Beginning my career in officiating at the age of 15, I was provided an advantage few others were afforded: the mentorship of an 11-year veteran official, my father.
When he wasn't busy studying, he'd pester me about shining my shoes. At any given moment during a game, he'd inexhaustibly find the time to growl, "Tuck that flag in!" if he saw even a millimeter of yellow surreptitiously peeking out of my pocket. And it would be a fool's errand to attempt to count the times he not-so-patiently railed me on our journeys home for booting an obvious call or carrying myself on the field as if I were the reason the game occurred. "If you think you're ever going to get on a varsity crew with the way you act, you're sorely mistaken."
Being the good kid I was, I never listened. What for? The $35 cash in my pocket for a few hours of my time on a Saturday was all I ever needed know about officiating. Besides that, everyone knew that advancement to a varsity crew was all about whom you know, not what you know. My dad was on a crew, so it only stood to reason that I'd be on a crew.
This was our routine, season after season, and it never dawned on me to follow.
In the summer of 2001, my father was diagnosed with lymphoma, and his treatments left him unable to officiate that season. Attending our association's clinic solo for the first time in years, I expected to find that I was the only official to feel his absence given his reputation as an official who didn't take flak from anyone - be it coach, player, fan or official. That's to say, most guys openly expressed that he was one mean son of a gun. As the clinic went from classroom education to on-field instruction, a seasoned crew-chief approached me. Certain it would be an invitation to join his crew considering my family's circumstance, I mustered a huge helping of hollow humility.
“How's your dad doing?"
"Good. His chemo is running better than expected. However, most people tend to lose weight when dealing with the 'Big C'. The local smorgasbord folks address him on a first name basis and seem to have a seat reserved just for him during their lunch rush. My guess is that he frequents the establishment more than once a month for Sunday brunch."
"You know, when I first met your dad, I thought he was a real jerk!"
"I never got a break from the guy. He was constantly on my back about everything - my mechanics, my lack of rules knowledge, my appearance... everything!"
"For SIX seasons, I couldn't stand working with the guy! But one day it hit me."
"He cares. The only reason he was so tough on me was that he saw potential in me. I finally noticed that he wasn't singling me out as the weak guy in the herd, but rather choosing not to waste his time and effort on guys that had tuned him out a long time ago. The only reason I'm in my position today is because he cared."
Funny how in life, moments of clarity rarely occur in the manner in which you'd expect.
Each time I rolled my eyes at the thought of shining my shoes the night before games, he was reminding me of the importance of our appearance as officials. His surly protests over my flag? That’s just his effort to convey that our presence in the game was best when it went largely unnoticed. His admonitions about my officiating abilities? A lesson about taking personal responsibility to put in the work so that one might overcome mediocrity.
I try to remember this when receiving advice, whether it's getting raked over the coals during a negative critique or in the form of a polite question from another official. I try to remember this when giving advice to others. Some officials respond well to courtesy or gentle prodding, while others need a verbal kick in the pants to set them straight. I try to remember that lessons for good officiating can come from anywhere at any time. Be they mentors or tormentors, you have keep an open enough mind to realize that maybe, just maybe, they care.
My dad is 71 now, wishing daily that he could still officiate. And though it's been 23 years since he put his XL jersey on my small-framed body one Saturday morning, he still rarely fails to ask, "Have you shined your shoes?"
Joshua Thomas has been a football official for 23 seasons in California and Idaho, including the Idaho state final in 2012.