Standing on a field among a few dozen players and in front of thousands of fans, a football official is strangely alone.

The "job" of officiating entails a vast complexity of subtle contradictions. Dressed in the most conspicuous of uniforms, the official is rarely, if ever, seen. Having the most influential voice on the field, the official is never heard. And theoretically deserving the utmost respect of the participants, the official receives vast verbal abuse.

"You have to realize," says Bruce Schmitt, a second-year official, "that you're only going to make 50 percent of the people happy."

But why would anyone desire to have a job where half the people feel animosity toward you regardless of your decisions?

At the Washington District Football Officials Association's (WDFOA) training school, the striped shirt novices are learning to look at the game with a new slant as they prepare to be the authorities at metropolitan area games this fall. In most cases, the trainees and their veteran teachers do not consider being a football official a job.

"Many of the guys find it as a way to continue their athletic careers in a different perspective," said Joe Panarella, one of two instructors of first-year officials.

"I've always been involved in sports, but I've held off officiating because my son was in sports," said Thomas Farrow, 42, an engineer for the Department of Defense and a first-year (probationary) official. "But he's graduated from high school and officiating is a way to keep me active."

Schmitt became an official for similar reasons. "I played football and baseball when I was younger," he said. "This is just an extension of my athletic career."

Many former athletes stay close to the game by coaching. Fewer go into officiating. "I think {officiating} is more fun," said Schmitt. "You're on the field with the players instead of on the sidelines."

Although its members are volunteers, the WDFOA treats its trade very much as a job. The association holds five training clinics prior to the season and has seven business and rules interpretation meetings during the season.

The 75-year-old WDFOA has 170 officials who service public high schools in eight Maryland counties and the District and numerous Virginia and District private schools. It also provides officials for collegiate games at Gallaudet, Georgetown, Salisbury State and Montgomery College.

Depending on the experience of the official and on which level the game is played, the officials receive between $25 and $50 a game.

"I could get a part-time job somewhere else that pays more than this," said Samuel Parry, 39, a D.C. police officer. "I don't look at it as a job. To me, it's fun."

Just the same, the officials must take their role seriously and know the rules of the game verbatim because few coaches like final decisions made by an official thumbing through a rulebook on the field.

New officials attending the rules clinics at Good Counsel High quickly found out there were many things they did not know about the game they have followed closely since they were young.

"I wasn't aware that you had to put the ball you want to use in the game on the first down of each possession or you had to use the other team's ball," said Charles Gillett, 60, a retired school teacher.

"They taught me a lot of technical aspects," said Parry. "I didn't know the width or length of the goal posts, or that the padding on the bottom had to be six feet high. I learned the hash marks were a certain length and width and that the end zone markers were 18 inches high and four inches wide."

The officials are even instructed in proper dress codes and the way in which to throw a penalty flag. "We tell them the flag shouldn't be a projectile thrown from across the other side of the field," said Panarella, who's been an official for 12 years and an instructor for two. "They shouldn't make a spectacle of it."

All of the officials realize disagreements will occur during games, but there is an undefinable line of when a player or coach is making a point, and when they are trying to blame their team's problems on an official's ruling. The WDFOA has no set guidelines on how to handle a controversy or at what point someone should be thrown out of a game.

Most probationary officials already have an idea of what it would take for them to eject a player or coach. "Questioning my ancestry will get you the thumb, and anytime a person throws a punch or certain unsportsmanlike conduct," Schmitt said were his hot spots.

"If they're coming out on the field and screaming, I'll just throw down the flag and walk off 15 {yards}," said Gillett. "If he wants to talk, we'll explain it. But if he makes me look bad, he's gone."

Just like the players, many officials desire advancement, some even to the NFL.

"I have ambitions to go on to officiating colleges," said Parry. "Who knows -- maybe even the pros."

"The NFL is the elite of the elite," said Schmitt. "I'd be happy just doing Division I college football."

Others, like Gillett, find the high school level just fine. "I'm 60 years old." he said, "I don't need to go on."

Regardless of their longterm ambitions or reasons for becoming officials, there is always an underlying rule stressed by veterans to new officials.

"You have to remember that the game is for the kids," said Panarella. "The coaches and fans get into it pretty heavy sometimes. But when it comes to sports, it's for the kids."