The Friday after Thanksgiving, I reached the pinnacle of my officiating career. My crew and I were honored to call the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 3A State Championship at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium. Illinois has eight football classes, so we were one of eight crews to call a championship.
The Illinois High School Association assigns football playoff officials by crew. My crew featured Jeff Purcell as referee, myself as umpire, head linesman Matt Reese, line judge D. Ray Tucker and back judge Cody Mayfield. The five of us have a total of 107 years of officiating experience. Coaches ratings and IHSA observer/scouts determine playoff crews.
Unlike the NFL, IHSA officials can be assigned multiple rounds of playoffs. There are five playoff rounds and if a crew goes all the way they will officiate all five rounds (like the NBA and NHL playoffs). Coming into this season, our crew officiated the semifinals two straight seasons. We knew that we had a chance, but we definitely weren’t counting on a championship assignment.
Three weeks before the championships, I was at work and a crew mate texted all of us and said we got a championship game. My heart skipped a beat and the five of us had a text message celebration. I will not officiate college football. High school is my ceiling. So this is my Super Bowl assignment.
We finished the playoffs well and then it was on to championship week. One thing I’ve learned in the last four years is not be impatient to get a championship game. Our crew needed two straight years of semifinals before this year’s semifinal and championship assignment. Experience counts. We all had our game faces on but the crew and I didn’t have doubt or fear that we weren’t up to the assignment.
Our game was at 4 p.m. on Black Friday. It was sunny all day and the temperature got up to around 50°, but dropped into the 30s during the game. Thankfully we didn’t have to deal with precipitation.
We dressed in an awesome locker room with plenty of space for us to get into our uniform and conduct our pregame meeting.
All of us had been on the Memorial Stadium turf in years prior, working as the chain gang in previous championship games. We all worked on turf before. But, there is something special about stepping on a Big Ten field to officiate a game. An IHSA clinician took us to both head coaches for introductions, get captains’ numbers and address any questions or concerns.
We then got everyone rounded up for the coin toss (which went off without a hitch) and all of our pregame duties were complete. All we had to do was wait another 10 minutes for the kickoff. While in some ways it was a long 10 minutes, the wait gave us time to look around and “drink in” the atmosphere, look up the 10 stories to the top of the stadium and appreciate the moment. Best to do it in the pregame than during the game!
The game flew by
Once the game kicked off, I can report that championship football is still football. More intense but still football. The blocking, tackling, running and passing were no different than a regular season game. Our crew was in the zone with good communication, mechanics and calls. We have called over 100 games together. During a play, I key on my players, but I can “feel” where my partners are. We worked well as a unit during the game. Five officials, one crew.
There is one holding foul I called that, looking back, I shouldn’t have called. But, the offense made a first down the next play so it came out all right.
The game was decided midway through the third quarter, but all three teams finished well. An official’s biggest enemy when the outcome is decided is relaxing and losing concentration. I am happy to say our crew stayed on top of the game. As the game wound down and the offense was taking a knee, I told a some very sad defensive players, “I know it hurts now, but one day you’ll be my age and you will get together and have happy memories of this season.”
After the game, our crew was walking off the field and some of our friends and family gathered along the front row to cheer us. This was the very first time I, as an official, was cheered as I walked off the field. That is a moment I will remember for a long time.
We exchanged hugs and rehashed the game as we changed out of our uniforms and rejoined the civilian world. As I reflect on the biggest game of my life I continue to be grateful for the assignment and happy that I was able to work it with some of my dearest friends. In the locker room I announced to the crew that it was 38 weeks until the 2023 season kicks off.
I wish it was next week!