By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
Three respected local high school football officials with a combined 132 years of experience on the fields of Louisiana are, pardon the pun, movin’ on up.
Yes, referee Bob Taylor, head linesman Bryan Laiche and back judge Walter Eckert, who have worked countless prep games indoors and out, in good and bad weather, and have dealt with friendly and adversarial coaches and fans, are leaving the fields of battle to become electric clock operators.
So, they will still be part of the game they love with the officials crews they call their best friends, but their aging legs will have a much-welcomed retirement as they take their duties to the press boxes.
Taylor has reached the magic age of 70 after 45 years, most of which he wore the white cap of a referee. Laiche, also entering his 46th year as a football official, is a few months shy of his 70th birthday; and Eckert, the “pup” of the trio at age 66, has been at it for 42 years.
As part of a Prep Classic crew, they have worked four state championship games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The three have talked about the hands of the clock for the past few years and made the decision together to trade their whistles, flags and bean bags for buttons on a clock. Instead of giving commands to the men who start and stop the game and play clocks, they will be taking orders from the referee’s hand signals.
What’s worse is that their pay that comes with being certified officials (the top tier of rankings), will be cut in half from $90 per game to $45.
“I look at it this way,” said Laiche. “I blow half the money eating and drinking after the games anyway. I’ll now get to blow the whole amount.”
To think these long and productive careers have come to an end would be a fallacy. They are just changing their job descriptions; trading cold and rain, the ire of coaches and sore muscles for the comfort of a booth, where they will observe the game from a different perspective. The move will benefit the officials on the field just as much.
“We will be able to see things that will help the field officials,” Taylor said.
Laiche added, “I plan on taking notes on what I see on the field and relaying it to the guys on the field in the dressing room. I’ll be able to see every position.”
The game and play clocks are no strangers to the three. They are part of the timing crews for Tulane and Saints’ homes games on Saturdays and Sundays.
Eckert and Laiche have also been part of the “chain gang” at past Sugar and New Orleans Bowl games.
The football officials’ fraternity is a close one. Several will gather following Friday night games at a spot in Metairie to watch snippets of their games on television. As each crew walks through the door, the others will ask, “How’d your game go?”
They will often share incidents that took place and how they handled them. It doesn’t take long for a large portion of their Friday night stipends to disappear after an evening of food, drink and camaraderie.
A fraternity in stripes
“It is like a fraternity,” noted Taylor. “It’s fun to watch the games and share time with the guys later.”
Laiche pointed out, “Half the fans are going to disagree with you on every call. The only friends you have are around you.”
“You get comfortable with certain people you work with. I can look at Laiche or Paul LaRosa and know what they’re thinking or what they are going to do. It’s a brotherhood.”
Game assignments have taken the three to all corners of the state, many times as part of the same crew.
They’ve been to places where teams, long gone and forgotten, once played: Delta Heritage, River Oaks Academy and Promised Land, also in Plaquemines Parish. They watched Desire Street Academy, Sojourner Truth, Sam Barthe, Prytania, Kehoe Academy, Ganus and Miller-McCoy come and go.
“We were working a Delta Heritage game at Fort Jackson. During the game, a guy started running around in an Indian outfit. It was 20 degrees, and he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“LaRosa, who was the referee, threw him out of the stadium. He turned out to be the team mascot,” Eckert said.
Laiche recalled a playoff game in Oberlin.
“We were on a field in the middle of nowhere. The lights were on telephone poles. People were cooking pig on the side, and the Oberlin team had all kinds of weird formations.”
Eckert added, “We got dressed in a shack full of lawnmowers. After the game, they took us back to the school to get dressed. The town had one blinking light.”
Hard to replace
How does an assignment secretary replace so much experience on the field? He doesn’t, said Kevin Boitmann, who has that task.
“They are great officials who helped me develop over the years. And I still carry those lessons with me.”
Boitmann is also a college official who is being eyed by the Southeastern Conference for a possible spot on that crew because of his keen knowledge of the game and skills on the field.
“I think this is a great way for the three to continue to do something they truly love, and they will be providing feedback that will be beneficial to the young officials.”
The “golden agers” realized their nights on the fields were short.
“You know that physically you’re slowing down,” said Taylor. “There’s a lot of running during the course of a game that takes its toll. This will be all right because we can start working with younger officials.”
Eckert said, “Physically, you begin to feel things you’ve never felt before. I’ve never had an injury in all these years, but things are starting to hurt.”
Laiche said leaving the field is a bittersweet feeling, but he knew the time had come.
“After 45 years you don’t need to be running up and down a football field,” he said.
Laiche said the choice to move upstairs was almost a team decision.
“The three of us have been talking about this for a couple of years. We had been working almost exclusively together for that time.”
As time passed, they asked Boitmann to assign them to afternoon, low-impact games played by local schools of lower classification. The pay was the same, but they finished their jobs at a time most of the other officials were beginning to arrive at stadiums for theirs.
“There were days early in the year when I’d walk out on the field at Gormley (Stadium) and think, ‘I’ll be out here in six months.’ But right now I don’t feel I’m going to miss it at all,” Laiche recalled.
“For many years I had the burning feeling in my heart that I couldn’t wait for Friday night. I don’t have that feeling any more.”
But there will be no retirement to family room couches where the only football games they see will be on television.
Their view will be from a vantage point above the field, looking down at their best friends.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.