The invisible team


Umpire Jerry Koester signals that a Woodinville extra point is good during a Sept. 9 football game in Monroe. Koester spent 12 years as a basketball coach at Cascade High School and has been officiating for 20 years. [Photo gallery]

The lights above Monroe Stadium have barely begun warming up on Friday evening as five men walk through a side gate and pull their roller bags into a small locker room. While they unpack, talk turns to the night ahead — concentration, communication, confidence, consistency — as turf cleats replace tennis shoes and a shirt and tie are replaced by black-and-white stripes. The men are the third team taking the field this night — the invisible team.


See what it’s like behind the scenes with the refereeing crew in our photo gallery.

“We want to be forgotten,” explains referee Tom Freal, who heads the five-man crew officiating Friday night’s contest between the Monroe Bearcats and the Woodinville Falcons. “If a fan up in the stands goes away from the game and remembers the officials, there’s probably something really major that happened in the game to make them remember. So if they walk away and talk about the plays, that’s good. Not about us. We want to be forgotten. We don’t want to have any influence.”

With that goal in mind, Freal spends the hour before the coin-toss with his crew reviewing a single-spaced sheet filled to the margins with bold bullet points and goals for the week’s game. They anticipate problems, discuss rule changes, make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the mechanics of their job — kick coverage, hurry-up offense, measurements — the list goes on.

More general goals fill the bottom of the page: common sense, courage, control, deportment, conviction. As they leave the locker room, Freal issues a challenge: Have a perfect game, work as a team, get 100 percent of their calls right. The final two words on the sheet: HAVE FUN.

“You don’t do this to make money,” says Steve Landro, a truck driver and Seahawks staff member serving as the crew’s back judge. You can’t. Landro left his home at 4:30 that afternoon and wouldn’t get home until 10:30. Referees make around $60 for a varsity game. These referees do it because they care about the role it plays in the students’ lives.

“I love being out here with the kids,” Landro says. Umpire Jerry Koester understands the feeling. A retired high school basketball coach, including 12 years at Cascade High School, Koester has been officiating for 20 years while also coaching in Washington and Idaho. Koester possesses a unique perspective on the role officials play. At one point he was president of both the district officials organization and the state coaches association at the same time.

“It’s an important part of high school sports,” Koester says.


Linesman Bill Brotten removes his cap for the national anthem before officiating the game. [Photo gallery]

Linesman Bill Brotten started refereeing in 1970. Now in his 70s, Brotten runs the chain crew, sprinting down the sideline keeping the crew flowing through the game. Brotten jokes that refereeing gets him out of the house, but like the rest of the crew, it is the camaraderie that keeps him coming back after 40 years.

“Guy time,” explains line judge Corey Gibb, a special education teacher in Arlington, as the crew packs up in the locker room after the game. “You need to enjoy the game and have fun out there, and that’s basically what happens to us. We try and have a good time, and we all enjoy football,” Freal says.

They enter the stadium together in the afternoon and are near the last to leave that night, lingering in the parking lot talking as traffic drains out of the stadium. Next week each man will be at another game, on a different crew, walking under the lights on a different sideline.

The series: Herald photographers Jennifer Buchanan, Annie Mulligan and Mark Mulligan take a look at Friday night life outside the chalk lines of the gridiron. Join them each week for a look at the people who make the Friday football experience possible without ever catching a pass or running the ball in for a touchdown. Have a good idea for Sidelines? Email Jennifer Buchanan at jbuchanan@heraldnet.com.

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