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It's a ref life: Teachers who serve as officials juggle hectic schedules

Lakes Area Football and Basketball Officials Kalan Malchow, Wade Johnson, Steve Morben, Justin Hegg, Steve Fode and Terry Eiter. Malchow, Johnson, Fode and Eiter are all teachers at Detroit Lakes High School. Morben is the DLHS principal and Hegg is the Detroit Lakes Middle School assistant principal. (Brian Basham/Tribune)1 / 4
Frazee-Vergas superintendent Deron Stender watches a MSHSL state wrestling match closely earlier this spring. He was scheduled to officiate several of Frazee's individual wrestlers during the tournament, but stepped aside for another referee to avoid a conflict of interest. "I'm an official when I'm out there whether they're wearing a green uniform that says Hornets or a Detroit Lakes uniform," Stender said. (Brian Basham/Tribune)2 / 4
Football officials Terry Eiter and Wade Johnson talk things over during a scrimmage last year. (Brian Basham/Tribune)3 / 4
Kalan Malchow, a DLHS social studies teacher, stops the play during a Frazee football game at the Fargodome last fall. (Brian Basham/Tribune)4 / 4

Schoolteachers have a lot on their plate just being a teacher. Some choose to also coach sports or lead an extra curricular activity. And yet others choose to be sports officials.

Officials have the same pressures of a coach with the added pressure of always striving to make the correct call and not influence the outcome of a game.

According to Terry Eiter, president of the Lakes Area Basketball and Football Officials Associations, the grind of officiating a game, then getting up to teach the next morning, sometimes takes a toll on a referee.

"There are nights when you get home late and you hit the hay, or it might have been a pretty intense game, and you get home and you're jacked," Eiter, a Detroit Lakes High School social studies teacher, said. "You can't fall asleep and you sit there and stare at the TV until you pass out. And then you get up and might do it again the next day."

The weekly and sometimes daily grind has just become part of Eiter's life.

"You learn to adjust and get it done," he said.

The long hours can also take a toll on an official's personal life, and he couldn't do the job without the support of his family. Eiter said, as the schedule maker, he is able to schedule himself around his son and daughter's activities.

"There's no question, you have to have a great support system at home. You have to have a very understanding wife or husband and there's no question that they have to believe in what you're doing and they have to support you as well."

Being president of the officials' association, Eiter is more involved. He has the task of assigning officials to games for both football and basketball. He also solicits games and handles contracts between schools and the officials.

Football has four to five five-man crews working games on any given Friday night in the fall. For the basketball season, Eiter scheduled about 250 games this past winter. Some nights, there are nine or 10 crews of basketball officials he's responsible for.

Sometimes officials will show up for a scheduled game and find it has been moved, the location changed or canceled altogether.

"It gets to be a huge time commitment," Eiter said. "It makes for nervous times when there's games that are rescheduled or cancelled. It's pretty stressful sometimes."

Football officials make $65 to $70 per official per game and basketball officials make $100 to referee both JV and varsity games.

"If you're reffing basketball and going out three, four, five times a week, you can actually make some money," he said. "Football is another story. Football is kind of a community service -- once a week and the pay's not great."

"In order to make even a little money in football, you've got to go out and officiate the lower level games," Kalan Malchow, a social studies teacher at DLHS, said.

Deron Stender, superintendent of the Frazee-Vergas School District, referees high school and college wrestling and has officiated football in the past.

Stender said he enjoys being involved. He was formerly both a football and wrestling coach, but left the bench to become an official.

"It's the next best thing to coaching," he said. "There are fewer issues and complications, but I was still involved and providing a service."

A collegiate level wrestler, Stender has 34 years of experience he brings to the mat when refereeing a wrestling meet. Officiating at two levels with two separate sets of rules is complicated in its own right. Stender said he sometimes has to stop and think about a call.

"I hesitate a little bit on a call sometimes," he said. "You catch yourself on a college match where you think 'that's probably not the way I should be doing it.'"

As a teacher and to avoid conflict of interest, Eiter said he would only ref his own students in a sub-varsity game.

"It's a lose-lose situation, and we've got other officials who can do it so we don't even bother with that."

Stender participated in this past spring's state wrestling tournament as an official, and was scheduled to referee several of Frazee's individual matches. He stepped back and had another official referee those matches to avoid a conflict of interest. He tries to avoid officiating Frazee as much as possible.

"I'm an official when I'm out there whether they're wearing a green uniform that says Hornets on it or a Detroit Lakes uniform. There's no bias either way," he said.

Malchow, a side judge when refereeing football, tries to keep a level head when dealing with coaches and parents angry about his calls.

"You develop a thicker skin," he said. "If they've got a beef, I'll calmly listen to it and give them an explanation. I think the big thing is you keep the lines of communication open."

Stender attributes his thick skin to his job.

"I'm a superintendent," he said with a laugh.

The Lakes Area Association covers games from as far south as the Morris area to Thief River Falls in the north and from Fargo to Bemidji and Brainerd. That area quite often expands during playoff tournament time, but Eiter said the tournaments are what an official works to get to.

"Just like the kids work to be at the top of their game in the tournaments, the officials have the same goal. We want to work as many tournament games as we can and do the best we can for the kids and coaches," he said.

Malchow said he appreciates the teamwork and camaraderie of being part of a football officiating crew.

"There's nothing like football when you've got a five-man crew and you're relying on four other people. It's the ultimate teamwork in regards to officiating," he said.

Officiating is a lot of work, but the extra effort is worth the pay-off in the end, Eiter said.

"To be quite honest, it's my hobby," he said. "Some people hunt and fish. I happen to have a hobby where I enjoy it and I can actually make a little money."