Football official Andrew Aller arrived at Apple Valley High School on Friday equipped with the type of white hat he has worn for the past 14 years and a black face covering, a new accessory this season.
Officiating during the coronavirus pandemic gave Aller, 61, pause. But by Friday, he said he was secure in his decision and now needed to follow protocols.
Meanwhile in Shakopee, another veteran official, Matt Jurewicz, spent part of his Friday evening on a Zoom call with his five siblings to discuss holiday plans. Jurewicz elected to sit out this season. He runs a financial-planning business at his mother Maetta’s home. She is 79 years old and Jurewicz is afraid of contracting COVID-19 and putting her at risk.
“That was probably the linchpin to make me choose to opt out,” Jurewicz said.
High school football games across the state began in earnest Friday, seven weeks later than originally scheduled and two weeks after the Minnesota State High School League reversed its August decision to postpone football until next spring.
The initial postponement decision, quick restart and lingering concerns about the coronavirus reduced the number of officials this season. Entering this week, the league has 1,130 football officials, about a 15% decrease from last season, said Jason Nickleby, league coordinator of officials.
The drop comes amid aggressive efforts by the league in the past few years to recruit more officials to its ranks across all sports.
Associations of officials in different parts of the state said decreased numbers owe in part to the coronavirus, which is known to pose a higher risk for serious illness as people get older. To adjust, five-person game crews are being reworked as associations help one another. More games are moving from the traditional Friday night setting to less busy times of the week.
“I know there is some craziness with this season but were ready to make it a good experience for the kids,” said Dan Pelletier, St. Paul/Capital City Officials Association assignor of officials.
Numbers drop across state
Pelletier’s association represents about 105 to 120 officials each year and 12 varsity crews. He said about 15% are opting out this year, with the coronavirus a deciding factor for some officials.
“One of the young ladies on a crew said she didn’t want to be the one to bring something into her workplace,” Pelletier said.
Stephen Hacken, assignor for the small Bluff County Officials Association, said one of his officials dropped out because “his boss said that if he works a game, he’s fired.”
The Suburban Officials Association lost 26 officials this season, assignor Tom Wollan said, opting out “for COVID-19 concerns, or because the season was initially postponed and they just moved on and are going hunting.”
The 124 remaining officials represent the “fewest number that we’ve ever had in the past,” Wollan said.
As a result, Wollan said he “alerted athletic directors that they can’t all play on the same day. They understand, and they have worked with us.”
Three Rivers Officials clinician Brian Blackman said three schools asked “if they scheduled their games at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. would we be able to officiate their game?” On a few occasions, one of Blackman’s crews will work two games in a day. He said two or three officials are sitting out this fall because of health concerns.
The Rochester Area Officials Association “lost about 5% of our football roster compared to last year as they opted out with COVID-19 concerns,” assignor Jared Butson said. The means 11 crews instead of 12, and more fluid scheduling.
Butson said he was “pleasantly surprised’’ that he didn’t lose a few more crews.
“I do not have a concern in trying to cover games in southeastern Minnesota. Some districts have moved 25% of their games each week to non-Fridays,’’ he said.
“We are all in this together and the games will get covered and played. If need be, I will work with area assignors that border our coverage area to see if they can help me or we can help them cover games.”
Nickleby wrote in an e-mail, “with a 30% reduction in contests, the associations and the schools are making the schedule workable for them.”
Jurewicz, 54, said he “worried that I’d be the only one to opt out. But there is a bigger number of officials than I expected who made the same decision.”
This fall would have marked season “number 26 or 27” donning black and white stripes for Jurewicz.
“It kills me not being involved,’’ he said. “I am so looking forward to next fall.”
Once again, he is not alone.
“We have 150 officials and when I surveyed them, no one said they are not coming back in 2021,” Wollan said.
Like Jurewicz, Aller is part of the Suburban Officials Association. He understands anyone who stayed away even though he arrived at a different decision.
“COVID-19 is such an unknown, so I don’t want to sound cavalier about it, but I had enough faith in the system,” Aller said. “Schools, parents and officials care about kids and they are using the knowledge they have to minimize risk in the best ways possible.”
Last Friday, Aller arrived at the school mostly dressed and met the other four members of his crew in the parking lot, where they went over pregame information. Typically, these actions are handled inside a school building.
On the field, only two members of Aller’s five-person crew met the coaches from Apple Valley and Hopkins. The coin toss involved one captain, not four, from each team.
During the game, Aller said, “I went to blow my whistle and realized I had a mask on. You had to create new mini-habits. But the game was the game. I was impressed with the way the kids adjusted.”
Officials throughout the state are adjusting, too, while longing like everyone else for a return to normal.
“Those officials that took the season off,’’ Aller said, “we welcome them returning as quickly as possible.’’