For the last 18 years around this time, in this space, I have given thanks for and to the officials who keep our games safer than they otherwise would be. I do so because it was just before the start of the Christmas season, on Nov. 18, 1994, during the Munster Basketball O'Rama, that referee Paul Danko collapsed. And despite the best efforts of athletic trainer Jose Madrigal, medical professionals in the crowd and responding paramedics, the Calumet Region officiating giant could not be resuscitated.
Back then, there were too few young former athletes willing to exchange school colors for black and white. Consequently, just days after Danko passed away, the Paul Danko Scholarship Fund was started at Purdue Calumet to help those numbers. The fund has grown to more than $42,500 and is now permanently endowed, allowing the Lake County Athletic Officials Association to award $2,000 annually to students interested in becoming a referee or umpire.
But given the abuse that officials are often subject to, why would one want to become one? The numbers speak for themselves; they remain low. The shortage detracts from quality, which in turn translates to decreased safety.
"For varsity (football) officials, we're OK but we're operating on a razor-thin margin," longtime Region referee Bob Parker said to me three years ago. "This year, there were 163 crews for 159 first-round (playoff) games in Indiana. We lose that many crews (four) to attrition each year."
One of those crews, this year, is Parker's own. After 25 years together, he, Rick Parker – his brother, Dave Koester, Bob Modrowski, and Rick Stanford are stepping aside.
Four years ago in Indiana Football Digest, Parker wrote, "Becoming a football official is a great way to stay in touch with this great game. (And) while we officiate for the love of the game, it does help that you get paid. A high school official who works a varsity game and one lower level game each week can make $1,000 during the season, or even more.
"Finally, officiating presents the prospect of advancement and achievement," he continued. “Every official working the Super Bowl or the BCS National Championship started the same way. They got a license and started working freshman and JV games. In short, football officiating represents a great opportunity for a young man whose football-playing days are over to stay connected to the game we love."
For someone willing to start on the road to becoming an official, Parker will still be there. While he is retiring from officiating varsity games, he will be training younger officials and working lower level games with them.
For information about becoming an official in any sport in Indiana, visit the IHSAA's Web site at www.ihsaa.org. If in Illinois, go to the IHSA's www.ihsa.org.
To help continue the Danko Scholarship Fund, make your check payable to Purdue Calumet and send it to the Office of Advancement, LAWS 318, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, IN 46323-2094.
Please note on your check and in a cover letter that the check should be deposited in the "Paul Danko Memorial Scholarship Fund." Your donation is tax deductible.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column solely reflects his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.