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Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Joel Hilliard has experienced plenty during his tenure as a football official but it was early in his two-decade career blowing a whistle at football games where he learned a valuable lesson.
During a game Hilliard was working an assistant coach from a team was constantly on him and at some points was "screaming and yelling at me," Hilliard said.
It came to the point where the coach said in his long tenure of coaching, Hilliard and his officiating crew were the worst he'd seen in 25 years.
"I asked the coach, 'You've been coaching for 25 years?' and he said, 'And you're the worst,'" Hilliard said. "I said, 'and you're still an assistant coach.'"
Hilliard said he immediately regretted saying it but it was also a valuable lesson for him in his career that has seen him referee around Corpus Christi for the last 20 years and even travel the state officiating games at the college level.
Hilliard later apologized to the coach and the two became friends, and he uses the situation at clinics to talk to young officials about their temperament as games can heat up, and a team's season could be on the line.
"I tell them, 'Don't do that,'" Hilliard said with a laugh.
But it is one of the many stories and memories Hilliard and others like him gain while patrolling the high school football fields around the area, and a reason they keep coming back each year.
"My hardest thing ... I told my wife this is my last year, and she said, 'Yeah, whatever, you've been saying that for six year plus,'" Hilliard said. "I don't know where else I'd be on a Friday."
A NATIONWIDE SHORTAGE
Hilliard, 52, like other officials who are part of the South Texas Football Officials chapter love the game they officiate. But they also see something that is a concern - as older officials leave the game fewer younger officials are coming in to replace them.
The lack of officials has not reached a point in the Coastal Bend where it has required wholesale rescheduling of games, which has occurred in other parts of the state. But it is enough to have long-time officials and the organization's board increase recruitment efforts, and use patched together crews of experienced and inexperienced officials.
The Texas Association of Sports Officials has lowered the minimum age to 16 to offer chapters a chance to staff middle school and junior varsity games, and groom them for future varsity competition.
On any Friday night, the association will staff between 20 and 25 games and some weeks this year they have had to put together crews that do not normally work with each other.
Anthony Ford, who is president of the association, said coaches must agree to use officials from the pool and not on an established crew. If they do not agree, the game could be staffed by another chapter.
It mirrors what has happened in places such as West Texas, the Metroplex, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.
"It's not just a statewide issue, but a nationwide issue," Ford said.
It is not an ideal situation for local officiating chapters who have put on the hard sell to bring more young officials into the game. A recent story from the Dallas Morning News found younger officials have left after a few years because of verbal abuse from fans and coaches.
Ford said it has changed a little bit in his more than two decades officiating but said communication is key and "having kind of a thick skin and bad hearing."
Hilliard and referee Valentin Moreno said the fans are more aggressive, which for a young official can make it tough to stick around for $40 a game.
"Most times nowadays the coaches are concentrating on coaching their team and they let us do our job and they do their job," Ford said. "The main thing is communication and we talk to most of the coaches and we explain a call, we won't argue a call, we will explain a call. Most coaches, once you explain it to them they will accept it."
WHAT IT TAKES
Most crews that staff varsity high school games in the Corpus Christi area have seven officials. If they are in a pinch, they will have five member crews but the organizations prefers to staff as many games with seven member crews as they can.
There is some expense early in getting involved as prospective officials have to pay for uniforms and any equipment, but as part of the recruiting effort they are offering new officials vouchers for uniforms.
Beyond the officials on the field there is also three to four people working the first down chains and two clock operators as each game can have up to 13 officials. Hilliard said many of the chain crews at varsity games are younger, inexperienced officials who may do middle school and junior varsity games during the week.
TASO uses a system of points to grade officials and help them advance. A Division five official is a new official on up to Division one, which is more experienced officials. Officials can move up a division by the grades and points they earn during each season. They also must pass tests to also move up levels.
Officials also attend rules clinics to learn new techniques and rules. Hilliard said he also invites coaches to come to the clinics.
Officials can be paid anywhere from $40 to $100 a game, depending on the level and how big a crowd may be at that game. Districts determine different levels of pay for officials.
Moreno said they will team experienced officials with younger officials for sub varsity and middle school games, to help younger officials learn.
Clayton Dawson, 52, is in his second year as an official and worked the chains during varsity games, while working as a head linesman or side judge for sub-varsity and middle school games. This season he will work on a crew with Moreno, a 21-year veteran official from Mathis.
Dawson, who works at the Corpus Christi Army Depot, got involved because he saw an ad on television looking for officials and decided to give it a try. Dawson, a native of Louisiana, said he was familiar with the game since he played and watched his son play and it has been an enjoyable experience to see it from the official perspective.
"I guess the best part is seeing the young guys coming who are playing," Dawson said. "My thing is I want to be the best I can as an official and put my best foot forward, making the right calls and to see the (young players) out there and guide them along."
MAKING THE RIGHT CALLS
Officials know they will blow calls during a game, and how they react and rebound from those calls is something that officials work on constantly.
They are also cognizant that they are doing this as a hobby, a way to make extra money and still be involved in the game while for the coaches this is their livelihood.
It is one reason it drives officials to be as good as they can each time they take the field.
"When you flip that coin, coaches become a different person," Hilliard said. "We do this as a hobby and that is their profession. I had one coach tell me, 'Y'all are out here for fun, the moving trucks are circling my house right now.'"
Hilliard said he has never called a perfect game and it is an attitude he takes into every game, and rarely knows a game's final score.
Moreno said he works to forge communication with the head coaches early in a night to keep the communication lines open when there are questions about calls.
Fans and coaches, at times, are more aggressive, Moreno said, which can make it hard to keep younger officials but sometimes they do get a pat on the back and said the reward is knowing you did a good job.
"Not everybody is going to be happy all the time but I keep coming back year after year and just love it," said Moreno, 61. "You go through some tough times with coaches and fans but you get rewarded and no official I know does it for the money because they love it. I like to tell everybody when the band is playing, the cheerleaders are cheering, the football players and coaches are pacing the field ... it's exciting."
THE FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Officials know the games they call on any day, from a middle school game on Tuesday or Wednesday to a sub-varsity game on Thursday to the biggest games on Friday night are those players, coaches and fans biggest games.
They know the sacrifice that goes into being able to be a part of the game, which is why they do it. They know fans and coaches will not be happy at times but the love of the game is what drives them to come back each week. It's what drives them to attend clinics, study a complicated and extended rule book, and correct mistakes they may make.
In simple terms, they love it.
"Not too many people step into officiating and football is a big, big part of our lives," said Moreno, who owns a restaurant in Mathis. "Every Friday night, we talk about the lights when we get out there. Sometimes you look around and you are putting the ball down, you are tired and at the end of the game you know you gave them a good game. You walk out knowing you did your best."
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