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Monday, 12 May 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 19: Footy Umpiring

I've been trying to get into footy umpiring for five years. To be an umpire, you have to be available Thursday nights for training and Saturday and/or Sunday for games. For the last five years, there's always been some reason why I can't do it. In my last year of high school I had a subject which went after school hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I left school I entered a part-time TAFE course which took place on those same nights. The next year I joined a footy club as a player, which meant not only Tuesdays and Thursdays were taken up, but Sundays too.  Shortly after I left, I fell into a part-time job which required me to work Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. I still have that job today.

However, this job had been very sporadic with its hours lately. The client we're working for had been constantly changing their minds about what they want and postponing things, which meant that shifts were constantly put off or cancelled. To make matters worse, the work I was getting during the rest of the week had completely dried up. So I was spending my days just sitting on my computer, wondering what to do with myself. It took me a week to realise... The new footy season was just starting and I now had all the right days free. The time was perfect. Sure, it meant I wouldn't be able to continue with this client. But let's be honest, it was time to move on from that job.

I did some playing around with my schedule to make absolutely sure I was free for training on Tuesday night. I wasn't sure what time training would be, but I figured it would start any time between 6:00 and 7:30. So I turned up to the oval at 6:00, parked the car and stared at over the completely empty, dark valley. I sat there playing with my phone, watching the occasional car turn up and then leave again a couple of minutes later. It got to 6:40 before I realised that no one was going to turn up. The lights still weren't even turned on. I couldn't have gotten the venue wrong, could I? Did they still train on Tuesdays? Did this umpiring panel even exist any more? I was pondering these questions for five minutes when I heard shouting behind me. I craned my next to look out the window of the car and behind the car there was a second oval with some people passing around a football. I moaned and get out of the car, walking up to the group of people. I saw a smaller group of people sitting out to the side, so I decided to ask them for information.

'Hey guys, is this the umpiring panel?'
'Nah, this is the Greenacres Football Club. I think the umpires train on the lower oval there.'
'Yeah, but I think they've skipped training this week because the league has a bye round.'

Urgh. Do you know how much effort it took to get here? I went home and the next day I went on the internet to see if there was a number I could call. I found the number of the man who runs umpiring in South Australia and gave him a call. He informed me that they only do training on Thursdays now and that this had indeed been a bye week. So I was going to have to wait another nine days.

Now knowing me, any number of things could happen in those nine days which meant I would no longer be able to attend. I spent the next week in a fret, convinced that something would pop up. Lo and behold, I got an email saying that our client at work had finally, absolutely, 100% sorted everything out and that shifts could recommence that weekend.

"Well I'm going to have to turn up to training anyway," I thought. "They're expecting me now, and I've already decided to quit this job. But wait, if I've decided to quit, how come I told them I could do the shifts? Because I need the money, that's why. Okay, here's what I'll do. I'll give them about a month to find a replacement, and that will give me time to find a new job and learn the basics of umpiring before my first game."

I turned up on the Thursday, much to my relief. I'd been told training was at 6:00, and there were indeed people at the ground. But the people I was meant to train with seemed to be missing. Eventually one of them turned up and I saw him doing some stretches in the distance. Graham - the man in charge of training - told me to go introduce myself and go for a lap around the oval with him.
'Hey Daniel!' He called. 'This is our new boy (what was your name?) Michael! Make him feel welcome!'
As I approached him, he came out of the darkness and I discovered that in fact I already knew him. Daniel was my cousin. One of my favourite people in the world since I was two years old. He'd told me he was interested in umpiring, but just hadn't found the time, like me. I had no idea he'd sorted it out and signed up. We laughed and high-fived, confusing Graham back on the ground.

Only three people turned up to training that night, myself and Daniel being two of them. The third guy was a nice kid named James who I think was the most experienced. Anyway, I trained hard for half an hour before Graham called us inside to talk theory. It was there I met Paul, one of the coordinators. He was eager to get me going on a game - he was running short on umpires at the moment. I had to tell him I couldn't quite start on games yet. There was just one more thing I had to sort out with work before I did it.

Heading back to the car, I had a chat with Daniel.
'How much money do you get for games?' I asked.
'It depends on which grade you do. For a while, you'd get about $30 a game.'
'I see. I'm in a situation where I have to choose between this and my weekend job. I've got a couple of other little sources of income here and there, but this weekend job is my main source of income at the moment. Maybe if I quit that job, the lack of income would spur me to find something concrete in the entertainment industry, like I've always wanted.'
'Have you ever thought of... you know... getting a normal 9-to-5 job?' He asked.
'I have, but I just couldn't do it.'
'I think you might have to,' he said a little patronisingly.
'Well, thanks anyway.'

I kept going to training and also kept losing heart to tell work that I'd quit. I'd get emails asking me for my uniform size or to attend training sessions and I'd keep responding to them. Paul kept trying to get me onto games and I had to tell him I was working. Then on Thursday we were back in the club rooms taking care of administrative things, when Paul came up to the group and said
'Congratulations to Nathan, he'll be umpiring his first game on the weekend.'
The group clapped in that obligated way that most groups clap. Then he said
'And also Michael! He's umpiring his first game too.'
More obligated clapping as Paul handed me a schedule and failed to notice the stunned look on my face. The schedule detailed the games that would take place on this oval on the weekend. There was a slot highlighted which said "Grade 2s & 3s. Oval 2. 9:00am." I went up to Paul after the meeting and said
'How long does a grade 2/3 game go for?'
'It's four 10-minute quarters. You should be out of there by 10:00'

What an interesting turn of events. Work didn't start until 12:00. And the ground was already half way between home and work. I could do the game, go grab some Subway for breakfast, get changed and be ready to start by 12:00 easily. I spent the rest of that night and all of Friday boning up on the rules and all the signals I'd have to make.

I rocked up to the ground half an hour early. Graham and Paul were already there, among others, just starting to set up the grounds. The big reserve was to be split into four different ovals by a series of small cones. I helped them set it up while the droves of kids in their little footy guernseys and parents who'd been dragged out of bed started to turn up. As 9:00 approached, I found the coaches of the two teams I'd be officiating and introduced myself, making sure to tell them it was my first day. I get through a lot in life by telling people it's my first day. It's especially useful if it's true.

The siren went and the game began. I threw the ball up in the air and the two appointed rucks contested it. The grade 2 & 3 games are designed purely just to introduce kids into the game. As such, there's no tackling, smothering, bumping or anything like that. When a player gets the ball, all the other players can do is chase him until he gets rid of it. Once he kicks it, all another player has to do is touch it with both hands and we'll call it a mark. As all the players dove in on the football, I had to clear a path for the person who grabbed the ball and watch them throw it haphazardly onto their foot to tumble it forward.I was pretty nervous about making any decisions - you know how bad the kids' parents get - but I don't think I did too badly.

Quarter time came around and Graham stepped out to give me some advice. Apparently I was standing too far outside the contest and I wasn't confident enough with my whistle. Easily fixed. The players came back out and stood on opposite ends of the oval to what they were before.
'Do you guys swap ends each quarter?' I asked the one girl on the team. She nodded quietly. Probably because of the big red mouthguard that was impeding her speech. The second quarter started and for the life of me I couldn't remember which way the teams were heading. At one point a player kicked it out of bounds and I turned to the coach and said
'Was that out off the blue team?'
'What, no! It was out off brown!'
'Gotcha. You! number 12! Your ball.'

There was one kid - number 20 for the brown team - that didn't really get the idea of letting the player with the ball get a kick away. He kept chasing after them and trying to knock the ball out of his hands. I had to keep calling him away. At one point he took a mark within kicking distance of goal and as he was lining up, he turned to me and said 'Can I play on?'
In the big league, this is allowed, so I assumed it was the same here.
'I'f you want,' I said. He ran around the man on the mark and kicked a goal. Afterwards the coaches came up and had a quick word with me. Apparently it's not allowed. Whoops. Luckily, they don't keep score in the 2/3s.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the rucks lined up to contest the ball. There were two kids on opposite teams who were chasing each other around the centre circle.
'Careful boys,' I said. 'Eyes for the ball, we don't want any injuries here.' The kids in the middle giggled and I felt a lot more comfortable from there. That's lucky, because I also had my first problem with a parent in that quarter. It wasn't much - the players had dived on the ball and I was waiting to see if it would come out before calling a ball-up. I guess I waited too long for this one dad, who yelled "Come on ump!" I wasn't fazed.

The third quarter ended and as the fourth quarter began, we noticed that everyone on one end of the ground was doing the same thing of chasing each other around.
'I think they're playing kiss chasey.' I said to the kids in the middle.

Loved it.

They laughed for ages.

It was comedy gold.

Does it say something about me that that was almost more rewarding than the game itself? The game finished and the teams lined up and shook hands. I chatted to Paul and Graham for a bit before they gave me a crisp $30 and I went home to shower for work.

The whole experience was very rewarding and I'd like to do this for as long as I can.

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