The first time that Gary Scharmann officiated a varsity high school football game he made a tackle.
And it was on a big stage.
The St. Mary’s Rams were playing Central Catholic– a game that was known at that time as the “Holy Bowl” – and all of a sudden he saw a Raider ball carrier coming at him full speed.
He managed to get somewhat out of the way, but not enough to avoid making contact with the player and sending him to the turf and drawing the ire of coaching legend Mike Glines that let his displeasure with the mistake be known from the sideline.
It was trial-by-fire. And Scharmann – who is now in his 34th season as a football official – has developed a keen sense of knowing where he can step when a play is developing and what might be dangerous ground.
It took a while.
But knowing when and where to stand on the field is just the starting point of Scharmann’s adaptation.
There’s also knowing how to be in the right position to make the best call, how to effectively communicate with coaches and how to trust your instincts and not think back on the calls that might have been controversial or questioned – knowing that instant replay isn’t something that’ll ever be incorporated into the high school game.
And when you’re so used to being on the field as a football official, every time you watch a football game, it’s as a football official.
“When I’m watching a game and I see a flag I’ll think to myself, ‘he wasn’t in the right position to make that call,’” Scharmann said. “It becomes the way that you think when you’re used to being in that position. It’s an opportunity to see something different, but you don’t look at it the same way that you once might have.”
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From ballboy to ball-spotter
Scharmann’s love for the game started early.
While organized football wasn’t a part of the mix for him growing up, watching his father officiate football games was – observing from the sideline as the eldest Scharmann called penalties and threw flags and dealt with the game the best way he knew how.
And he took mental notes.
Sure he looked forward to the spoils of being a child that got to play on the sideline, but he also looked forward to learning as much as he could about why the game developed the way that it did – why that penalty flag was thrown in that situation and not earlier when the same thing seemed to take place.
And that precociousness paid off.
Eventually Scharmann landed on a football crew himself and started working his way up from the lowest levels over time. He took every assignment he could get – youth football on Saturdays as an attempt to get his technique down and freshman football on Thursday night.
Eventually he made the jump to sophomore football on Friday. And then he got his first varsity nod.
That’s when he made the tackle for St. Mary’s – the kind of experience that you never forget and always pass down to the guys who are still learning.
“You learn over time, and that’s an example of that,” he said. “You’ve got all these things that you have to worry about on the field, but then you have the things that you have to know based on the rulebook – we have a targeting rule this year for the first time ever that makes it illegal to hit another player above the shoulders.
“Last year was the first year that we had a defenseless receiver rule, and these changes are all coming as a result of safety improvements, which is good. But these are things that coaches need to know too, and nothing will lose you credibility faster than not knowing something basic. For example, when I hear “that wasn’t a catchable ball” coming from a sideline you lose a little bit of respect there because that’s an NFL rule. We get all of this criticism but we have to take these tests every year based on the rulebook and I don’t think that a lot of these coaches have ever picked one up.”
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Hands behind the back
Things don’t always run smoothly.
When a call gets made during the game – and, Scharmann said, a penalty of some sort could be called on every single down – it’s going to go against one of the two sidelines.
And that means that coach is going to let Scharmann know that he’s not happy with the decision – usually in a very loud, animated and sanctimonious way.
But he just takes a step to the side, places his hands behind his back and respectfully listens to the criticism that comes flying his way.
That’s the clincher – the hands behind the back. Scharmann’s father taught him that as a tactic to keep his cool and give the appearance to those in the stands that he is doing just that, even if the words that are coming out his mouth are contrary to that.
Hands behind the back. Nod. Let the coach vent.
“Most of the time that’s really the end of it. They just want to vent and they’re going to say what they’re going to say and that’s the end of it and you move on,” Scharmann said. “There are coaches out there that respect officials and those that don’t, and it goes the other way as well. You want to try and do what you can to keep the game going and be fair to both teams, but you’re never going to make everybody happy, all of the time.
“I’ve always said that as soon as it wasn’t fun anymore I’d give it up. And 34-years later I’m still here so even with all of that there’s still something there.”