Walt Nicholson did the math, and the longtime member of the Capital District Football Officials Association wasn’t too comfortable with what he saw.
“Say you have 17 varsity games on a Friday night, and times that by six,” Nicholson said as he looked ahead to the Section II fall high school football season. “You come up with 102.”
The organization that will be overseeing those games from Saratoga Springs to Taconic currently has 105 members. It takes six of them to work a varsity contest, with five on the field and another handling the clock duties.
Nicholson said when he joined the organization just over 20 years ago it numbered around 150.
“Every year our numbers go down,” the Schenectady resident said. “We are in need of officials.”
While the organization has officials in the age range of 25 to 70, the average age is “50-ish” according to the 57-year-old Nicholson.
“We’re getting older, and we’re having trouble reaching the younger generation,” said Nicholson, a CDFOA executive committee member who is in charge of recruitment. “We’re trying every avenue to get new members.”
While all youth-level sports are in need of more officials, football is unique in that being a traditional weekend sport, its games are usually clumped together in a few days rather than spread throughout the week. That puts an onus on the CDFOA members, many of whom are nearing the end of long stints with the organization.
“We are looking for new blood,” said 66-year-old Fred Guzielek, a former CDFOA president and 25-year member of the organization. “We need younger people. Father time is catching up with a lot of us.”
The CDFOA included 113 members at the turn of the year, and 26 opted not to work games in the“Fall II” high school season that was conducted in April and May mainly out of COVID-19 concerns. That made for some very busy football officials and those who assigned the games.
“You know they were stretched,” Mohonasen varsity football coach John Gallo said. “At every JV game we held, I believe there were four of them, the officials said they were going to do a varsity game later that day.”
“We played Schuylerville in Week 2, on a Saturday night, and they said it was their third game that day,” said former Johnstown varsity football coach Tyler Hall, who recently took an assistant position at Fonda-Fultonville. “There was a delay before the game, and they were saying they could use the break.”
“It was not easy with us or Albany,” said Paul Bricoccoli Jr., president of the Adirondack Chapter of Certified Football Officials. “We helped them out because Albany was so Friday heavy. They helped us out, too.”
The Fall II games were played on Sundays and Thursdays as well as Fridays and Saturdays, and five individuals worked the varsity games rather than six, to accommodate the shortage of officials and have teams playing on turf fields. Could we be seeing more Thursday night football next fall?
“We’re not there yet,” Nicholson said of Thursday night games. “We are trying to avoid that.”
The Section II fall football schedule that was released two weeks ago did not have specific game dates.
“The way it works is you contact your opponent and usually play Friday or Saturday,” Gallo said. “If they [the CDFOA] came back and said we need to do that [play Thursday], we’d say okay.”
In past years Thursday night games were a rare thing. On occasion, some teams would opt for Thursdays to play their season-ending crossover games.
“In the past it was not a huge issue,” Hall said of the potential for more Thursday competition. “They always made it work and had good crews.”
Guzielek and his crew were among those who sat the Fall II season out, but they are all returning for the school campaign that revs up in September.
“My whole crew is coming back,” Guzielek said. “We all had our reasons why we opted not to officiate, and we all have our reasons why we want to come back.”
Other officials who skipped the Fall II season are returning, as well, but the need for more is still there and will continue to be for both of the organizations that work Section II games.
“It can’t happen without them,” Hall said.
“It’s unfortunate that not a lot of people are interested in doing it,” Gallo said. “With some of those guys, it’s amazing how long they’ve been at it. You’ve got to tip your hat to the work they’ve done and to their commitment.”
The CDFOA is reaching out to potential candidates with a beefed-up social media push and by word of mouth from the men and women who have worked modified, freshman, junior varsity and varsity games as well as Pop Warner and New York Knockout women’s contests.
Word-of-mouth recruiting took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a lid on opportunities for social interaction.
“Every chance I get,” Ted Minissale said of sharing his positive experiences with the officials’ group. “I used to play in a flag football league and I’d tell people, ‘If you don’t want to get knocked around, try this.’ ”
Minissale joined the organization as a way to remain close to the game he had played in his days at Troy High School. He’s stayed for reasons beyond that.
“Lifelong friendships I made are a big, big reason,” Minissale said of his seven-year run with the organization. “I didn’t go in looking for that, but it’s been life-changing. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some really cool people.”
You’ll hear that a lot from the organization’s men and women, and that kind of kinship is just one of the draws its members are using to entice others to join.
“You can make $103 for a varsity game, but it’s not all about the money,” Nicholson said. “To me, it’s my passion. I love the kids and I love the game and I enjoy the camaraderie. I’m in a crew where we’re like family. We’re such good friends and we all live and breathe football.”
“You can throw a flag on Friday night and then go out to dinner,” Minissale said. “If that’s your choice, I’m all good with that, but it can be so much more.”
CDFOA second vice president Jason Capogna said the organization’s members have a chance to get close to the action as the first choice to work the sideline chains at indoor football leagues games at Times Union Center and at University at Albany games. Some of its members have also used the organization as a lead-in to college officiating.
“We currently have four Division I officials that came through here, and we’ve had guys who worked the Rose Bowl, the ACC championship and the SEC championship,” said Capogna, who has been with the CDFOA for 13 years. “This can be a stepping stone.”
The CDFOA provides extensive classroom and on-field training for men and women 18 and over.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do. We consider ourselves one of the better organizations in New York state, and we want to stay at that high level,” Nicholson said. “The kids work hard and we want to give them the best product we can.”
“They want to put you in a position to be successful,” Minissale said.
Officials are at first placed in games with the younger kids and work their way up from there. The progression to on-field varsity game work varies with each individual, and evaluators make sure they are prepared for each step forward.
“Everyone wants to work varsity games, and there is a perception that, ‘I have to work years at it before I get there,’ ” said Minissale, who, at age 31, is among the organization’s younger members. “That is obviously not true with everyone. I worked really hard, and by the end of my second year I was on the field for a few [varsity] games.”
More information about becoming a certified official can be found on the NYS Section 2 Football Officials website or by contacting Nicholson at [email protected]