Before the team took the field, everyone exchanged fist bumps. It was going to be a long day on this first weekend of the Minnesota high school football season.
This was a five-member team, men between the ages of 34 and 55. They wore striped shirts and black pants, with whistles hanging on lanyards around their necks. These officials, proud residents of the Iron Range, would work a nine-man game at 1 p.m. and an 11-man game at 7 p.m., both in St. Louis County.
By the end of the night, their first two games of the season would be behind them. To be more precise, that was what everyone hoped.
The crew members were referee (also known as “the white hat”) Jim Johnson, umpire Aaron Lamppa, head linesman Dave Troland, line judge Bill Novak and back judge Josh Lamppa. This is a veteran crew, averaging more than 23 years of officiating experience. The Lamppas, who are cousins, are the youngest of the five; Josh is in his 15th year and Aaron in his fifth. The other three have been working games for more than 30 years.
This is also a celebrated crew, with Johnson, Novak, Troland and Josh Lamppa all having worked football state tournament games. Most of the members work other sports, including state tournament games in girls and boys basketball. Josh Lamppa owns another rare achievement: He was the head coach of the Nashwauk-Keewatin boys basketball team that finished second in the 2004 Class 1A state tournament.
Josh Lamppa is a science teacher at Nashwauk-Keewatin. The others’ jobs include shipping, product management and operating heavy equipment in a taconite mine.
Before Saturday’s first game, the crew shared fist bumps and walked onto the field at South Ridge High School, 21 miles north of Cloquet. They shook hands with the head coaches and introduced themselves.
After South Ridge coach Brent Johnson heard “Hi, Dave Troland.” “Hi, I’m Josh Lamppa.” “I’m Aaron Lammpa” and “Bill Novak” he said laughed and to Novak, “I thought you were going to say Lamppa again.”
The crew inspected the field, field markers and first-down chain before bringing the team captains from South Ridge and Kelliher/Northome to midfield for the coin flip. Johnson introduced himself to the captains and said, “Our other officials are Mr. Novak, Mr. Troland, Mr. Lamppa and Mr. Lamppa.” After the national anthem was played, there were more fist bumps before the five scattered to their spots for the kickoff.
South Ridge athletic director Tony DeLeon set the game time for 1 p.m. once he had Johnson’s crew lined up. That’s how respected they are. Coaches and administrators all over the Iron Range feel the same way.
“We’re very familiar with them,” said Virginia football coach Ed Cremers, who would see the crew Saturday evening. “Parts of that crew ref our basketball games, they’re umpires for our baseball games. We know them, plus they’re very personable. They’re good communicators. You can tell they’re here for kids.”
The nine-man game went relatively smoothly for a season opener. Nine penalty flags were thrown and the teams combined for seven turnovers. On the strength of a 27-yard touchdown pass from Giizhik Wagner to Cal Roosdett in the second quarter, Kelliher/Northome won 8-0 in a game that lasted two hours, three minutes while clouds filled the ski and a strong wind blew from the south. The officials spent halftime inside an equipment shed, drinking from water bottles provided by DeLeon.
As with all quality officiating crews, they worked together like a five-piece jazz band. The ball was snapped, a play was run, whistles were blown. Novak and Troland marked the spot and Aaron Lamppa placed the ball. Johnson, positioned behind the offense, blew his whistle to mark the start of the play clock and the five readied for the next play, all in perfect sync.
Distance is often a factor in outstate Minnesota. The Kelliher/Northome Mustangs drove two and a half hours to South Ridge, including a short stint on a gravel road. After the nine-man game, the officials’ second assignment was 45 minutes to the north in Virginia, where the Blue Devils would host Hibbing.
Working two games in one day is a rarity for football officials. Due to the high school season starting earlier than normal this year, Johnson’s group will officiate five games – half of their regular-season schedule -- before Labor Day. But Saturday’s doubleheader was their only one-day double dip.
Leaving South Ridge, all five officials had time to go home, shower and rest briefly. They reassembled shortly after 5 p.m. to attend a benefit spaghetti dinner next door to Virginia’s Ewens Stadium. The dinner was held at the Miners Memorial Building, with proceeds helping Jay Mott, who was struck by lightning in June and severely injured (www.helpthemotts.com).
After dinner they put on the stripes again and hit the field for their second game of the day. As predicted, bad mojo was percolating in the western sky.
On the opening kickoff, Hibbing’s Jon Boggio caught the ball and ran 65 yards for a touchdown. Alec Hendrickson scored on a three-yard run and the score went to 20-0 on a 25-yard run by Trevor Erickson in the second quarter.
And then, zap! A bolt of lightning was seen with 13 seconds left in the half and the officials cleared the field under MSHSL safety guidelines. Every time lightning is seen, no matter how far away from the field, play must be stopped for 30 minutes.
The first bolt came at 8:04 p.m. The officials waited in the press box, where Virginia athletic director Kerry Bidle was looking at weather radar on his computer. There was some optimism that the weather would clear, but every time lightning cracked, the 30-minute clock restarted.
There was food in the press box: crock pots, hot dogs, chips, cookies, water and soft drinks. The officials and members of the chain gang partook, but mostly everyone waited. Rain fell and wind blew, but those were manageable impediments. Lightning was not.
Before a regular-season game starts, the home team is in charge of deciding whether to play or not. Once the action has begun, the officials make those calls. And when lightning keeps crackling and the clock keeps ticking, decisions must be made. Johnson went to the locker room area to meet with Cremers and Hibbing coach Dave Frisell.
The other four officials waited in the press box, talking and joking but mostly waiting. The radar still showed promise, but the actual conditions greatly disputed what the computer screen displayed. Bidle had the officials complete paperwork that would result in each of them receiving payment of $75 for the evening’s work.
Talk turned to the possibility of suspending the game and finishing it on Monday (MSHSL rules prohibit Sunday events). There were some minor issues with a Monday resumption. Two of the officials would not be available, but replacements could be found. Also, starting a game on Saturday and finishing it on Monday was not optimal for the teams, which both would play again four days later.
As the sky continued to explode, the decision was made at 10:12 p.m. after a delay of two hours, six minutes. The teams would come back Monday and re-start the game at 5 p.m.
The officials returned to their locker room, grabbed their bags and headed for the parking lot. All five were still wearing their stripes.
Postscript: The game was indeed finished Monday, with Hibbing winning 34-7.
--To see a photo gallery of the officials, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 11
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 1,150
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn