The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He has refereed high school football since 1963. At age 84, he’s not sure it’s safe to return.

Fridays without football

Paul Friedman, 84, has been refereeing high school football games since 1963. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In the early 1960s, Paul Friedman would take the short walk from his Silver Spring home to the old Bullis School’s field every Friday night. Instead of focusing on the players, like most fans, Friedman studied the referees — their mechanics when calling penalties, how they controlled the flow of the game.

Friedman was hooked on the idea of becoming a ref. So as a 27-year-old in 1963, he did just that. Now, Friedman, 84, is one of the area’s oldest officials.

Friedman has worked dozens of Maryland and Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships. He has watched players — from Chuck Foreman (Frederick) to Stefon Diggs (Good Counsel) — dominate in high school before reaching the NFL. He even “retired” three years ago before returning to the field the following season without missing any time.

For the first time after 57 seasons, however, Friedman is spending his fall Friday nights somewhere other than a football field after the novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out this season in the Washington area. The health crisis has left referees who have long dedicated their Fridays to football pondering when they will be able to return in a safe environment.

Meet the man who has amplified the noise for Wise football’s decade of dominance

When the coronavirus arrived in the United States during the winter, Friedman brainstormed how his job working for the Washington District Football Officials Association would look in the fall. He wondered how referees would use their whistles with face masks on. He considered whether schools would sanitize the rooms where officials meet pregame. He questioned whether the football would be cleaned between plays.

Not only did he worry about his own safety, he feared bringing the virus back to his wife, Rosalyn, 76, in their Rockville home. In the summer, Maryland, Virginia and the District postponed fall sports seasons to the spring. He is unsure if he’ll be a part of the modified season.

“Would I like to be out there? Absolutely,” said Friedman, who also worked full time as a financial adviser for 50 years. “But you’ve got to do what you got to do, and you got to protect yourself and your family. That’s the important thing right now.”

In years past, Friedman would arrive at a local high school’s football field 90 minutes before kickoff. He would inspect the turf’s condition, meet with other officials, change out of his suit and tie and slip on his uniform. He would take the field with 30 minutes to go, greet the coaches and ensure players were legally dressed. He had the mechanics of the pregame coin flip down to a science.

For the next 2½ hours, Friedman would be locked into the action, standing behind the quarterback on every play, listening to yells and pads clashing together, his hands moving among the football, his whistle and his nylon penalty flag.

This fall, Friedman’s hands are usually grasping a mystery novel or the TV remote on Friday nights. It’s a relaxing place to be, but the rush he became accustomed to is missing.

“The majority of the officials, all of them are dedicated,” Friedman said. “They love what they do. To give up two or three hours an evening and deal with all the temperatures out there and weather conditions and everything else, you have to be … dedicated.”

While Friedman hasn’t yet decided whether he will officiate games when they resume, other local referees were more certain when the pandemic began.

Josephus Perry, 70, also works for the WDFOA. He decided in March he wouldn’t officiate until the pandemic passes. Perry said he has high blood pressure and diabetes.

Damascus lives for football, so Friday nights aren’t the same at the Hornet’s Nest Grille

In the first game Perry officiated in 2000, he called back a clear touchdown in a Montgomery County matchup and regretted it seconds later when fans booed. Luckily for him, the home team scored two plays later. His initial taste of scrutiny is something to laugh about years later.

Toni Morgan, who referees in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, can relate to that criticism as one of the area’s only female referees. She grew up playing co-ed and flag football. She started officiating 23 years ago and has loved developing relationships with teenagers that last beyond their graduations.

She said her husband, Phillip, has Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease. While she is concerned about his health, she can’t imagine sitting out and says she will referee when games return.

On a normal fall Friday, Morgan departs her Upper Marlboro home around 7:30 a.m. for her job at the Federal Reserve and doesn’t return home until around 11 p.m. after officiating. Morgan’s husband is H.D. Woodson’s athletic director, so they would have plenty of football news to talk about when they came home from their respective games.

With no high school football, the marching band plays on — over video chat

Morgan, 57, usually would officiate three games per week, including college and junior varsity games, and rarely had a chance to catch up on sleep.

“Not doing something during the week,” Morgan said, “it’s going to be kind of funny because I’m used to being busy all of the time.”

Studies have found older age groups are at a higher risk of suffering from the coronavirus. The majority of referees are between 40 and 70, local league commissioners said, meaning a chunk of officials may be at high risk.

All of the local officiating associations said they will field a slimmer staff for a spring season because of a handful of referees opting out in each association. Some states playing football this fall — including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are experiencing referee shortages.

Virginia High School League Director Billy Haun noted the VHSL dealt with a referee shortage even before the coronavirus. Still, all local association commissioners believe they will field enough referees for games to occur. They may alter schedules or the number of officials available at each game.

Commissioners are discussing precautions for when football returns in the spring, such as using battery-operated whistles referees can trigger with their hands, placing whistles behind a referee’s mask, using face shields or prohibiting referees from entering schools.

“It all depends on how covid is in January,” said Larry Kendrick, commissioner of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association. “We don’t know. Each month, it changes.”

In the meantime, some referees are watching film of past games they have officiated to see how they can improve their decision-making. They say they don’t officiate for the money — referees note they are paid between $50 and $100 per high school game — but because they enjoy it and want to give back to their communities.

Traveling for national showcase games held big benefits for high school football teams. Will those trips return?

That passion is still strong for Friedman at an age at which many referees are prepared for retirement. As long as the coronavirus keeps spreading throughout the country, however, Friedman doesn’t know when it will be safe to work.

He’s stuck on the sideline again, more than five decades after he was last there — and this time there is no weekly walk to the fields that would shape his life.