June 28, 2017 | By Tod Leonard, San Diego Union-Tribune
Heading for Bend, Ore., for some fishing and golf from his home in Sacramento, Mike Pereira had a long drive ahead of him and plenty of time to think.
Somewhere around Redding, the former director of NFL officiating and current Fox Sports rules commentator says he started to ponder the troubled state of officiating. Too few people are joining the ranks, and the current refs suffer constant abuse and disrespect.
Pereira also had just spent time with military service members and veterans, listening to the issues they face.
In another 70 miles, passing through Weed, Pereira put it all together. Military men and women had all of the qualities deemed attractive when recruiting officials. It seemed like a no-brainer to put the two together.
“By the time I got to Bend, I was pretty fired up about the idea,” Pereira said.
Thus was born Battlefields to Ballfields, a non-profit entity formed by Pereira and his wife, Gail. The program seeks to recruit military members and veterans to be officials in many sports and affords them help getting started by covering their costs for the first three years.
The effort began as a pilot program in Los Angeles in 2016 and this year is expanding rapidly. Pereira said 365 veterans have filled out applications to be placed as referees in cities such as Omaha, Neb., Raleigh, N.C., Tampa, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y.
Fittingly, San Diego has been a hotbed for interest. Tyler Lindsay, the recruiting and retention coordinator for the San Diego County Football Officials Association, has aggressively put out the word and a couple of dozen applicants have come forward.
“Quite frankly, San Diego has done better than anybody in the country,” Pereira said in a phone interview. “At this point, there’s no comparison to what they’re doing. From the moment I got on a conference call with (Lindsay) and the rest of their officers, they’ve been totally organized. It’s been incredible.”
Lindsay is 29 and has been in the local officials’ organization for nine years. He’s been head of recruiting and retention for two years, and last year oversaw 375 referees.
“As soon as I heard about this, I thought it was a great way to get new officials,” Lindsay said. “San Diego is a huge military town, and when these guys get out of the military they’re looking for something to do. They miss the camaraderie and being a part of a team. That’s what officiating is all about.”
This time of year is the most critical to Lindsay’s recruiting for officials to work youth football through high school games.
Pereira, who began officiating Pop Warner games to earn some cash while in college at Santa Clara, said military members own the same qualities that he looked for in referees when he was choosing who would excel at the NFL level.
“I was looking for courage, confidence, guys who could be team players and guys who could be taught,” Pereira said. “And every one of those characteristics applied to those who are serving us in the armed forces.”
Pereira said he has been humbled, “crying and laughing” by the response the program has received.
He recounted a letter from the mother of a Marine currently serving in Afghanistan. The mother said her son had been taking sports management classes in college and was excited to become a part of a sports organization.
“Then I got a follow-up note from the young man talking about what it means to him. He’s excited to get back and start,” Pereira said. “That excites me.”
That wave of good feeling comes at a time when officiating faces tough times. While the current population of officials is aging, fewer people in their 20s through 40s are joining up. San Diego has held a fairly steady membership, but in other parts of the country games are being cancelled or postponed because there aren’t enough officials to cover them.
“There’s really a danger in that,” Pereira said. “I think this: Among younger people now, with social media out there, the image of officials is just so bad. People go on and on about how bad they are and all this stuff. It’s very discouraging to a younger person who might want to get into officiating.”
Keeping officials after they’ve joined sometimes becomes a difficult task for Lindsay because new officials’ enthusiasm is tempered by the abuse they take.
“It’s not the most glorious position,” Lindsay said. “Everybody hates you. There’s always one team that’s mad at you for something. Newer officials do a lot of Pop Warner games, and you’ll get the mom in the stands riding you, and the coaches ragging you; that turns a lot of guys off.
“Frankly, I didn’t really love officiating football until I had done it for about three years.”
That’s when Lindsay said you get the experience of “Friday Night Lights” at high school games, and the relationships grow with your referee colleagues.
Pereira, 67, has been in the officiating business for nearly 50 years and sees the joys of the work as personal and satisfying.
“Once you get into it, it’s like one of the most rewarding things you can do,” he said. “You learn to focus amid all this hype. You challenge yourself. And you can have success on the field. You know when you’ve worked a good game.”
Want to be a referee?
The San Diego County Football Officials Association has openings for new officials for the upcoming youth and high school football seasons. Annual dues are $135 and a starter uniform kit is $100. Pay ranges from $50 to $75 per game. Prospective officials can register online (sdcfoa.org), call Tyler Lindsay at (619) 431-0459 or show up at the first meeting — 7 p.m. on July 5 at Mira Mesa High School. For more information on Battlefields to Ballfields, visit battlefields2ballfields.org.