By John Hummer
Exponent staff writer
You’ve been following your local high school sports for years and have seen players come and go. Officials come and go, and the games continue. You just expect referees to show up, do their thing, and leave, hopefully being unnoticed. The umpires and referees are more or less taken for granted.
But fans better start noticing, as they are an aging breed. The average age of an official in Michigan is 52. Those still putting on the zebra stripes and umpire masks are worked tirelessly during the sports seasons. They are overworked and underappreciated. They are overworked because there is an officials’ shortage.
“When they are yelled at by fans and coaches, nobody wants to come back,” said Scott Maurer, an official from Jackson. Maurer serves on a high school football crew headed by a 36-year official veteran Chuck Walters of Napoleon. Walters, 69, an East Jackson High School alumnus, is one of the most highly respected officials in Michigan. He and his crew officiate varsity football games mainly in the Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo areas and junior varsity games closer to home.
“There’s a terrible shortage of officials,” he said. “It’s a huge problem.” Walters said the main reason for the shortage is intimidation of young officials working youth sports by coaches and parents. The young officials then get discouraged and give it up.
“It turns them off,” Walters said. “They get a really bad taste in their mouth and we lose these young guys and we never get them back.”
Walters said the person in charge of assigning officials to football games this season has had a difficult time getting them covered.
“You are at risk of not having officials to cover the games. You may have to move games off a typical game night and play on Saturday when you have more officials available. I know school administration doesn’t want to do that. If they don’t want to move it to a Saturday, you might not have a game.”
Napoleon Township police chief Duaine Pittman has known Walters for many years and the two often compare notes.
“Officials and police officers are pretty much the same,” Pittman said. “Half of the people are going to like you for what you do, and the other half are going to hate you. If you’re not taught how to deal with them, I can see people just walking away,” he said of the officials’ shortage.
“Nobody wants to get into it. Who wants to get yelled at,” added Napoleon High School athletic director and football coach Scott Ashe.
Officials can make decent money. Walters said high school varsity football officials earn $70 a game; those doing JV games make $50 to $55 a game.
Is there hope? Walters is making his best effort to help any young or aspiring officials earn respect, stay on, and enjoy what they do.
“We can put them in a good situation where we’re not going to lose them because of some crazy coach,” he said.
Walters started a group called JOSH – Jackson Officials Study Hall – and doesn’t earn a penny for it. The group studies game film every two weeks at East Jackson or Napoleon High School to help officials get better.
“Our numbers are really, really low so he’s doing what he can to get younger guys involved in officiating,” said Walters’ crew member Troy Miller. “He wants everybody to do well. It’s not about him; it’s about making all officials good. He’s the perfect mentor.”
Walters uses a video software program called “Huddle” where he analyzes game film, breaks it all down, and sends it to everyone on the crew with comments – what he thinks they did right and wrong.
“It’s more about what he thinks we can do to make us better next week,” Miller said. “That’s huge. He’s the hardest on himself of anybody.”
Heath Sullivan, a 25-year-old second year official on Walters’ crew, had just moved back to Napoleon a couple years ago from Florida and was working out at the Napoleon High School fitness center.
“I’m kind of in disarray, not knowing what I’m doing,” Sullivan said. “[Walters] said ‘Great, you’ve got to come to these football officiating meetings.’ Next thing I know I’ve got a full JV schedule and I’m on a crew with these guys and I’m thinking to myself ‘I don’t know one rule in the book, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.’ It didn’t matter to him that I didn’t know anything. I was a project in his eyes that he knew what I could be, and he was going to work with me to get me to that point.
“Honestly, I’m not anywhere near where I wish I could be, but he’s a guy that every single week wants to see you become just a little bit better. From where I started last year to where I am now is night and day – it’s not even close. And that is a testament to him.”
Sullivan enjoys what he does, and has great camaraderie with his elder mentors, but there is another reason for him to stay the course as an official.
“Officiating is the only thing that keeps me in sports, now that I’m all washed up,” he said, half-jokingly, adding, “It’s a completely different viewpoint when you’re a player and when you’re an official. Now, looking at it from the other side, it’s a prestigious thing that Chuck has kind of instilled in us.”
“He’s just done an awesome job,” Walters said of Sullivan’s first year as a varsity football official. “I can’t say enough good things about that young man.”
Miller, who officiates football and umpires baseball, echoed Sullivan’s sentiments in that it keeps him involved in sports.
“There’s a sense of pride when you do it,” he said. “When you played, you wanted to be the best pitcher. When you officiate, you want to be the best crew on the field. We’re not going to be the best crew every night, but we will be the most professional crew and the most prepared crew to step on the field.”
One of Pittman’s colleagues from the prosecutor’s office is an official on another crew that is trying to emulate what Walters’ crew does to prepare for games.
And Walters loves his crew.
“We have such a great group of guys I officiate with,” he said. “It’s probably the best group I’ve ever been associated with – personalities, knowledge of the rules of the game and the way they go about business – it’s just awesome. I can’t wait for Thursday and Friday night. It’s so much fun.”
Walters awarded a state final football game.
For being at the top of his game as a football referee, Walters has been chosen to officiate a state final football game this year. It’s his fifth time having the honor in football; he’s worked three state final baseball games.
“When I got the assignment for this one I was shocked,” he said. “It was pretty emotional to be honest with you. I’m kind of at the end of my career. I just didn’t think I’d be back. It’s really, really special.”
Walters’ crew member Scott Maurer said it’s a huge thing for an official to get awarded a state final game or even a playoff game.
“There’s guys that have officiated their whole career and have never done a playoff game,” he said. “When the state picks your crew, that’s an honor. When you get to go deeper and get that state final, that’s a huge deal. On one of those days – either the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving – Chuck will be one of the top eight head referees in the state.”
“The state championship assignments are a huge reflection of the guys who I have officiated with over the years,” said Walters. “No one gets that opportunity without a lot of help from crew members.”
Miller was on the phone with Walters shortly after the assignment came out and said Walters got choked up when he congratulated him.
“The rest of the conversation was not about him having the state final,” Miller said. “It was the fact that our crew got two games in the playoffs and he was so excited. He never mentioned the state final again. That’s Chuck to a ‘T’.”
During basketball season, Walters runs the clock at Napoleon High School varsity games, but Ashe knows Walters for his years of work on the football field as well.
“He and his crew are the best of the best,” Ashe said. “The thing that impresses me the most is the preparation that he puts into the game. He does it the right way – the way that you want officials to do it. He puts as much time into officiating as we coaches do in coaching.”
Ashe was also not at a loss of words about Walters as a person.
“He’s a real selfless guy,” he said. “He’s so dedicated and focused on helping other people. He’s all about community and giving back. That’s rare, very rare. He genuinely cares how it goes for you – he’s that kind of person.”
And if you have any thoughts about being an official, Walters would be a good first choice for a conversation.
“He’s an ultimate role model; he’s an ultimate mentor,” Ashe said. “He’s just a great human. I love the guy.”
Walters is happy to speak with any aspiring officials. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.