Everybody wins with special ref

ALTHOUGH I HAD been watching games for weeks, that Friday night was the first time I could hear one.

Perched on the hilltop sidewalk behind Jacksonville Elementary School in Phoenix, Md., I had watched my son’s lacrosse games with binoculars.

To help me find him in the sea of Carroll Manor Recreational Council blue jerseys, he wore a yellow T-shirt and left the shirttail out. Once I located the yellow-trimmed jersey, I knew I had found my 8-year-old son, Peter.

That Friday, my friend, Jarrod, helped me down that hill, across the baseball field and over to the lacrosse game sidelines. A Towson University defensive back, Jarrod didn’t mind the big-time workout of pushing my wheelchair over the bumps, pits and needed-to-be-mowed grass.

We landed safely and watched and listened as the teams warmed up.

Before the game began, I noticed the referee, Jim Clark, talking extensively to both teams. Although I couldn’t hear him, the kids appeared to listen intently. As we watched his animated lecture, I remarked to Jarrod how “into it” the ref seemed.

When the game started, Mr. Clark kept talking. He’d blow the whistle, describe the infraction, then state the rule. In the most physical game I’ve seen, the kids went down constantly from hits, trips and, my new term for the week, “pancakes.”

As a defenseman, Peter had educated me on this move since my Southern heritage did not include lacrosse. I learned a pancake is when someone is hit head-on, causing him to go flat down to the ground, like a pancake. (And I thought I was encouraging a less physical game when I guided Peter toward lacrosse rather than football!)

The ref seemed to be in the middle of every play, flagging and whistling errant moves, then commenting. “That’s a push. I know you didn’t mean it, but that’s a push,” he’d gently scold the offending player while helping up the pushed player.

While running beside the players, he’d warn, “Don’t push him if you can see his name” on the back of the jersey. Jarrod remarked that was the same coaching given in football to avoid a clipping penalty.

One pancake took a blue jersey down with a thud. “That was legal,” the ref allowed. “A little excessive, but legal. Are you OK?” he asked our player while stopping the action.

At one point, we lost the ref and then found him bending down to tie a player’s shoe.

Another time, he ran beside a younger player who had safely caught a ball and was jogging tentatively down the length of the field. “Run faster, run faster,” the ref encouraged him. And the youngster found his “wheels” and his confidence, motoring down to the opposing goal.

When Peter switched to offense, he faced off with the opposition. But first, the ref tied Pete’s shoelaces and positioned both boys. The ball passed between blue jerseys, then Pete took it toward the goal, defensemen swarming around him. He spun around one guy, then took aim and fired at the goal, scoring. “Nice move!” cheered Mr. Clark.

Although we lost, Pete walked up to me with a big smile.

“Nice game, Pete,” Jarrod said. As we retraced our tracks, I asked about the ref.

“He was cool, Mom. He learned my name and told me I was all over the place,” Pete beamed. “He talked to everyone.”

Jarrod and I smiled, admiring the skills of Mr. Clark. He judged clearly while carefully instructing, making tough calls with a tender touch. He was fair, but not afraid to be enthusiastic, encouraging the kids. A professional with a heart, he showed more than just a love of the game.

This time, I’m glad my sidelines seat included sidelines sounds where I heard more than just whistles and thuds. I heard caring and compassion, sounds of success no matter what the game.

Jim Clark has officiated lacrosse for nine years. When asked about the kids that play in his games, he says, “They are your treasures, but they belong to me when they are out there on the field, and I love every minute of it.”

It shows, Mr. Clark, it shows. And we are grateful.

This article was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.