Finding joy on the field as an official

Hobby: An Ellicott City resident tackles his love of sports by working as a referee for youngsters' games.

Howard At Play

November 09, 2003|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Robbie Meehan has a busy schedule. He gets up about 4 every morning to exercise and then leaves about 5:30 to get to work, going around Harford County as a sales supervisor for a beer distributorship.

The Ellicott City resident often makes it home about 6 p.m. Then, when it's time to relax at night or on the weekend, Meehan turns to his hobby - being a referee or, more formally, an official.

Meehan, 46, serves as a recreation official in football, basketball and softball. Now he is working many football games.

It is not uncommon for him to have a heavy load each weekend - Meehan was scheduled to officiate four football games Nov. 1 alone at Cedar Lane Park - and he was the only Howard County-based referee in the Maryland Independent Football Organization (MIFO) at the start of the fall season.

`I just love it'

He has been a football official for 12 years, and he has handled basketball and softball for about 20 years. Many people, he said, have asked him why he spends so much time in a job that is accompanied by so much abuse.

The work, he said, brings him joy.

"I just love it," Meehan said. "I just love being on the field with the kids. I was bitten by the bug, and the bug is you want to be out there every day just officiating and refereeing every game you can get. It's like a part of you ... because you're still on the field doing what you did when you were younger."

Meehan will officiate two to four days a week and almost always works on weekends. He will often handle games on weeknights and not get home until about 9:30 p.m.

It takes a lot of time, but those close to Meehan understand that this is something that means a lot to him. He is the father of three - Jennifer, 21, Jarrod, 10, and Kelsey, 7 - and still coaches from time to time. But the officiating is what he really loves.

"We both work full time, and it's his out," said his wife, Patty. "He just likes to be on the field. He loves football - he really likes to be on the football field."

Meehan has always enjoyed sports.

He played tailback at Woodlawn High in Baltimore County and later moved to semi-pro football with the Baltimore Eagles.

Informal coach

He coached Jennifer in soccer and softball before becoming an official. While working as a football official, Meehan said, he tries also to serve as a sort of informal coach on the field. He will work with children from 7 to 13 years old and usually will tell children that they are doing something wrong before throwing the flag.

It is important, he said, for children to learn.

Meehan said illegal procedure and offside are the football penalties that he calls most often. Recreation and high school football use different rules than those in the college and professional games - something many parents and coaches don't realize.

For example, if a defensive player in youth ball breaks the plane of the line of scrimmage, the play is automatically dead. In professional football, that player can jump back into position before the ball is snapped.

Frank Cimbolo, president of MIFO, assigns Meehan many games. He said it takes officials about five years to learn all of the rules. But he also said that sometimes you find referees who are on the field not for the money - they make $40 to $50 a game - but simply for the love of what they do. That's where Cimbolo sees Meehan.

"He would do it if he wasn't paid," Cimbolo said. "Certain guys will do it just because they love it. One out of every 10 guys really loves it, and Robbie's one of those."

Meehan understands what comes with the territory - the parents and coaches yelling all types of interesting remarks - but he is very much used to it.

He also looks for things to laugh at and enjoy. One of the stories Meehan loves to tell is about something that happened during his first year.

When he was in charge of the chain crew in a game - which tracks the position of the football for each play and the distance needed to achieve a first down and retain possession - he accidentally gave one team an extra 20 yards while changing ends of the field after a quarter.

"I still hear about that one," Meehan laughed.

He also skipped his 25th anniversary high school reunion a few years ago to work the chains at the Towson-Morgan college football game.

While Meehan still coaches at times, he said his experience as an official has toned him down and has given him an appreciation for the job.

"When I played and when I coached [earlier], I was a wild man, but when I put the stripes on it gave me a totally different look," Meehan said. "I was wild, and I played hard. When I coached, I coached hard. I thought I knew all the rules, but being an official changed me."

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