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Scott Mansch: It takes a special person to be a ref

High schools are facing a referee and official shortage. That means that in the future, "Friday Night Lights" might not be quite the same.

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A high school basketball referee works the floor during a recent boys basketball game. High schools are finding it more difficult to locate refs and officials. Tim Middagh / The Globe

WORTHINGTON —Thursday evening illumination? Saturday afternoon shining?

That just doesn’t offer the same optimism and anticipation for high school football fans as “Friday Night Lights.”

But because of a shortage of officials in all high school sports, including football, it’s possible gridiron games in future falls might not always be on Fridays.

“It’s changing already,” said Colby Pack. “And it could change even more so in the next five to 10 years if we don’t get more officials. Because there aren’t enough to go around on Friday nights. And you can’t play a football game without an officiating crew.”

Pack is the athletic director at Fulda High and serves as the head boys basketball and golf coach for the Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda squad. The Lamberton native has been a football referee for nearly 20 years, ever since he was a star athlete at Southwest Minnesota State, and along with several brothers he is carrying on a family tradition in athletics established by his father Bryce.

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Pack recently worked the Class A state championship football game between Minneota and Mayer Lutheran. It’s not the first Prep Bowl he’s been privileged to work, thanks in part to his creditable crew made up of friends, buddies and former teammates on the Lamberton Long Sox amateur baseball team.

Pack sees his work with a whistle as a way to give back to the sports world that has been so important to him.

“Especially in today’s world, where there’s such a shortage of officials,” he said. “It’s just extremely important now to give back.”

And there are reasons to enjoy it.

“It’s like playing a sport,” he said. “You have to do your studying. And it’s exciting to watch the kids compete at that level.”

High school sports are more popular than ever. But working as an official, not so much. It’s a problem throughout the state.

Why the shortage?

Well, the pay isn’t significant, certainly not compared with the complaints — both on and off the field — one might hear. To be sure, an official’s job is pretty much thankless.

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“You go to a game and all you hear is yelling from the fans,” Pack said.

For certain, an official’s skin needs to be thick.

“You can’t take everything personally,” Pack explained. “You’ve got to know that kids are going to play with emotion and coaches are going to coach with emotion. It’s a little easier for me, because I’m an official in one sport and a coach in another, and I know that officials aren’t perfect. We make mistakes.”

He tries never to let the give-and-take with coaches get too heated.

“You’ve got to be able sometimes to agree to disagree and move on to the next play,” Pack said. “And to never hold grudges.”

The best officials?

“They’re the ones that are there for the right reasons and take it seriously,” Pack said. “I didn’t go into coaching to make millions of dollars and I didn’t go into reffing to make millions of dollars. I do it because I enjoy it and because it’s a way to give back to kids and let them play the sports I enjoyed when I was growing up.

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“The best officials are the ones that know they’re not perfect and don’t pretend to be perfect, and try to call what they see and always have an open dialogue with coaches.”

The benefits of working games as an official are subtle, but they’re there.

“It drives my wife (Sarah) crazy when we’re watching a game with our boys (Braiden, 11, and Dylan, 9),” Pack chuckles. “Because our kids now are watching for penalties. They’re looking for holding all the time, and I don’t think the average fans are doing that.

“It’s kind of fun.”

The problems don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Pack is hoping more former athletes will decide to get back into the game as referees. And he’s not alone. A recent radio ad sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League that touts the officials shortage has been running for weeks, attempting to recruit young men and women to the profession. The ad notes the high school stars who shine, and says there can be no stars without stripes, referring to shirts worn by officials.

“As an AD you try to find officials the minute you get your schedules,” Pack said.

Pack, 38, is no longer an active athlete. He recently was inducted into the SMSU Hall of Fame for his baseball exploits.

But he remains connected to sports in southwest Minnesota. And a lot of that is because he’s an official.

He returns to the goal of giving back. That, says Pack, is the reason he’s a football official.

“I think it’s like a farmer whose kids have all graduated from the school that continues to vote ‘yes’ for a referendum to build a new school,” he said. “Even though you’re not directly tied to it anymore, if you’re healthy and able it’s just a great way to give back to the sports you love.”

Scott Mansch is a part-time writer at The Globe. He welcomes story ideas and tips and can be reached at smansch5rockets@gmail.com

Scott Mansch photo
Scott Mansch

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