Ten years, and stripes haven't changed a bit
It was November of 2002. I was a freshman at Bishop Hendricken, in the midst of my first season playing football.
Our freshman team had completed a perfect run through the regular season, in which we never trailed. We were a legitimate powerhouse.
In the state semifinals, we had played Barrington and beat them 6-0 in by far our toughest game of the year to that point.
We felt invincible. The Barrington game was certainly a little wake-up call, but we were 14 and 15-years old. We didn’t think we could lose. Most of us had never played football at any level prior to that year. Winning was all we knew.
So when the Super Bowl came around, we thought we were going to run over our opponent, La Salle. We hadn’t played the Rams during the regular season, and as it turned out, they were undefeated as well.
Just like us, they had never trailed. They didn’t know what losing felt like.
The game was exactly like what it should have been – two good teams going toe-to-toe with a championship on the line. It was 0-0 at halftime before we took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. The extra point made it 7-0.
To this day, that touchdown is one of my best sports memories. I was back deep to return the kick with a kid named Bryan Lindsey. The ball went to Bryan and I ran in front of him to block. The two of us went left behind a perfectly set-up wall, and we both raced untouched in to the end zone.
It was awesome.
The game stayed 7-0 until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter.
Somewhere near midfield, La Salle had ball and faced a fourth-and-long. A stop there, and we were champs. La Salle threw a swing pass that we tipped at the line. The ball still reached the intended receiver, though, and as it got to him our linebacker broke the play up. Incomplete pass, game over.
Well, it should have been. But it wasn’t. One of the referees pulled out a flag and whistled us for pass interference.
La Salle had new life, drove down the field and scored a touchdown. Lacking a good kicker at the freshman level, the Rams went for a two-point conversion and got it. We lost 8-7.
Everybody was shocked. Dumbfounded. We didn’t know how to react. Not only did we lose, but we lost because of the refs. There were no two ways about it – the call was wrong, and it deprived us of a perfect season.
We practiced during that season every day for three hours after school, like football teams do. The coaches put in countless hours coming up with plays, game-planning, scouting and preparing us. And we lost because of a blown call.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.
When I stood on the sidelines of Hendricken’s varsity game with Cranston East this past Friday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that game and how I still remember it like it happened yesterday.
The referees probably didn’t affect the outcome of Friday’s game, but they very easily could have. It wasn’t a Super Bowl or a title game or anything like that, but it was a huge game with playoff ramifications, and it was the worst officiated game I’ve seen all year.
Trust me – that’s saying something.
There were bad calls all over the field, but there was one that stuck out.
Hendricken had the ball in the fourth quarter and was driving. The Hawks fumbled the ball on first down, but recovered for a 6-yard loss. After the play, they where whistled for a 15-yard personal foul penalty.
That made it second-and-31. On that play, Hawks’ quarterback Patrick Gill was sacked for a 7-yard loss.
It should have been third-and-38. It was third-and-38. Instead, the refs signaled for fourth down.
A confused Hendricken squad punted. They punted on third down in a 14-14 game that was ended up being decided by only a handful of plays because the refs incorrectly told them it was fourth down.
The Hawks ended up winning, but what if they hadn’t? They’d be looking back on that play. Think about it.
They could have picked up a crucial first down on third-and-38 (stranger things have happened), or maybe picked up 20 yards and then pinned East back with a punt. Whatever they did, it could have made a significant difference in the game.
Instead, they punted because not a single one of the five officials on the field was paying attention.
There’s something wrong with that, right?
Those same officials used the chains to measure for a first down exactly one time on the night, despite a number of spots that had the ball right on the first down line. Instead of measuring (it’s a lot of effort, apparently), the refs would just look down the line and “ballpark” it. Then they’d either signal first down or not.
On a Cranston East punt in the first half, the ball was mis-spotted by, I don’t know, 15 yards? I’m being conservative.
I could go on, but you get the gist. The referees could have changed the outcome of the game.
If I’m still bent out of shape over a call in a freshmen football game from 10 years ago, doesn’t that speak to how much these games mean, and how much they stay with the players after they’re over?
I know it’s just a game, but the players and coaches practice for three hours a day so they can win. They practice in the snow and have meetings on Saturday mornings because this stuff is important to them. They’re not doing it for their health. They deserve correctly officiated games.
I don’t know these refs personally. They might be wonderful people. They have everyday jobs, presumably, that have nothing to do with refereeing high school football games, and I’m sure their lives don’t revolve around high school football.
But they still chose to become referees. Couldn’t they at least realize that their calls matter, and will matter for a long time?
Or is that as difficult a task as bringing out the chains for a measurement?
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.