Story and Photos By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
Celia Hughes was a stay-at-home wife, living in a country whose language was as distant as its shores from her Texas home.
Her husband, Boyd, a contractor for the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, was busy with work and his second profession, and their three children were grown. So Celia did what any bored housewife with extra time on her hands would do, right?
She became a football official, which enabled her to spend more time with her husband.
Beginning with flag football, Celia ventured into her new part-time career in 2008. She eventually moved up to work games at the varsity level. She also had an evening gig.
“I was a bouncer at the Airmen’s Club on the base. So I stayed busy,” she said.
Nearly 18,000 Americans and more than 4,000 Japanese employees and contractors are part of the large U.S. government facility at Kadena Air Base, referred to on its website as “The hub of air power in the Pacific.”
She had to learn the rudiments of the Japanese language to communicate with the populace when she left the base but mostly found everything a family needed without having to leave the city-like base.
The opportunity to return home came when Boyd found three job opportunities. “They were Alaska, Hawaii or Baltimore,” she said. The decision was a no-brainer.
They lived in Honolulu for six years, where they joined an officials’ organization known as the Diamondhead Officials Association. It was there that she began to work tackle football games.
Spreading her wings
“I watched (Boyd) work games and noticed he was so well received by everyone, so I decided I was tired of staying home,” Celia said last week on her way to a weekly meeting of the Greater New Orleans Football Officials Association, an organization Boyd and Celia joined three years ago. “All the kids were in school, and this gave me something to do.”
With more than 10 years’ experience on the high school fields, Boyd had no trouble landing a spot on five-, six- or seven-man crews. Celia, on the other hand, was relegated to the press box as an electric clock operator for the first two years.
Through tests and working playground, sub-varsity and freshmen games, and scoring well enough on tests to become certified by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, she is now, pardon the expression, “one of the boys.”
Her new career began rather bizarrely. At a scrimmage between John Ehret and Holy Cross, Celia was run over on the sideline and spent the remainder of the action with her knee wrapped in ice.
Her first full game between Ecole Classique and Haynes Charter became a half-game when two of Ecole’s 13 available players became ill, and a third suffered an injury. But the crew was paid for a whole game.
In her first two varsity games, Celia has served as a field judge – the outside wing official on the opposite side of the chain gang. There she focuses her attention on activities in the secondary once the ball is snapped.
Warding off problems
“I look for potential blindside blocks and things that you don’t expect to see, but that do, in fact, happen. Mostly, I look to stop the small stuff before it becomes big stuff.”
The game between Ehret and Helen Cox was completed without incident.
“Like any new official, there will be mistakes because there is a learning curve. But she’s always looking to get better and has an open mind,” noted Skip Chatelain, the GNOFA assignment secretary, who matches the Hugheses with crews with whom they will work every week. She has a positive attitude , which we look for with all officials.”
She will also take the position as a back judge.
Inside the meeting room, husband and wife watch film clips that depict game situations and how they should be handled by the officials. She attentively watches the monotonous re-runs and responds to questions about officiating calls. She appears to feel confident in this new environment.
“I enjoy the camaraderie and I enjoy being on the field with the boys, hustling my butt off and trying to enforce the rules whenever I have to,” Hughes said. “Anything can happen in a game, so I try to prepare myself for that.”
Celia wasn’t always this confident. Growing up in Electra, Texas, her family lived a humble life.
“We were poor, and I never went out at night,” she explained.
But when her brothers reached high school age and joined the football team, Celia went to their games as a member of the school band.
“I lived in a little town of about 2,500, or maybe less. This was really Friday night football. I fell in love with football back then,” she noted. Years later, with her three daughters having grown into their 20s, she found a way to be part of the game.
Last week, she was part of a crew that worked the John Ehret-Helen Cox game. Her next varsity outing came last week as field judge in a game matching East St. John and Sophie Wright.
“I was originally assigned to officiate the Ridgewood and Kenner Discovery game. But the game was canceled because Ridgewood couldn’t field 11 players,” she said.
Not quite a prime-time clash of Class 5A titans yet, but she’s working toward the possibility that such a game may come to pass. In the meantime, Celia is working to polish her five-man mechanics because most small schools don’t want to shell out money to pay for a full seven-man crew.
“There is a learning curve where you have to get up to speed,” Chatelain said. “But as we work with her, each game she gets a little bit better and learns a little bit more. She’s very receptive to constructive criticism and positive reinforcement.”
Among officiating crews at any level, communication with each other is essential to the management of a game. They talk extensively in the stadium locker rooms and on the field.
“If we’re not talking to each other, we could easily miss something. And if a coach starts complaining about something, it’s possible that we actually did miss a call,” Celia said. “I’ll tell fellow officials, ‘This is what the coach is barking about, so we might want to watch this a little more closely.’”
Coaches and officials have always had a love-hate relationship. Both sides think they are right and the other wrong.
“But officials know that in high school and above, coaches have a serious job to do and it’s up to us to speak to them in a professional manner,” Celia said. “That’s the way I approach everything. At the lower levels, there is more teaching by officials to get those coaches to understand the rules of the game (which they all think they know, but don’t).
Coaches may be surprised to see her on the sidelines. But she reports that any consternation they may have has not hindered her effort.
“Some of the coaches can be biased because, first of all, I am a woman. But that’s so with every men’s sport. (She also serves as a baseball umpire.) But most have been accepting. They give me respect, and I appreciate that very much.
“Many coaches and players have never seen a woman out there before. I say, ‘Well, congratulations! Here I am.’”
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.