Boomer Grandpa: Respected official made the right calls

March 14, 2019

Having a passion in life is rewarding. A big part of who you are can be defined by that passion.

And, as life moves along, eventually a moment arrives when you must leave behind that calling, that passion. It’s never easy.

In high school basketball, it’s tournament time. This is an exhilarating time for the athletes, coaches, parents and fans. Moments of joy and disappointment will always be remembered by those who are competing.

Tournament time is also rewarding to the officials; the men and women who have a passion, a desire to stay involved and to give back to this great game.

Passion can drive you to be the best. Jeff Wills, a well-known, highly respected high school basketball official for the past 30 years, has decided to hang up his whistle. He has worked hard and is one of the best. Jeff is at peace with his decision.

He is ready to open another door. He wants to spend more time with his wife, Cindy, his children and four grandchildren. He will have more time to travel or to head to the cabin. Being an official has been a big commitment.

Big job

Last week, as Jeff and I had lunch together, he reflected on the support he received from Cindy. He would head to a school gymnasium immediately after work numerous evenings from November to March. Cindy’s love and encouragement was important to his success.

Jeff told me that being a high school basketball official has been one of the most powerful and influential things he has done in his life. Officiating helped him become a better leader, increased his patience and improved his listening and conflict resolution skills. The mental and physical aspects of being a basketball official has been an outstanding part of his life.

Every night that Jeff took the floor as an official, he wanted to give the student athletes and the coaches his best effort; every game, every night. It didn’t matter if a team was undefeated or hadn’t won a game, it’s the same effort — 100 percent.

Jeff grew up in Wabasha and looks back with gratitude to his parents, who supported him and his siblings in school activities. Jeff was a three-sport athlete in high school and remembers his coaches as a very positive force in his life.

After graduating from Wabasha High School in 1977, Jeff went on to play football at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Jeff’s original intent with officiating was simply to help out and work some youth games.

Drawn in

When Jeff and his family moved to Byron, he ran into an acquaintance, Greg Rathbun. Greg, who was a teacher, high school coach and official, invited Jeff to join the Rochester Officials Association. It was clear to Greg that Jeff loved the game and had the temperament to be an exceptional official.

At first Jeff didn’t bite, but eventually jumped in as a “rookie” basketball official in 1989. Jeff fondly remembers many who mentored him and helped him develop into an outstanding referee. Veteran area officials Gosse, Kittleson, Severson, Springer and Rathbun all modeled a deep commitment to the game. They demonstrated how to enjoy being an official.

That can be tough. There are moments when the verbal criticism that high school officials encounter is difficult to describe. According to the National Association of Sports Officials, 80 percent of new officials quit after two years. Most leave because of poor treatment. Lawsuits are being filed over decisions that high school officials make.

It is a struggle to recruit and retain officials. They are needed at all levels for all sports. Officials like Jeff Wills cared about the student athletes, the coaches and the game of high school basketball.

Great ride

Over the years Jeff Wills earned respect. Whenever a coach saw him step out on the court before a game, they understood they would get a well-officiated game.

Jeff had a soft spot for each person in the officiating circle that he came in contact with. He got to know the scorers, timers, announcers and game managers at every school. Jeff would acknowledge the bus drivers, custodians and the small-town newspaper photographers. He became friends with radio and television sports individuals, security staff at Mayo Civic and yes, even fans.

This past Monday was Jeff’s last game. Standing out on that basketball court prior to his final high school varsity game was emotional. Jeff reflected on what a great ride it has been.

When the jump ball was tossed, Jeff gave his partners, the coaches, players and fans all he had. Jeff Wills told me if he could turn the clock back 30 years and start over, he would do it again. That is passion. He will be missed.

Please; after a high school competition, say thank you to a ref.