It may be rhetorical, but it’s often asked – aimed at playing fields and TV screens from bleachers and sofas when the going gets tense in a game. Who’d be a referee? The answer’s meant to be self-evident: A crazy person, a glutton for punishment, that’s who. But at U.S. Soccer’s annual National Referee Camp, where current, aspiring and former top referees gather every year, you’ll get an entirely different kind of answer.
- READ MORE: Five Things to Know About the National Referee Camp
- READ MORE: National Referee Camp: A Family Reunion
- READ MORE: Esse Baharmast Q&A: It's All About the Players
ussoccer.com talked to a few of those men and women – some young and some old, but all still passionate about refereeing, to find out what drew them to the whistle and flag…
Jose Ramon Corro is a former professional and National Referee, well known from the first decade of Major League Soccer (MLS). He’s currently A National Referee Coach and lives in Colorado.
“When I was a player, I had the perception that the referees I was seeing on the field didn’t do a very good job. My thinking was: ‘I would become a referee and do the job right.’ I was lucky that my peers and my family gave me the support I needed and I was able to become a National Referee. I really wanted to be one of those guys on TV, running around the field. I wanted to do it right. I wanted to be the best.”
(Former FIFA World Cup Referee Esse Baharmast puts the next generation through their paces)
Tom Felice is a recently recertified National Assistant Referee based in Connecticut. He works in local sports broadcasting when he’s not running the touchline and keeping up with the play.
“I started when I was a freshman in high school. It was a way to make 15 or 20 bucks an hour as a kid. I got lucky that I had a lot of people with me along the way who recognized that I had some ability. I moved up from my hometown into regional stuff and then the state-wide stuff. And eventually, here I am, in the National pool
At this level, you have to have a passion for refereeing. It’s very demanding. We put a lot into it. But we get a lot out of it too. It’s become a big part of my life. I think about this stuff every day.
People flew into the National Camp [In Chula Vista in Southern California] from Massachusetts. They came from Florida. They came from the middle of the country. They’re taking time away from their families. This is the weekend before Christmas, but we’re all here.”
(Grueling fitness tests - this year under a hot SoCal sun - are a big part of the National Referee Camp)
Esse Baharmast is a legend in refereeing. Now retired from the field, he was a FIFA Referee and the first American to ref more than one game at a World Cup. He’s now a FIFA Referee Instructor based in Colorado.
“I came to it totally by accident. I was a player and I broke my tibia and fibula in college. When I was recovering, a professor of mine at the University of Missouri who was a referee, asked me to help out with some youth leagues. They needed referees. This man knew I had played and coached. He knew I knew the game. He offered me the chance to start refereeing. I loved it right away and my progress was quick. I went up the ladder very, very fast. Before I knew it, I was doing college matches and then professional games. After that, I was doing international games and finally, after all that, I reached to the top and was able to referee at the World Cup [1998 in France].”
Melissa Gonzalez is based in SoCal and received her National Referee certification for the first time this year after failing last year’s fitness test
“I played soccer when I was younger. I stopped playing when I was 16 when I tore my ACL. I lost the passion for playing then and knew I didn’t want to play at the collegiate level. What really brought me into refereeing was money. I needed money for when I went away to college, to kind of keep me going. Then one day I saw a video where there were refs on TV, and I asked myself ‘could I ever make it on TV as a ref?’
That was my aspiration. I questioned myself to see if I could ever make it there. I didn’t now what steps I needed to take, but I knew I needed to get out there on the pitch and officiate. I knew I needed to push myself.”
(Assistant Referees have their own particular set of challenges)
Abiodun ‘Abi” Okulaja is a National Referee Coach and former top professional referee. He was named Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Referee of the Year in 2004 and he currently lives in Chicago.
“I played, and when I was playing I got tired of a lot of the calls the refs were making. So I was asked, why don’t you start refereeing? Also, It’s always nice to make a little extra income. My daughter was young then and we were sending her to private school, so every little bit helps in a situation like that. It was a little bit of love for the game, and a desire to stay with it, and also a little bit of practical concern.”
Malik Padowie, just 22 years old, lives in Denver. He was certified as a National Referee for the first time at the 2018 National Referee Camp“
I started off just like anybody else, just trying to make a few extra bucks when I was 12 years old. I was a player and I realized I wasn’t going to make it as a player. I wanted to stay involved in the game at a high level and I figured this was a good avenue to do it. Refs are a close-knit family and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Lee Suckle is a former National Referee and current National Referee Coach. He’s based in Long Island, NY and still refs the odd college game.
“There was a time I knew I wasn’t going to play any further, so I went into refereeing because I still loved the game. And it was also a way to make a few extra bucks to help with the car payments. At a young age, being able to be on the soccer field, still involved with the game, and get paid on the side, that’s a good thing. It was a combination of a love of the game and a little financial help.”
(National Referee badges laid out for the proud graduates in Chula Vista)
Amber O’Conner is a Philadelphia-based Referee who earned her first National Referee Certification at the 2018 Camp in Chula Vista.
“I was a player growing up and then I started refereeing for cash. But then I started to develop some skills and start advancing and then I started traveling. I figured out that this is a way to stay involved in the game. It gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have if I were only coaching youth soccer back home. When I first started refereeing, I was referring like I was a player and it’s very difficult to remove yourself from that role and only apply the laws of the game and not think like a player. It was a tough transition, but I got there. And now it helps to be able to think both ways – as a ref and sometimes as a player.”
U.S. Soccer’s 2018 National Referee Camp was held at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California and from December 14 to 17. From a total of 94 referee and assistant referee candidates, 87 passed the fitness tests and classroom work to become (or recertify as) National Referees. There were 120 National Referee Coaches on hand to mentor, guide and teach.