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Texas high school football refs say they do job for love of game

Rocky Ontiveros takes a lot of fall Fridays off from his job as the owner of an energy-management company in El Paso, Texas, so he can meet four friends and hit the road. They'll drive as far as 400 miles to reach their destination, often returning home that same night after the high school football game they officiate is finished.

Ontiveros -- a barrel-chested former high school and small-college middle linebacker and Navy veteran who has been officiating high school football for 27 years -- and the rest of his five-man crew receive nominal compensation for travel expenses (in addition to their game checks) for their treks across West Texas. They have the option of getting a couple of paid-for hotel rooms, but they'd usually rather head home right after the game, sometimes because they're scheduled to work another game the next afternoon.

"I love every minute of it," Ontiveros said. "You're coming back with your comrades and you're talking football. Before you know it, there's lights and there's El Paso."

Several Texas high school football refs cited fellowship and the fondness for Friday night lights as reasons they enjoy their part-time jobs, even though these ordinary Joes are occasionally the least-popular folks in packed stadiums, log long hours and aren't paid particularly well.

"I just hope the rest of the country doesn't think that's how high school football is played in Texas, because it's not. It's far from it." Rocky Ontiveros, Texas high school official

"This is my hobby, I guess," said Waco's Brad Strickland, who works for the IT department of a large grocery store chain and has officiated for 26 years, including a six-game stint as an NFL replacement ref. "I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't play golf. And a lot of guys are that way. This is our Knights of Columbus. You have a bond with guys. It's a real tight-knit group."

Most have been in the cleats of the kids on the field, having played high school football while growing up in the state that's famous for being fanatical about the sport. Officiating is their way to stay involved, to give back to the game they grew up loving.

"It's Texas high school football, brother," said Cliff Ross, a Brownwood-based service manager for a pest-control company who is in his 25th year of officiating. "If you're not sitting in the stands or involved with Texas high school football, I don't know what else you would do on a Friday night."

For most of the men who wear stripes at these games, the goal is to be noticed as little as possible but as much as necessary to keep the games they call fair and safe. However, Texas high school football referees find themselves in the national spotlight after two San Antonio John Jay High School players blindsided umpire Robert Watts with shocking hits in the final minute of their team's recent loss at Marble Falls High School. According to an ESPN Outside the Lines report, Watts has been accused of using racial slurs toward John Jay players, something the official has denied.

Virtually all of the high school officials in the state have seen the video of the incident, watching the players sprint toward Watts as soon as the ball was snapped, one player slamming into the official from behind and the other spearing Watts as he crashed to the ground. Few refs have even felt threatened while working a football game, much less ever seen anything like those hits.

"I just hope the rest of the country doesn't think that's how high school football is played in Texas, because it's not," Ontiveros said. "It's far from it."

"I'd say 99 percent of the kids that we deal with are good kids," said Dale Cowan, a retired police officer from Central Texas who is in his 26th season calling games.

If they weren't having fun, several of the refs said, they'd find another way to fill their Friday nights in the fall. It's not like they're getting rich calling games, and most even pick up their penalty flags and work at least a few nights per week officiating subvarsity games as well.

Texas high school football can be big business. Publicly funded high school football palaces have price tags of up to $60 million. A lot of athletic directors and head coaches get six-figure salaries. Not many of those dollars trickle down to the men in stripes.

The pay for subvarsity games is typically around $50. Officials make anywhere from $80 to $250 for varsity games, depending on the gate receipts. They get some reimbursement for travel expenses, but they're responsible for paying for their uniforms (about $200) and annual state registration fees ($35).

"If you're just doing it just to get a paycheck every once in a while, you need to quit," said Rob Jasper, a 31-year officiating veteran based in Fort Worth who makes a living as a sales director for an office equipment company. "You'd make better money if you'd work part-time at Home Depot. You've got to love it. Nobody likes getting yelled at, so you better be out there for the love of the game.

"But there's no better place to officiate high school football than Texas."

While safety is rarely a concern, refereeing Texas high school football games is far from a glamorous job. In fact, several elected officials from the Texas Association of Sports Officials chapters across the state expressed concern about dwindling numbers in their ranks, the result of difficulty recruiting and retaining young officials to replace those who are retiring.

"We're happy if half of them come back for the second year," said Strickland, the Waco chapter president.

Veteran officials have learned how to tune out upset fans, interact with irate coaches and manage mouthy players. In many cases, they've established rapport with coaches and earned their respect. They've developed a routine of schmoozing the captains at the coin toss, laying the foundation that will encourage those leaders to help keep their teammates in line. They take great pride in their ability to fade into the background when appropriate but maintain control of a game when necessary.

Those sorts of things don't come easily to a lot of younger refs, many of whom decide that hunting and fishing and playing golf are much better hobbies.

"If you're just doing it just to get a paycheck every once in a while, you need to quit. You'd make better money if you'd work part-time at Home Depot. You've got to love it. Nobody likes getting yelled at, so you better be out there for the love of the game." Rob Jasper, Texas high school official

"It's not for everybody," said Eddy King, a high school teacher and baseball coach from Southeast Texas who plans to hang up his ref's whistle at the end of the fall after 41 seasons, opting to rest knees that ache after being replaced years ago. "It's not for a lot of people. That's part of the problem we're having.

"These coaches expect that these young officials are seasoned enough or know how to deal with this enough, and they're out there acting like Bobby Knight or [Bobby] Petrino or whoever is an ear grinder, and they don't allow these kids to develop. And then [the young officials] quit, and your older core like myself are getting out. There's nobody to replace me."

For those who have been doing it awhile, however, it's hard to walk away. Officiating isn't just an occupation; it's become part of their identity.

They still get goose bumps before kickoffs as the marching bands blare and the fans fill the stands. They're happy to get such a unique, intimate view of kids they'll likely see on television on future Saturdays and perhaps even Sundays.

Even when the crowds consist almost solely of friends and family, such as for a freshman B-team game, the refs are proud to be part of a sport that helps mold kids into young men.

And they think they'll miss the little things when they give it up -- the few hours each week brushing up on the rulebook, the banter with the coaches and kids during games and with their crews during those long road trips.

"I'm getting to the point where I'm thinking about if it's time to hang it up," said Mark Vogler, a pharmacist who has been officiating since responding to an ad in the Amarillo Globe News 23 years ago. "I just can't do it yet. I love the game and being out there with the kids. All of us do this just for the love of the game.

"It's when I'm waking up sore at 7 in the morning and going to work that I wonder if it's worth it sometimes. My staff sure likes to tease me when I have a hitch in my gitalong."

ESPN.com reporter Michael C. Wright contributed to this story.