Helping veterans become sports officials

By Eric Sondheimer, Los Angeles Times

If any coach, player or parent feels inclined to lose their composure and start yelling at football official Thomas Harris, trying to provoke a response, good luck. He has been trained to be cool under pressure.

That’s because when you’ve gone through Navy boot camp and served in a nuclear submarine as a sonar technician, you’re ready for anything.

Harris, 42, is a first-year football official and part of a pilot program in the Los Angeles Football Officials Unit that’s training veterans to be officials.

Called “Battlefields to Ballfields” and founded by Mike Pereira, the Fox Sports rule analyst and former NFL director of officiating, it could be among the best ideas yet to help combat dwindling numbers of officials for youth sports while also aiding veterans. These former military people have already been trained to have discipline, make split-second decisions and deal with the unexpected.

“What we wanted to do was provide returning vets with an opportunity to get back into the community by becoming officials working with kids,” Pereira said.

His foundation pays for uniforms, equipment, insurance, training materials and provides mentorships.

“The one thing they miss when they’re overseas and on a tour of duty, they’re part of a team and have a mission,” Pereira said. “Then they come home and they often don’t have a mission and they don’t have a team. We figure if we put this together, they again will be part of a team.”

Harris spent four years in the Navy during the 1990s after graduating from Chatsworth High. He had been working for Trader’s Joe when he learned about the officiating opportunity.

“I never imagined I would begin to do something like this,” he said Friday before serving as a line judge in a junior varsity football game between Van Nuys and Sylmar. “It’s been educational. They’ve thrown a lot of stuff at me so far. I’m trying to soak it all in.”

Learning the rules and learning the fundamentals of officiating are what Harris is focusing on. He’s not so much worried about the negative reaction that sometimes happens during or after a game.

“We had to get accustomed to be yelled out for no good reason, so I can take the yelling and don’t take it personally,” he said. “If I blow a call, I’ll acknowledge it and try to make up for it.”

Pereira was at Van Nuys offering support and guidance to Harris. So was Nelson Bae, who worked the game and has been tutoring Harris.

“It’s a slam dunk,” Bae said of the program. “All the units across the sporting world need officials.”

Pereira’s hope is for one of his veteran recruits to make it one day to the Pac-12 or even the NFL as an official. There are six in the Los Angeles program.

“It’s great to give back and get those who protected us involved in another team,” Pereira said.

Follow Eric Sondheimer on Twitter @latsondheimer

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