On a crisp Saturday morning, the grass still wet with dew, groggy parents file onto the bleachers, clutching steaming plastic cups of coffee. Down on the cinder track, tiny cheerleaders with huge pom-pons begin their routines in high, squeaky voices.
On the field, the "men" in uniform break from their huddle at the whistle.
An end goes down and freezes in his three-point stance. Under the combined weight of his helmet and padding, as if in slow motion, the 65-pound player tips over on his side, still locked in his stance.
As the referee stares in disbelief, the opposing coach screams out from across the field, "He moved ref, he moved!"
This is youth-league football, a realm kept in check every fall Saturday by the members of the Suburban Football Officials Association, the area's foremost recreational football officiating organization.
Wanna be a ref?
Every year, SFOA takes to the fields to serve the youth football leagues in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Howard and Calvert counties and the cities of Rockville and Bowie, the Capital Beltway league and the Metropolitan Police Boys Club. SFOA also serves the adult men's touch leagues in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles and Rockville, Gaithersburg and Greenbelt; the women's flag league in Greenbelt; and the Montgomery County co-rec league. To cover such a large number of games requires a great number of officials. Even with about 300 on call, the association still needs recruits. So, every August, Bob Chick, SFOA's commissioner, holds clinics in Maryland and Virginia for anyone interested in learning the art of football officiating.
Still wanna be a ref?
"I need about 40 new applicants, is what I need," says Chick, sitting outside the clinic's classroom at Parkdale High School in Prince George's County.
Inside the classroom, a dozen new applicants sit poring over rule books and handouts, while an overhead projector flashes cartoon play situations on the wall. The instructor is Frank Mammano, a veteran official who's been teaching recruits for ten years.
The clinics -- also held at Marshall High School in Fairfax County -- begin in August and run for four or five weeks. Besides attending rules clinics, applicants must pass an open-book written test and go through several on-the-field practice sessions.
The clinics are open to anyone who can commit most Saturday mornings from September to nearly Thanksgiving. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, though 16- and 17-year-olds are accepted if a close family member already belongs to SFOA and will work with them.
The average official's age is 35, although both younger and older are common, with one active official in his 70s; women are welcome, although last year only three belonged to the group.
Over in Virginia, George Thomas, a veteran of youth, high-school, college and semi- pro football, runs the rookie clinics. The meetings, in a small conference room, are casual, and this night only four new applicants attend.
As Thomas goes through the myriad rules inherent in the game, a common-sense approach becomes clear:
* "Never blow the whistle if you don't see the ball."
* "If you do it strictly by the rules, you'll never get the game over."
* "Don't be afraid to touch the ball." (New officials are always afraid to touch the ball.)
* "If you've got a team that's just getting killed, you can do two things: one, run the hell out of the clock or two, if it's so one- sided you're afraid a kid will get hurt, terminate the game."
The rules that the association uses are the National Federation of State High School Associations' rules, with a few modifications.
"Our number-one priority is safety," says Chick, referring to the rule changes. "Then, we try to enhance the game, keeping in mind that the federation book was not written for seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-year- olds."
The tackle leagues that SFOA serves are classified by age and weight, beginning with the "ankle-biters" (65-pounders) and going up in 10-pound increments to 105 pounds. The upper-weight divisions include 125- pounders and 140- to 150-pounders. The players range from six-year-olds through high-school students. Dealing with such a variety of players adds another dimension to youth-ball officiating.
"When you're doing the little ones, you kind of wink at the rules a little bit," says John Riordan, a former high-school official who's been with Chick for four years. "Like holding; they don't even know they're holding. But you don't not enforce the rules. You're kind of a little more lenient. For instance, if you see somebody lining up offside, in ankle-biters you're going to stop the game and move them back. When they get up to 150 pounds, you don't do that. They make a mistake, you yank the flag."
A hundred dollars covers a new official's expenses, including $15 application fee. The biggest cost is the uniform: black-and-white- striped shirt, black shorts (they conceal the dirt better than white knickers), black-and- white socks, black-and-gold cap and black ripple-soled shoes.
That's not much, considering that even a beginning official will more than double that amount in game fees in the course of a season. This is another area that has changed over the years: Members average about 36 games and now earn $13.50 a game, compared to the 50 cents a game when the association started in 1942.
But some things never change, and the first day on the field seems to be the same no matter when you start: "I would be head linesman, and the other official would throw his flag and I wouldn't know why he threw it," says Ellen Valentino, new last year, of her first game. "I would have to stand there and pretend I did. I couldn't pick it (the foul) up. I was looking for every little thing that would happen, when you're really not supposed to make a call unless it jumps out and hits you in the face."
The most important battle for new officials, according to Chick, is winning the battle of the mind: "You've got to overcome the urge to blow the whistle and throw the foul marker at the same time," he says. "The other thing that I urge all new officials is not to try and learn the book. Learn a little bit at a time. Just keep picking out rules, and each time you'll do 'whatever' a little more."
The field practices can seem overwhelming to a new official. Even the simplest tasks seem complicated: learning to intertwine two rubber bands to use as down counters on your hand; keeping your flag in the front waistband of your shorts (preventing a coach from seeing you hesitate grabbing at your back pocket); learning to work the yardage chains. And then, there's the game itself.
The mechanics of where to move and what hand signals to use are the first things an applicant must learn -- and often distinguish a fast learner from a slow one.
"I pretty much know, when I see people on the field the first time, whether they'll be any good or not," says Chick. "You almost see them growing, from one game to the next, from one minute to the next."
The thought of officiating that first league game can be intimidating until you step out on the field and realize that the players (usually ankle-biters) barely come up to your waist. As the game progresses, and the ball keeps hovering between the 40-yard lines, the tension begins to wear off. Images of calling "ineligible downfield" disappear as you concentrate on counting players' heads each play (trickier than it sounds) and keeping their mouth guards in the proper places.
Not surprisingly, the ankle-biters tend to be the favorites of veterans and rookies alike. "They're the most fun," says Riordan. "They're all very young and trying so hard. They don't give you a hard time -- they're easy to explain things to."
Thomas agrees. "I like working the little kids beca fouse they run everywhere. Every play is like life and death to them."
Thomas describes one game situation that he particularly remembers. "The coach sent in a right tackle, and the kid was trying to get in the left-hand side of the huddle and his teammates wouldn't let him in. They break out of the huddle and he tries to get in on the line, and they won't let him in there either. The ball is snapped, and he's still wandering around trying to find his place. The next huddle, the same thing happens. Finally, on the third play I yelled out, 'Coach, where does he belong?' and put the kid in his position."
Many officials have used the youth football league as a springboard for working high-school and college games. Chick estimates that 75 percent of the present members of the area's largest high-school association came from his association. At least 15 of his officials work in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Yet, even as the officials progress to bigger and better leagues, the majority still continue to officiate youth league. And, although the game fees are an incentive, most do it for the love of the sport.
"You've got to go out there and have fun," says Thomas. "If you don't have fun, you're not going to last -- your days are numbered. You could go down to the local grocery and make more money with less hassle."
Chick agrees: "Your main reason must be for the love of it. The good official is the official who can work a college game on one night, a high-school game on another and a 65-pound boys' club game where two teams have never won a game. And he'll work all three of them the same. You wouldn't notice a difference in what he's doing.
"You officiate for yourself. It's self-pride." STILL WANNA BE A REF? Clinics for new officials are held Tuesday nights at Parkdale Senior High School (Prince George's County) and Thursday nights at Marshall High School (Fairfax County) from 7 to 9. For more information, contact Bob Chick at 301/277-0667. There are also several other football officiating organizations for more-experienced referees: WASHINGTON DISTRICT FOOTBALL OFFICIALS ASSOCIATION -- It basically serves high-school and college games in the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland. For information, call 942-7524. NORTHERN VIRGINIA FOOTBALL OFFICIALS ASSOCIATION -- It basically serves Northern Virginia public high schools, plus private high schools in the Washington area. For information, call 971-2098. EASTERN BOARD OF OFFICIALS -- It serves D.C. public high-school varsity and junior-varsity football teams. It also supplies officials for other sports. For information, call 291-7858.