By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They are paramount to any sport, and if they are good, it eliminates a big obstacle for teams participating.

They are the referees — the officials that work games. Did you know Minnesota has been a hot bed for producing some of the best in the business? How does one get into a field that is starved for applicants?

WCCO-TV stopped by, where else, a Minnesota referees luncheon to find out.

They gather each year for a holiday party. Some of the top current and former referees and umpires that the state has produced, from Major League Baseball to the NFL’s Super Bowl. But how does one start?

“We all grew up dreaming of becoming major league stars, whatever sport we played,” said legendary Major League Baseball umpire Tim Tschida. “Nobody dreams growing up of being an umpire or a referee. You wind up becoming one.”

At one time, Tschida — a St. Paul native — was the youngest umpire in pro baseball. He knows how this works; starting it and finding out if it fits.

“Other people find that it’s very competitive, and it’s a whole-new challenge of your skillset, and it’s a bug,” Tschida said. “And if the bug bites you, it’s a great part-time gig.”

Bernie Kukar worked his way up to the head referee in the Super Bowl, and he remembers the night that started it.

“I remember the first time I went to see the Minnesota Vikings play the Chicago Bears on the very first game. I was a senior in college at the time, and I said to myself, ‘You know, coming out of a small school, you’re probably not going to get a shot at the NFL,’” Kukar said. “When I saw the officials come out, and I said, ‘Hmm, maybe that’s the way to go. Keep it close to the game, give you a chance to earn a little extra spending money on the side.’”

(credit: CBS)

Since he is a former University of St. Thomas football player, he has made it a point to talk to the current players about becoming an official.

“It’s like playing football. You’re going to listen to a lot of groaning and moaning on the sidelines. You shouldn’t even be playing football. You go out there, do the job. And who do you think is taking care of all you guys? It’s the officials,” Kukar said. “Now you owe it to get back to a lower levels and help those guys out along the way.”

What you will find is that there is a need for referees in all sports, and at all levels. The key is to start, and find a place to start.

“Know you parks and recreation department, because that’s really where the start comes,” said former umpire and coach Bill Peterson. ”In a youth program, you know, get it started and gets going and going. St. Paul Parks and Rec has been so important in my life in the officiating and the coaching.”

What you find is that this is something that the best way to learn if you like it is to do it, and be prepared.

“Being an official is, there’s a lot of plusses, but there’s also a lot of hard work, rule knowledge if you’re going to go, if you’re really aspiring to get to a higher level, rule knowledge is absolute,” said former referee Frank White. “People are going to yell at you, and they’re not yelling at you personally so to speak, but it’s the nature of the game.”

What you find is that the game may have passed you by competitively speaking, but that does not mean you can’t be involved in the game.

“Being an official is one way of staying around the game because a lot of kids think they can maybe be a pro one day and go to the big leagues or whatever, but the odds of doing that are very slim,” said referee Steve Winfield. “We like to tell kids, ‘Hey, go ahead and get into officiating because it’s a way to stay around the game.’”

And what you find is that it is a different kind of competition against one.

“The rush, the noise, the competition, working it, the challenge to work a good game is something that doesn’t happen on the street or in a job as a credit manager,” said former NFL referee Tom Barnes. “It’s something that it’s hard to explain it, but the feeling that you get when you work a good ballgame is a wonderful feeling.”

And what you find are friendships that last a lifetime.

“It’s another way to perform and be involved, and you get to meet a lot of people,” White said. “Looking back, my 30-plus years, I still have people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I know you, you’re a ref!’”

So they gather on this day because of just that, because they took a shot at this years ago and they are still reaping the rewards.

“I encourage kids to do it, to try it, be around it because you always have a chance to stay in the sport and be active … you know, well into your 60s,” Tschida said.

Mike Max