It can be the most thankless job in the stadium, but it also might be the most important one.
Every week, officials step onto the football field appreciative to give back to a game they love, cherishing the chance to still be a part of the action.
Ninety-two of them are registered with the Los Padres Football Officials Association, which was established in 1968 and covers games from Paso Robles to Santa Ynez.
“I’m here to help the kids, for the spirit of the game,” said John Iribarren, in his 48th year involved with local officiating. “Football has been so good to me with all the things I’ve been afforded and have been able to do. Now I’m just giving back.”
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For the first two years on the job, the association requires its members to take 24 hours of instruction sanctioned by the California Football Officials Association, and in ensuing years, 20 hours to stay current. But plenty of additional hours are also put in over the course of a season reviewing game film and being critiqued.
Mike Ostini, who has worked LPFOA games since 1977, assigns which crews go to which games.
In general, Ostini said, his approach is to try to ration crews so that they don’t see the same team more than twice in a season.
Iribarren then observes crews and rates them — “to make them better” — for instructional chair Bobby Kennedy.
Experiences, memories make it worthwhile
Varsity games pay $75 per official, with junior varsity and freshman contests at $67.
But local officials said they do it for the experience itself and the camaraderie and memories they build along the way.
About a third of LPFOA officials have been there nearly 20 years, president Randy Schuldt estimated.
The longest-tenured one — Iribarren — also happens to be one of the most experienced in the nation.
Iribarren, 71, received a Distinguished Service Award from the CIF-Southern Section last year for his lifetime of work.
From 1977 to 2004, Iribarren also worked Western Athletic Conference games, in addition to 15 Division I bowls.
He can remember emerging from the famed tunnel at Notre Dame and once witnessing then-Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning demand — at the officials’ request — that his offensive linemen stop jawing with the opposition between plays.
Ostini, who also worked nearly 20 years combined of Cal Poly and junior college football, can still recall doing local high school games featuring future NFL stars like Mark Brunell (who quarterbacked at St. Joseph) and Napoleon Kaufman (a prolific running back at Lompoc).“It just became a vocation I really enjoyed,” Ostini said.
Similarly, Schuldt has been calling games for 42 years running, with most of them taking place along the Central Coast, where he moved in 1976.
“I found I enjoyed it,” Schuldt said simply, as it allowed him to stay around the sport without having to undertake a full week’s worth of day-to-day chores, such as coaching. “It’s a way of giving back to a sport I enjoyed as a young man. That’s probably the most important reason right there.”
Hecklers, what hecklers?
Most of the time, officials agreed, they can’t specifically make out much of anything being voiced from the crowd, given the fast-paced, in-your-face nature of their jobs.
“Our crowds are pretty loud, but we really don’t hear anything in particular,” Ostini said. “We hear roars and we hear boos, but as far as individual (shouts), there’s so much concentration on the players out there — we’ve got five officials in a crew, and if you’re not concentrating, you’re not going to be successful.”
Iribarren agreed: “As an official, you have to have the discipline where you don’t hear that stuff.”
Officials said they also would like fans to generally be more mindful that various rules differ at the prep level from those of the more widely televised, familiar pros — such as the lack of the uncatchable-pass concept in high school play.
“Football is the easiest game to officiate, but the most difficult to master the rules,” Iribarren said. “The rules are very complex.
“I played the game, coached the game, and then officiated the game and it’s amazing how much you don’t know about the rules of football (at its various levels).”
As for tempers boiling over, there have been two noteworthy local instances this year that officials identified as out-of-the-ordinary. One was a fight that broke out at a Morro Bay game in September, and the other was an unsportsmanlike penalty assessed to the St. Joseph sideline last week that resulted in the ejection of Knights head coach Mike Hartman.
Hartman was not the one arguing a call (it was a coach from another sport), but his team had already been flagged for an equipment issue earlier in the game. At the time, the two penalties added up to Hartman’s dismissal, although his ejection has since been rescinded.
“People get excited,” Schuldt said of emotions flaring up. “I always tell everyone, no matter what level you work at, to the kids, that’s the most important game that day, and to the parents, it’s the same way. Once it’s over, generally they cool down and everything’s fine.”
Everyone involved, Ostini said, “should realize it’s high school athletics, and it needs to be a positive. The CIF says ‘victory with honor,’ and that’s what it needs to be.”
Safety and speed of game have changed over years
The main change the game has seen in recent years is the public’s contemporary amount of concern over concussions, Iribarren said.
“If we deem a kid drowsy or woozy, we’ll send him off,” he explained. “It’s not worth it (to keep playing).”
But the concussion issue is just the latest sign of a gradual increase in care for safety over the years, Iribarren said, noting the lengthy evolution of helmets and other equipment.
Another pressing difference has been the increased tendency of teams to pass, to platoon more than two wide receivers in a formation and to not always eat up as much play clock.
“It’s a speed game now,” Iribarren said. “Teams run more plays, and the players are quicker, faster and stronger.”
Ostini concurred, saying, “The game’s more spread out. That’s the difficult part. When there are only five of us out there, it’s a tough go.”
However, as officials, “We’re still having fun,” Ostini was quick to add. “If you’re not having fun out there, it’s not worth going out there.”