How Battlefields to Ballfields is training veterans to become football officials

"You saved his life."

Those were not the words Mike Pereira expected to hear as he strode out onto the playing field of the Rochester (New York) Redwings minor league ballpark during the summer of 2019. The man who once officiated an NFL postseason game and has spent the last decade-plus on national television as a rules analyst, he was unexpectedly nervous, worried about doinking the ceremonial first pitch he was about to throw in front of 10,000 fans.

But en route to the mound, a woman had tugged on his shirttail and pointed to the man walking up ahead of them, speaking as tears pooled in her eyes.

Pereira was stunned. "I saved his life?"

"You saved his life," she repeated. Her name was about to become Lisa Pilgreen, engaged to be married to the man she was referring to, Jamaison Pilgreen. He was recently retired after 18 years of service in the United States Army, during which he did six tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, added to the action he saw in Bosnia before the ink was barely dry on his enlistment paperwork.

Pilgreen retired from the Army in May 2015. The next two years were hell. Civilian life felt so alien. He struggled with post-traumatic stress. He went through a series of jobs and an even longer list of failed job interviews. His efforts to self-medicate led to an overdose from a mix of pain meds, muscle relaxers and alcohol. Even after he met Lisa through a support group and fell in love, he still felt unmoored.

But on this day in Rochester, Jamaison Pilgreen looked like a man with purpose. He walked with his shoulders up and eyes bright. He was smiling. So was Lisa, as she gripped Mike Pereira's hands.

"I used to not want to go to work because I was afraid of what I was going to come home to," she explained. "And one day I came home, and he had a smile on his face. He said, 'I think I found it.' I asked, 'You found what?' And he said to me, 'Battlefields to Ballfields. Officiating. I'm going to try this.'"

Battlefields to Ballfields, commonly referred to as B2B, is a foundation started by Pereira in 2016. At the end of every NFL season, he leaves California and drives up to Oregon. In 2015, that trip was preceded by a visit with some veterans in Los Angeles. Several of them were homeless and confessed to Pereira how difficult life had been since they'd hung up their uniforms. That conversation echoed in his mind all the way up the coast. By the time he'd reached Oregon, he had formulated an idea that would become B2B, with the ambitious goal of trying to solve two problems at once.

The first is to give back to men and women like Pilgreen and those men he'd met in LA, helping veterans reintegrate into their community and do it through a most unlikely home base: sports officiating.

"To be wanted again, to be accepted again, to be a part of something. That's what a lot of these guys are looking for," explains Michael Kennedy. He spends his weekdays as an Operations and Readiness Officer with the Naval Information Warfare Training Group in Virginia. His weekends are spent as an FCS back judge and as one of B2B's regional directors. "When I leave the military in two years, I'm going to miss the comradery that I have with my unit, my division, my department. Being a grown adult, it's hard to find that type of stuff.

"What Battlefields to Ballfields does is takes those that are hurting that really need to be able to be a part of something, to have that fellowship and find that fellowship and they give them an avenue to do that. That's officiating, right?"

It is. To be a sports official is to be part of a team. It requires study, attention to detail and the ability to digest a lot of visual and sensory information in a fraction of a second. There is also a chain of command, a tradition of mentorship and a connection with others via a sense of understanding of the job that only those who don the uniform truly understand.

Sounds a lot like the military, doesn't it?

"It's just like the army. We're a tight group," says Hector Tarango, a B2B participant in Southern California who is moving up the ladder from youth football to high school games. "When you get your squad and your team, you've got brotherhood. I've got brothers right now. There are a lot of ways to save a man's life. A man named David Knowles, he saved my life in Iraq. I named my son after him. Well, here, Battlefields to Ballfields saved my life. Mike Pereira saved my life. These are honorable men. Honorable men."

TARANGO SERVED NEARLY a decade and a half, as a recruiter and in tours of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. He suffered multiple injuries, a divorce and he lost touch with his oldest son, Joey. When he received a medical discharge in 2014, he couldn't make himself leave the house. The furthest he would wander from the couch was into the backyard, where he would obsessively water his lawn because it gave some sense of having at least one aspect of his life that he could control. When he left the house, he rode nervously as a passenger when friends or family would drive, his PTS triggered by the sight of any trash on the side of the road, his brain alarmed at the possibility of improvised explosive devices that lined the roads of his overseas patrols.

A mutual friend -- a former Marine and local football coach who had enrolled in Battlefields to Ballfields -- gave Tarango's number to Pereira. When the Fox Sports analyst called, Hector had no idea who he was.

"Mike P. goes, 'I've got this program I'm doing for vets, to help them get back out in the street. I heard you needed help,'" recalls Tarango. "I said, 'I don't need no help. If you want to help me, help me see my son.'"

Pereira responded, "I can't guarantee that, but I heard your son plays football. Maybe this can help you."

Within days, Tarango was sitting in a B2B meeting filled with other veterans as well as local sports officials who were there to teach and to help. It was the first room in years that made Tarango feel even a tiny bit of belonging. Soon, he was chasing youth football players as a downfield officiating trainee, with Pereira in hot pursuit, coaching him up.

"Here's the thing about these veterans, you only have to tell them something once," Pereira says of Tarango, using him as a representative of nearly every former serviceman and woman he works with. "Officiating is about mechanics, positioning, where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there and focusing on a specific area of the field. That's what they've been doing their entire adult lives in the military. If I say, 'Hector, you have to stay back and keep the play in front of you' I only have to explain that one time. Then they just do it."

After that first afternoon with B2B, Tarango signed on. After a couple of seasons, he was working games on a weekly basis. That included sharing the field with his son, Joey, after five years apart.

"That was a good time. He would just nudge me on the field, and I was like, 'All right, yes, my dad!' It meant the world to me. I feel like I finally had that thing that I needed," says Joey, now a college grad and in the Army himself. He says his father became visibly healed by officiating, as the PTS that dominated his life became slowly replaced by a sense of what his father calls "the mission" of officiating a game. "He'd be like, 'Yeah man, you were holding him.' I was like, 'No, I wasn't!' We would argue back and forth, but it was funny."

What B2B does for those who sign on is provide scholarships, covering the cost of equipment and training for anyone who dips the toe of their cleats into the officiating waters. It can be surprisingly steep, especially starting out in youth and high school sports, all of whom pay next to nothing, if anything at all.

THAT BRINGS US to the second problem Pereira is trying to help solve, an issue that is becoming increasingly evident to anyone who watches or attends sporting events, no matter where or at what level.

When Veterans Day arrives every fall, it does so right in the middle of that amazingly sweet spot on the sports calendar when football season is at full steam and is being joined by the start of basketball and hockey. Throw in soccer, volleyball, field hockey, even cross country and water polo, and from professional leagues all the way down through your local youth sports organizations, there is no busier time for athletics than this time.

However, the most alarming issue facing all of those leagues and teams is that there is an increasing lack of people to officiate them. Referees, judges, umpires, no matter what the sport or officiating position, the numbers of those willing to hang a whistle around their neck and enforce the rules of the game are dwindling.

The list of reasons for that growing drought of officiating talent is long, beginning with those unforeseen costs and the length of time it takes for anyone with eyes on reaching the big leagues. Take Pereira, who became a college official because his father was. But it took the junior Pereira nearly 15 years in college football before receiving a call from the NFL. Most college football officials spend years at the high school and JV level before getting a sniff of their first small college game.

But time and low pay are easy issues to overcome when compared to the rapidly deteriorating issue of sportsmanship. More and more would-be officials, regardless of the sport, are walking away after brief stints at entry levels because of the increasingly dangerous conditions being created by angry parents, coaches and even athletes.

The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) conducts an annual survey among its members. In the latest of those studies, 57% of the 17,500 respondents said that sportsmanship has gotten worse, and 40% pointed to parents as the primary issue. A stunning 43% said they believe in the adage that most new officials quit within the first 1 to 3 years, and the No. 1 reason given by those who did walk away was the constant venom thrown at them, most frequently by parents.

The numbers around the nation do nothing to dispute that.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association conducted its own survey this fall, revealing that more than half of the 7,400 NCHSAA officials surveyed had considered quitting over the last two years. In San Diego, where B2B has recently established a partnership, the number of youth football officials has dropped by nearly half over the last two seasons. As a result, those who are officiating are beginning to show their age. Of those 7,400 North Carolina officials, 51% are over 55.

The lack of personnel in the pipeline is currently causing Friday night issues, with high school games across the nation being moved to Thursday and Saturday to accommodate the shortage. But the effects are also being felt on Saturdays and Sundays, where inexperienced men and women in stripes are being thrust onto stages they aren't yet prepared for.

Death threats have forced NFL officials to change hotel rooms in the middle of the night. An SEC official from last month's Alabama-Tennessee game had his personal information posted on a message board to aid attackers. In the age of Twitter, it's not difficult to find video of fans assaulting officials on a weekly basis.

But those who do officiate truly love it. And those who truly love it are working to find ways to recruit new officials.

"Where are these thousands and thousands and thousands of young men and women who play high school sports and maybe even start peewee, where did they go after their senior year?" Pereira asks. "Can we keep them from just getting out of sports and falling off the abyss somewhere? Get them involved even at a younger age than we've ever gotten people involved in officiating before. I mean, I challenge people to think of ways to create situations that may help to address this shortage."

The NASO has launched a "Say Yes to Officiating" campaign to help organizations and leagues at all levels, but even that help needs help. Battlefields to Ballfields, slowly but surely, is doing what it can. While officiating numbers fall around the nation, B2B's membership has grown from around 200 in 2019 to more than 700 this season. Pereira believes they can get to 1,000 within the next two years.

"Hey man, we're used to being yelled at or being put into tough situations," explains Pilgreen. "Those that have deployed, being in combat, a parent or a coach raising their voice saying things is like, 'Whatever.' You go through basic training, you've got Drill Sergeants yelling at you all the time, so it's like, 'Okay.' We don't take it personally and we don't let it get to us because we're so used to it."

"There's a lot of similarities," Tarango says. "First of all, nobody likes you. Half the people there are going to leave mad at you. But yet everybody comes to you. There can't be a game without a ref, right?" Tarango says, laughing. "I'm like a soldier. I have my assignment. My mission I have trained for. My white hat, the referee, if something does get out a hand, that white hat's going to have your back. No different than a platoon sergeant. No different than a squad leader. Just no one's shooting bullets at you here. You know what I mean?"