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For love of the game: Two high school refs buck the trend of giving up their whistles

Paul Gagliardi and Pat Dempsey have already experienced one golden anniversary. They have been married to their brides, Cindy and Carol, 56 and 53 years, respectively.

Gagliardi and Dempsey are about to experience another golden moment.

They begin their 50th season as high school football officials on opening night. Gagliardi, 77, and Dempsey, 76, are the longest-tenured officials in Western New York.

Gagliardi, who is a referee, and his crew make their season debut at All High Stadium to call the St. Joe’s at Bennett nonleague contest at 7 p.m. Friday. Dempsey is an umpire, who will be part of the crew that works the Pioneer at East Aurora game at the same time.

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“The 50 years have gone by like I was shot out of a cannon,” Dempsey said.

“I still get pumped up for kickoff,” Gagliardi said. “I still get that adrenaline going.”

At a time where there’s a national shortage of officials across scholastic sports, including football, Gagliardi and Dempsey serve as examples of the benefits officiating can provide to those blessed with patience, excellent communication skills, no ego, a thick-skin, love for the game and – most importantly – the desire to pass along their love for the game to others.

“The mere fact they’ve been doing this for 50 years speaks to their dedication,” Section VI Football Chairman Ken Stoldt said. “People take it for granted. They think these guys just show up but the things they do in the offseason — they have to keep themselves in physical shape to keep up, especially with today’s fast-paced game. If you really sit back and look about it, to be officiating high school football for 50 years — that is just an amazing accomplishment.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are various reason for the shortfall:

  • Many current officials are older and at an age when they want to hang up their whistles.
  • Efforts to retain officials and recruit replacements have been hurt by prospective officials unwilling to endure the substantial amount of abuse — verbal and on social media — that officials to take.
  • Becoming a good official takes time (measured in years), and some candidates do not have the patience to wait for their opportunities and others might have family reasons that prevent them from spending weekends on a football field.
  • Given the time and abuse, the pay scale might keep potential officials away. Varsity officials make $91 per game; junior varsity a few dollars less.
  • Also, it can cost up to roughly $200 for an official to get started because officials are responsible for purchasing uniform jerseys and pants.

The NFHS says only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of duty.

“I don’t think people realize how much investment it takes to become an official, the time and the energy, the learning, the two or three books we work out of,” Gagliardi said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read that rule book over 50 years. There are the rule changes and then the complexity of the rule changes. There are rules and exceptions to that rule.”

Compounding the problem, the shortage of officials is happening when participation in scholastic sports continues to rise. While the number of football players in New York state decreased by less than 1 percent from the 2016-17 academic years to 2017-18 based on the latest participation survey, the number of high school athletes in the state increased by nearly 3 percent to 378,065. More athletes presumably means more games, meaning more officials are needed.

Officials also can find their services needed elsewhere. Some are doing fewer scholastic events in order to officiate the increasing number of travel team and club games.

Section VI has 90 varsity football officials. Each crew has mostly four officials, but roughly 10 schools have opted to use five-man crews, assigner Dan Finucane said. Some games have been moved to Thursdays and others to Saturday nights.

“I just don’t know why" we’re struggling with numbers, Gagliardi said. “We’re in trouble because we have an attrition rate going on and we’re trying to encourage younger people to get involved.”

Gagliardi and Dempsey had understanding spouses who wanted them to indulge their passion and earn some money on the side. Gagliardi is a retired Depew High School guidance counselor, while Dempsey is a retired shipping and loading coordinator at General Mills.

“I think you just have to have a passion for it and share it with those closest to you and make it a priority in your life," Jamestown coach Tom Langworthy said. "These (officials) who are passionate stick around for a while.”

The beginning

Wearing the stripes enabled Gagliardi and Dempsey to remain connected to the game they’ve been involved in since their youth. Gagliardi  graduated from Baker-Victory and then played collegiately at the University at Buffalo when Buddy Ryan was an assistant coach. Dempsey graduated from South Park.

Dempsey received his first taste of officiating in 1963 at the Babcock Street Boys Club. Several years later, he asked an old coach how to get into high school officiating. The next thing he knew, he’s in Tonawanda taking the officials’ test.

“There’s a lot of stuff I thought I knew that I didn’t know,” Dempsey recalled of that test. “Ever since that night in Tonawanda up until right now I’ve loved every second of it. The bad days, the good days. The hot days, the cold days and the camaraderie and the friends I’ve made over the years.”

Gagliardi coached for four years as an assistant at St. Francis and Clarence after college. When he began working for the Depew School District, there were no coaching vacancies. That led to him making the call to give officiating a try.

Both started at the junior varsity level, as was standard practice, in 1969 – amassing the experience necessary to get off their probation period to become eligible for varsity games. The process usually took three to four years, except Dempsey didn’t wait that long. Early in his third year, he saw his name assigned to a handful of Harvard Cup varsity games.

Dempsey recalls in one of his first games that he and another young ref, Bill Miller, had a spot issue as each marked the ball carrier down in a different place.

Thirty-five years later, Dempsey, Miller and the ball carrier who became an official shared a laugh about that play, even though at the time Dempsey didn’t know that was the player in question.

“We all met at Connors’ on Seneca Street for sandwiches,” Dempsey said. “We get in there, Miller says to me, ‘Tell him (a nearby official) about our first game.' He’s sitting there, he has his arms folded. He’s looking at me; he’s looking at me. I have tears in my eyes. … I get all done. He is still looking at me and says it took me 35-blank years to catch the guys who blew that Statue of Liberty play.”

Gagliardi’s first varsity game occurred in either 1971 or '72, he said. He said he received a call from an important person who doled out assignments to officials on a Saturday morning. His instructions: Report to Cardinal Dougherty to work as a field judge at the St. Joe’s versus Dougherty game.

“Tom Reddington was the coach at St. Joe’s at the time,” Gagliardi said. “He was my old high school coach. St. Joe’s at the time was a dominant team in the league. They won the game. … I remember an extra-point call. The receiver stepped on the end line, which made it incomplete. I just took the ball from him without making a signal. Coach said, ‘What do think, Paul? Are you going to tell us what it is?’

“I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten to give a sign since. Sometimes I probably have given the wrong signal, but I don’t think I’ve forgotten to give a signal since.”

Communication is key

What they learned in a hurry, something that tends to scare off young officials today, is that the coaches tend to talk the ears off the flanks — officials responsible for the sidelines and deep coverage. In other words, they get picked on because not only are they younger but they are also closer to them than the referee or umpire.

“Physically, they have to cover a lot of field,” Gagliardi said. “But they’re also communicating with the sidelines. They’re responding to things I’m totally unaware of in the middle of the field. Some are better than others and they can defuse situations. They’re just masters of situations and you’ll never know because it doesn’t get to you and that’s the end of it. So, communication with coaches and players is a big part of it. The coaches I think appreciate it. They may not agree with you but I think they appreciate the fact.”

Gagliardi and Dempsey have their own ways of getting points across to participants.

Dempsey isolates one player from each team and communicates through that player the instructions he wants followed, especially when keeping control of a game.

“You just pick one kid to talk to, you and him and he talks to the players,” Dempsey said. “You’d be surprised how those kids listen to that player because they’re teammates. I can say it to the kids and the kids would go uh him, but his own teammates say something and they’re going to listen.”

The future

Dempsey recently received the Richard Leous Award from the Western New York officials for outstanding service. He’s also been honored by the state with a similar award.

Gagliardi has received several awards, too. He’s also been privileged enough to officiate in state championship games, the 100th Harvard Cup Championship game and the very last Harvard Cup game before the Buffalo Public Schools joined the Section VI Football Federation. He is a member of the Harvard Cup Hall of Fame.

How many more games do these men have?

Gagliardi still loves the game too much to retire. But if he ever reaches the point where he doesn’t want to go through the process of reading the rules before the start of each year or put in the work necessary to pass the mandatory fitness test that officials take before each season, then he’ll know it’s time.

“The last thing I want is anybody to say to me I don’t belong here,” he said. “I try to do the best job I can. … I’m proud I added integrity to the game.”

Dempsey, who unlike Gagliardi has suffered injuries (rotator cuff and ankle) during his officiating career, said he plans to stop after this season.

“I’m going to hate to see my last game, but it’s coming,” he said. “It’s time for the younger guys to get these games. I can still do it but I don’t want to do a disservice to the kids. After this, this is it.

“The time has flown by.”

It has but their contributions haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Both of them are highly respected and class acts,” Langworthy said. “They treat our kids with respect and in turn of course the players, coaches and fans alike do treat them with respect and appreciate their contributions to the game and make sure that all of our players and coaches adhere to the rules of the game to keep it the greatest game in the world.”

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