In the autumn of 1974, three young men began an adventure together. Their adventure included whistles, striped shirts and a game they loved: Football.
In the autumn of 2016, Scott Forbes, Bob Lebens and Tom Tucker are wrapping up their adventure. After 42 years, they may be the longest-serving trifecta of football officials in Minnesota history.
All three are well into their 60s. Forbes retired after the 2015 season and Lebens and Tucker will do the same when their postseason duties are finished this fall. The numbers are astounding – 126 seasons between the three (plus they all worked lower-level games for a few years before joining together) -- but here’s one way to put their longevity into perspective: They officiated a game involving a first-year head coach named Mike Grant at Forest Lake in 1981, and they officiated a game for that same Mike Grant at Eden Prairie in 2015.
Tucker got the earliest start of the three, becoming a registered MSHSL official when he was 18 years old and a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“I wanted to play football but I was too small,” he said. “Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you officiate?’ ” And away he went, working games in the Duluth area for four years before moving to the Twin Cities.
In the early days Forbes, Lebens and Tucker were a three-man officiating crew, which was the norm. Over the years a fourth, and then a fifth, official was added (college and NFL games have seven officials).
They have worked games involving some of the great players in Minnesota high school history, including future NFL players Larry Fitzgerald Jr. of Holy Angels, James Laurinaitis of Wayzata and Darrell Thompson of Rochester John Marshall. Thompson is now the longtime radio analyst for University of Minnesota football games.
“I’ve told Darrell we officiated his games,” Tucker said. “They couldn’t find pads big enough for his thighs and they had to ask the Vikings for help. We’ve been really fortunate. Players like that just stand out. We’ve seen some really great ones.”
Through all the years and all the games in all manner of weather conditions, many of the best memories for Forbes, Lebens and Tucker came off the field. They spend time together that includes social gatherings and travel.
“We’ve taken vacations and traveled together,” Forbes said. “We’ve always had an end-of-season party, and those are almost highlights of the season. The biggest, best memories are off the field, being together with them more so than on the field.
“I feel like we always had a very good crew. The schedule we had, the longevity. I feel good about what we did and how we did it. After a few years I don’t think we ever got into a situation that we couldn’t handle.”
Lebens, who retired a few years ago as an elementary teacher and high school basketball, track and baseball coach in Burnsville, said his favorite memories always include the relationships.
“The camaraderie, the fall evenings, the people you meet, the coaches you enjoy seeing and getting to know,” he said. “It’s the friendships over the years, going back to the same communities. As you get older and everybody else stays the same age, you meet friends and their sons and daughters, you meet people in the crowd you know or went to college with. I was in education all my life, so I ran into lots of people who said, ‘Hey, you were my teacher!’ ”
Forbes and Tucker are both retired from careers in sales. Forbes was as consistent in his “real” job as with officiating, spending 43 years with Ferguson Enterprises, a wholesale supplier of commercial and residential plumbing supplies. He started that job in 1973, his rookie year as an official.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “There were good people in both places.”
Tucker said working as an official was a good complement to his sales career.
“It helped me professionally. You need to keep your composure in sales, too.”
As they retire, the three officials wonder about the future of the game they love so much. New officials are always needed in all sports, but it can take a special kind of person to wear the stripes and give up their personal and family time for middling pay and abuse from spectators.
“You hear it all the time about shortages,” Tucker said. “This year we had guys gone for business trips or whatever and you have fill-ins. You have to ask, ‘Who’s been assigned? How many varsity games have you done?’ It is an issue. The only way to get better is by doing games. The coaches demand perfection. It’s hard but it’s the only way you can grow.”
When the three began their careers, most officials were teachers. Those days are long gone.
“Now there’s not a lot of teachers any more who do that.” Lebens said. “Trying to find officials in other vocations is really necessary. We had a substitute last year who was some sort of medical scientist at 3M. Those are the kinds of guys we need to get in, and we need to get college students interested.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a problem. Young people don’t like to listen to somebody yelling at them. Getting some experience at lower-level games is important. Officials associations are trying to do a good job, recruiting and finding mentors. There are a lot of good things going on to try to get people to officiate.”
Forbes said, “I think the biggest thing people don’t realize is how much time and effort officials put into it. There are meetings, rule study, we watch film. And the time it takes to travel to games. I don’t think the general public appreciates all that.”
All that time and effort and travel over more than four decades will soon end for Lebens and Tucker as they join Forbes in “official” retirement.
“If you get in with a good bunch of guys,” Lebens said, “it makes it really enjoyable.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 122
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 3,929
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn