For the last 19 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. Despite the best efforts of athletic trainer Jose Madrigal, medical professionals in the crowd and responding paramedics, the long-time football and basketball official could not be resuscitated.
Back then, there were too few young former athletes willing to exchange school colors for black and white refs shirts. 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 — which has become the biggest issue in sports.
Just last week, major league baseball banned collisions at home plate and the NHL suspended Boston forward Shawn Thornton 15 games for his attack 10 days ago, during a play stoppage, on Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Brooks Oprik. Before the start of the current football season — at all levels — organizers put in place rules against targeting the head.
For safety rules to be effective, though, there must be good officials on the field, court or ice who are willing to enforce those rules — regardless of the reaction of players, coaches, and fans.
While those who are supposedly the best work at the Division I college and professional levels, they have to start somewhere. That somewhere is the junior high and high school levels.
"What a nice part-time job officiating can be," said Purdue Cal athletic director emeritus John Friend, who helped start the scholarship 19 years ago. "Someone can stay busy every night of the week if he wants."
Locally, the largest group of referees and umpires covering interscholastic sports is the Lake County Athletic Officials Association. The LCAOA assigns coverage for football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, track and field, and cross country. Additionally, the group offers instructional programs for those interested in officiating.
For more information about becoming an umpire or referee, go to https://lcaoa.arbitersports.com/. Information for Indiana residents is also available at the IHSAA's Web site, www.ihsaa.org or on the IHSA's www.ihsa.org in Illinois.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.