Part U of the April A-Z Blogging Challenge, where every day this month except Sundays, I'll be talking about things I love - one thing for each letter of the alphabet.
As I mentioned two years ago, I'd intended to get into get into football umpiring a whole five years before I actually did. There was always something getting in the way of training, which was always on Thursday nights. First there was school, then there was work, then at one stage their was training for my own football club that I was involved in. But when I finally did get into it, I jumped in just as completely as what I had when I started improv.
Umpiring has taken me all over the place, officiating at many different leagues and levels that would bore you if I tried to explain it all. But I've been very well-received at every place I've been so far. After just my first season, umpiring for primary school games, my coaches gave me the award for the person who shows the most promise and the best attitude as an umpire (called the Corey Bowen Incentive Award) and they also asked me to come back the next year in a leadership role. Unfortunately in my second season, work once again got in the way. But this time, thanks to some clever working of the system, I managed to keep training on a different night while still doing games for the same people.
I have a cousin named Daniel who's basically the best at everything. He's tall, blonde and handsome, is studying law, gets fantastic grades, is a snappy dresser, comes from a rich family and is incredibly friendly, funny and warm. At one point during my five-year period of wanting to umpire, Daniel mused that he might get into it as well. By the time I joined the panel, Daniel was in his second year and just after I won the Corey Bowen Award, he was awarded Umpire of the Year. The next season, Daniel had been accepted into the SANFL (which for American readers, is the level of football just below our national league; Kind of like what college football is to the NFL). Feeling competitive, I made it my goal to achieve the same thing after my own second season. But due to not being able to train and umpire in the same place, that put a huge spanner in the works. This is where my next flash of inspiration came.
See, there are three types of umpires in Aussie Rules football. There's the field umpires, who are the ones in charge. Then there's the boundary umpires, who decide when the ball has gone out of play and whether or not it touched the ground or a player first. Then there are the goal umpires, who officiate and keep track of the scoring. At the end of my second season, I was asked to act as a goal umpire for an under-16s girls' SANFL game. I did it and enjoyed it, and it gave me an idea. I approached my coaches and asked them if they could put me in contact with someone who could get me into goal umpiring at the SANFL level. I figured that there would be less competition for spots and as such, the progression would be faster. They got me a spot at the SANFL's summer tryout program. The coaches were aware of my situation - that I'd come from field umpiring and was mainly looking to just get into the professional system. But that also meant I'd never goal umpired before. There were only a limited number of spots available and most of the others had been doing it for years. Still, I'd managed to win coaches over everywhere I'd been so far with my attitude, fitness and aptitude. I figured if I did what I always do, I'd be okay.
I was kind of right. At the end of the 5-week program, the coaches there took me aside and said "Look, we're not going to offer you a spot. But we've been very impressed. The attitude's there, the fitness is certainly there and you seem to be picking things up quickly. But at the moment those skills and signals aren't automatic, get a season or two into you so you can learn all those processes automatically. Then you'll be good to go."
They sent me back to what they called the Academy, which is a place where we umpire games for the South Australian Amateur Football League while still being on the SANFL's books for future seasons. Then one week, one of my coaches told me that in the next training session, we'd joining the senior umpires at Aami Stadium for a joint session. By a quirk of circumstances, I was the only person from my panel to show up and there were only four other umpires in the whole stadium - all of them field umpires. So I just joined in on their session. At the beginning we looked at footage of game situations and I answered questions from my knowledge of field umpiring (impressing the head field coach in the process). Then I joined them in their fitness session. Field umpires are required to be much fitter than goal umpires, so this was the roughest training session I'd ever had. But I just managed to keep up with them for the whole session, further impressing the coaches that were there. Two days later, I got a call from the head field coach.
'Hi Michael. One of our goal umpires has suffered a long-term injury to his foot and won't be able to join us for most of the upcoming season. That means we have a spot open if you'd like to fill it.'
'Absolutely, I'd love to!' I exclaimed.
So now I'm in what they call the "Center of Excellence", which handles all the different levels of the SANFL, from the under-16s right up to the senior reserves. I've more or less achieved that goal I set out to achieve - to enter the SANFL system after just two seasons. For the first time, I feel a bit out of my depth here. I haven't immediately picked this up to the standard they want like I have everywhere else. That's great, it means I have to actually work hard to achieve something for once.
Early on in my short time as an umpire, I was telling someone how much I enjoy it.
'You know,' I said. 'Everything I do, I do with the intention of making a career of it. My stand-up, the radio, blogging, acting, it's all going towards something bigger. Umpiring is the only thing I do just purely for fun.'
'And you know, that's the one that will end up being your career,' said my friend. It was one of the wisest comments I'd ever heard. Because within a few weeks I realised that I could indeed make this my career.