Not all black and white

Local officials love their jobs and want you to join them

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The smack of a good tackle, the smell of freshly cut grass and the view of a hole opening on the line excite Steve Deyo before he steps onto the field.

As he puts on his uniform, he goes through his assignments in his head. His adrenaline increases as he thinks about sitting behind the quarterback and anticipating the next move.

In his best times on the field, Deyo is so focused on his job he never hears the yelling.

"Hey ref, you stink."

"Zebra, which game you watchin'?"

"Where'd they find you, you don't know nothin'."

And those are the printable ones.

"As you get more experienced, you don't hear as much of the outside stuff," he said. "You lose your rabbit ears, which at first hear everything."

When Deyo first moved up to varsity games, he remembered going up to a "white hat," aka the head official, and asking, "Do you hear what they're saying?"

The more veteran official's response was, "If you can hear them, you aren't paying attention to the game."

Now in his 16th year of officiating, Deyo understands that unfriendly banter from the sidelines comes with the job description.

"Everybody hates officials," he said. "It's part of the game."

The thing is, officials love to be a part of the game. They take the abuse every Friday (and often Thursdays and Tuesdays and Saturdays) and most of them keep coming back.

"It keeps me connected to the game," Burl McMillen said. "I've been a football fan my whole life. I enjoy still being a part of it, and officiating is about as close as I can get."

Joe Zuniga said it feels like he's a linebacker when he's in the middle of the action. He thinks a referee may be the only person to know what the game looks like from nearly every position.

Zuniga, McMillen and Deyo, all from Craig, are three of the 13 football officials in Northwest Colorado.

They are in charge of games from the seventh-grade level up to varsity in Rangely, Meeker, Craig, Hayden, Steamboat Springs and Oak Creek.

Between the three of them, they have 39 years of experience in the black-and-white stripes. Deyo started officiating partly because his dad, Doug, had been involved for nearly 30 years. When he first started, he had the opportunity to be on a crew with his dad.

"One of my first varsity games with my dad was in 1991," Steve said. "It was a Hayden-Oak Creek game, and it was 20 below. My dad motioned me over, and I was ready for my expert advice when he said, 'Keep your flag in your pocket and your whistle in your mouth.'"

Officials are human, too.

"It stings a little when people get personal because they know you," Deyo said. "Officiating around here, you're going to run into people you see every day."

The Northwest Colorado crews have a history of success. They've had members inducted into the Colorado Officials' Hall of Fame, move on to college and the pro ranks, and crews have officiated state title games. But week in and week out, the majority of them do it for the love of the game and the athletes.

"We're definitely not in it for the money," Zuniga said. "The $50 or $60 we get a game covers a little bit more than traveling expenses."

The love of the game and the kids is that chance in a middle school game to help a player understand what he's doing wrong or to stop a game and explain to a defensive line full of seventh-graders that they are lined up wrong.

They have their favorite teams, too. It's just that favoritism goes away when they put on the stripes.

"I think to myself, 'Wow, nice hit,'" Zuniga said. "But I'm not thinking, 'Well, he's from a team I don't like so I should throw a flag.'"

An official's mission is to keep players safe and the game running smoothly.

"I've never walked off the field and thought we did a bad job," Deyo said. "Some people on the sideline may think differently, but I've always thought we did the best we could."

At times, there are people in the stands who think they could do a better job.

"It's a totally different game than what you see out there," McMillen said. "And probably nobody knows the rule book better than we do."

At least the high school rule book.

"A lot of times people don't know the difference between the rules on Sunday and high school rules," Zuniga said. "I'll have high school quarterbacks telling me that when they threw the ball into the sideline they were 'outside the pocket.' But that's still intentional grounding in high school ball."

These officials need a few good men or women to join their ranks as under-appreciated but indispensable parts of the game.

With 13 officials in the area and five referees on a crew, there aren't enough officials if any three of the six high schools host games at the same time.

"We always have a shortage," McMillen said. "We could always use some help."

It takes flexibility with the day job (refs sometimes work 10 to 12 hours a week), a basic understanding of the game (there are clinics and tests to help teach beyond the basics), and at first, some tough skin, at least until the rabbit ears go away.

The 2005 season for football officials kicks off July 30 and 31 with Master Rules Clinics. Rookie referees generally don't have to attend, but it is a bonus if they can, according to the veterans.

For more information on becoming an official call Elvis Iacovetto at 736-8308 or Steve Deyo at 824-4723.

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