Veteran high school sports officials know when they officiate on the biggest stage – a state final tournament – that the spotlight is one thing to be avoided.
When a trio of Illinois High School Association (IHSA) officials were thrust into the limelight in November at the IHSA Girls Volleyball State Finals, they found themselves in the unique position of being cheered on by the crowds from both participating teams.
That is because Jerry Cook (middle), Mark Febonio (second from left) and Darnell Jones (left) weren’t just veteran officials with more than 50 combined years officiating high school volleyball, but Veteran
officials who served in the U.S. Military and were being honored on Veterans Day.
With the 2016 state tournament falling on November 11, IHSA volleyball administrator Stacey Lambert invited Veterans in attendance to join the teams on the court for the playing of the national anthem
prior to each match that day. Three of those who took the floor also happened to be state final officials, as Cook, Febonio and Jones served their country in the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, respectively.
“It was totally amazing to see the veterans line the floor before each match on Friday,” said Cook, who was working his first state final tournament. “I was really impressed with the reception they received
from the communities. As we stood there saluting or with our hands on our hearts, we remembered our military friends, our time in service, our time away from our families and friends.”
The IHSA’s recognition that day isn’t the only way the association has given back to military veterans recently. One year prior, on Veterans Day in 2015, the IHSA announced the addition of a new Veteran’s
patch to its official’s uniforms.
The rectangular patch is blue and features red lettering that reads “US Veteran,” which is flanked by a single white star on each side. The patch measures about 3 inches in length – the recommended
measurement of the American patch worn by officials – and is to be displayed on the right arm sleeve, just below the area designated for the display of the flag. Officials simply uploaded their military documentation online in the IHSA Officials Center, at which point the IHSA office mailed them a free patch.
Fairview Heights native George Hass, a 35-year official who served in the Navy, sent the IHSA an unsolicited photo donning his new patch and a note that simply said, “I am proud of my country and I am proud to wear this patch.”
In addition to the patches, the IHSA also provided each Veteran official one free renewal of his or her IHSA license. In the first year of the program, more than 400 Veteran officials have registered with
the IHSA to receive the new patch, with about $5,000 dollars in free renewals being provided.
“We can never repay our military heroes for their sacrifices, but we can show them they are appreciated,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “It is a small gesture that not only says ‘thank you,’ but also helps put high school athletic contests into context.”
For Cook, the patch is a physical symbol of something that is never far from his mind.
“During the national anthem at every game, I reflect on the men and women who served before me and the men and women who are serving now, and I say a prayer for their safety.”
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.