here for, the green or the white team?” The expression on her face was priceless as I replied, “Neither. I’m here to cheer for the umpire.” You see, the young man behind the plate was my son, and one of the great joys through the years has been the privilege of seeing him as a sports official on both the court and the field. He has bypassed his dad in the levels that he has achieved, and I could not be prouder.

However, let me tell you about one life-impacting, unforgettable Spring day. My partner and I had arrived early at the school for a combination JV/Varsity soccer game. As we began our pregame inspection of the field, one of the coaches approached us to ask if we could delay the start of the game for about 15 minutes. He explained, “Three of my players are mothers, and we have to wait for some adults to come and care for their babies during the game.” It was early in the first half of play when one of those young mothers ran by me on the field. I will never forget her tired, sunken eyes, and the exhausted expression on her face. The expression of a teenager who had most likely been up all hours of the night caring for her child. Then arising early to attend classes, and now dribbling a soccer ball down the field. I will always remember the team gathered around its coach at halftime, the three teen mothers side-by-side: one nursing her baby, one changing her baby and the other rocking her crying infant to sleep. I swear the allergens in the air that day had to be some of the worst of the year; my own eyes simply would not quit watering.

I have seven grandchildren and am old enough to remember a time — not all that long ago — when these young students would have been forbidden from participating in high school sports. Thankfully, and even in the most difficult of circumstances, they now have an opportunity to enjoy school activities, to be part of a sports team. And in doing so, form lasting friendships. Teenagers who are able to develop their self-confidence and improve their skills, along with the joy of creating memories that will last a lifetime.

With many more officiating years behind me than in the future, I have been asked how long before I hang up the whistle and put away the equipment one final time? I honestly don’t know. Now in semi-retirement, I am in a high school every day, serving as a substitute teacher. I enjoy being with teenagers, listening to them as they share their confidences and concerns, their struggles and questions about life. These opportunities not only make me aware of the challenges that young people face, but it compels me to ask, in a world that is definitely not the same world in which I grew up, “What can I do?”

Someone once wrote these thought-provoking words: “In each of us, there once was a fire. And for some of us, it seems as if there’s only ashes now. But when we dig in the ashes, we find one ember. Very gently, we fan that ember, blow on it, and it gets brighter. From that ember, we rebuild the fire.” Just about every day, I come in contact with young men and women whose lights are flickering, some in danger of going out. Whether I’m teaching in the classroom, sharing a meal with a student in a crowded
lunchroom or calling balls and strikes on the diamond, perhaps I can be a part of keeping an ember glowing, and thus enabling a flame to burn brightly for a lifetime.

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Author Max Lucado wrote, “The sweetest satisfaction lies not in climbing your own
Everest, but in helping others climb theirs.” For now, I believe this is what God wants me to do, and because He does, I know that it’s where I want to be.

Paul Carmichael, Ionia, Mich., has been a registered official with the Michigan High School Athletic Association since 1976. He works basketball, softball and soccer.

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