Often, when athletes or coaches take the field or the court after losing a loved one, they are lauded for their courage. Referees are rarely lauded for anything. They understand.
“No one comes to a game to watch you,” Jeff Janosik said.
Two weeks ago, on a blustery, snowy night, Janosik was in the officials’ locker room about an hour before Lehigh hosted Army in a Patriot League men’s basketball game.
He knew he was facing a long drive home from Bethlehem, Pa., to Pittsburgh because the snow was falling steadily outside the arena. What was normally a five-hour drive would undoubtedly take a good deal longer.
Still, there wasn’t any doubt he was going to make the trip. His mother, Anna Marie, had gone into the hospital that day outside Uniontown, and he wanted to get home to see her early the next morning.
“It was the flu,” he said. “Wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. But she was 93, so they were being careful.”
Janosik had just checked the snow. It was still coming down hard. His phone rang, and he saw the call was from his sister-in-law, Barb.
“She doesn’t call me very often, so right away I wondered what was up,” he said. “She was kind of half-crying when I answered. She said, ‘Jeff, your mom passed away.’ ”
Janosik paused. “She was 93. She lived an amazing life. But at that moment, I just lost it.”
Janosik’s first instinct was to get in the car and drive home to see his mother. But he couldn’t do that. Tip-off was less than an hour away, and, in the middle of a snowstorm, there was no way to get a third official to the arena. He decided to find a way to get through the game.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I was with [officials] Alvin Cox and Billy Brooks. Alvin’s probably my closest friend in officiating. I was supposed to be the crew chief on the game. I asked Alvin if he could take the lead. We checked with Reggie Greenwood [who supervises officials for the Patriot and Ivy Leagues], and he understood completely. Under any circumstances, the two guys you’re working with are your two best friends in the world for the two hours you’re on the court. It was never more true than that night.”
The game turned out to be one-sided. Lehigh took control late in the first half and pulled away for an easy 84-53 win. “Nothing against Army,” Janosik said. “Heck, I was in the Army. But I was glad we didn’t have a tough game. As it was, I was struggling just to get through it.
“I think I’m a pretty tough guy. I was active duty in the Army for 24 years. I flew helicopters. I’ve been through some difficult things. But not like that night. At 93, you can’t be shocked, I suppose. But I was shocked. It knocked me backwards.”
No one in the small crowd had any idea that Janosik was hurting emotionally. Neither did the coaches.
“We all have the same issues as everyone else, but you can’t let any of them affect your work,” Janosik said. “You can’t be distracted. If anything, that night, I used my work to distract me from thinking about my mom. It wasn’t easy, but it helped.”
Janosik first started officiating as a teenager, when he was stationed at Fort Richardson, in Anchorage, after finishing flight school.
He was watching an intramural flag football game and joining in with a senior officer who was giving the referee, another officer he was apparently friends with, a hard time. When the game ended, the referee came over to the two men, pointed a finger at Janosik and said, “You think you can referee? You think it’s easy? Why don’t you try it?”
“Fine,” Janosik said. “I will.”
“Good,” the officer replied. “I’ll see you Friday night. We’re having a preseason meeting for all the local basketball officials.”
“Basketball?” Janosik said. “I don’t know anything about basketball.”
By 2013, Janosik was working for a number of leagues and was chosen to work the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn. At 51, he thought he was finally hitting the big time. He worked the opening game of the tournament between Richmond and Charlotte.
“Never thought I’d end up on ‘SportsCenter’ for three straight days,” he said, recalling that afternoon in Barclays Center.
Richmond led 63-60 with 4.7 seconds left. Charlotte won the game, 68-63, after a bizarre sequence that began with the Spiders intentionally fouling to prevent a three-point shot and ended with three technical fouls called on Richmond, one on forward Derrick Williams for a dead-ball elbow to Charlotte forward Willie Clayton and two on Spiders Coach Chris Mooney for coming onto the court to argue after his team was called for a shooting foul — down one after four made free throws — when he thought it should have been a one-and-one.
“Before it was over, Charlotte shot 11 free throws [making eight] and my career in the Atlantic 10 was over,” Janosik said. “Everyone said I did everything right by rule, but the people running the league didn’t see it that way. I was never asked back.
“Until I had to give mom’s eulogy, that was the toughest thing I’d ever dealt with. But I haven’t quit and I’ve still got the whistle and the lanyard.”
When the game at Lehigh ended, Janosik headed for the locker room, unnoticed, which is exactly the way an official wants it. As he was leaving the court, he encountered Lehigh’s Brett Reed, someone he has always gotten along with in the 11 seasons Reed has been the Mountain Hawks’ head coach.
“I was really struggling at that moment,” he said. “I’m not even sure why, but I said to Brett, ‘Is your mom still with us?’ He looked at me like I was crazy but said yes, she was. I said, ‘Do me a favor. Give her a call tonight and tell her you love her.’ I’m sure he thought I’d lost my mind, but he said, ‘Okay, Jeff, sure.’ ”
A few days later, as Janosik was working on the eulogy he would deliver on his mother’s behalf, an envelope arrived from the Lehigh basketball office. It was a condolence card, signed by Reed, his coaches and all his players.
“What a wonderful gesture,” Janosik said. “A lot of people have reached out to me, but that card meant a lot to me.”
Because, despite what many people think, referees are human, too.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.