CANTON - As most high school football fans know, the average age of local officials is getting higher and higher with each passing year. Thanks to the sponsorship of the National Football League, a number of local area residents will be out on the football field this year making the calls.
For the third consecutive year, the NFL has sponsored a local NFL Football Officials Academy under the direction of NFL Replay Communicator Jay Kiger of East Liverpool. Twenty-six people recently graduated from this year's academy, which was held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Included in the graduates were local residents Jake Boyle, Jalen DeSarro, Austyn Dozier, Dave Dozier, Eric Richards and Delbert McCallister.
"The NFL sponsored seven officials academies throughout the United States this year," Kiger said. "We were fortunate, once again, to have an academy close to us. This greatly benefits our local football programs as we are able each year to get a number of young, well-versed officials, which helps improve the quality of games, from the youth leagues on up."
Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington were the other NFL academy sites.
Initially, most of the new officials will get their whistles wet officiating youth league and junior high games. From there, they'll eventually move on up to junior varsity and varsity high school games.
Denny Stoddard, who graduated from the 2012 academy at East Liverpool High School and will be working with a varsity crew this year, drove a number of the locals on the weekly trip to Canton.
"I learned a lot two years ago," said Stoddard, who is active in the Columbiana County Officials Association. "It just makes sense to get these guys involved. They receive excellent instruction, not only in the rules, but also in how to apply them. They learn proper behavior, both on and off the field."
During the eight-week course, knowledge of the rules and applying them was paramount. Professional behavior in dealing with coaches, players and fans was also stressed. Plus, new officials were able to get out on the field under the tutelage of the instructors as they worked passing scrimmages at Stark County schools.
Boyle and DeSarro have both been officiating basketball the past three years in addition to officiating youth football.
"I enjoyed the sport and wanted to stay close to the sport," said DeSarro, a 2011 graduate of Wellsville High School, in explaining why he took part in the academy. "I have had a great time and learned a lot."
Learning from widely-recognized instructors is what drew Boyle to Canton on a weekly basis.
"I'm getting the chance to meet people who are connected with the game and the various leagues throughout the area," said Boyle, who graduated from Southern Local in 2011. "We're learning from people at the top. I would recommend this academy to anyone who wants to be an official."
Readers will undoubtedly see Austyn Dozier's name and picture numerous times this year and next on the pages of this paper, as he is just entering his junior year at East Liverpool, where he plays football, basketball and baseball.
"My dad and I decided to take the class together," Dozier said. "I wanted to have a better knowledge of the game. I figured it would help me out on the field. I would like to be an official."
Dozier's father, Dave, had prior officiating experience.
"When Austyn was little, I did some officiating," the elder Dozier said. "When Austyn started playing sports, I quit officiating so that I could be with him. I'm anxious to get back into it."
In 2012, the first area NFL Football Officials Academy was held at East Liverpool High School, where Kiger is the assistant principal. The 2013 academy was held at St. Clairsville High School.
In addition to the classroom and on-the-field instructions, each of the academy graduates received a full officials uniform which included two shirts, shorts, slacks, shoes, hat and ancillary equipment; including whistle, penalty flag and bean bag.
Former West Virginia University standout Undra Johnson was a member of the class. Johnson commuted weekly from Bridgeport, West Virginia, where he is a financial advisor. A member of WVU's undefeated 1988 team which played Notre Dame for the national title in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, Johnson saw brief action with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
The instructional staff was headed up by Jim Sperlazza of Follansbee, West Virginia ,and Craig Griffith and Michael Griffith of East Canton. Sperlazza works many of the high-profile football and basketball games in the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference as well as football in the NCAA Division II Mountain East Conference. He officiated the 2013 West Virginia Division II state football championship game in Wheeling. Craig Griffith has been selected to officiate the upcoming championship game of the Arena Football League on Saturday, August 23. His son Michael graduated from the academy in 2012.
Local officials Matt Karpinski, Jason Harold and Ryan Willis, who all graduated from the 2013 academy worked as crew leaders at this year's academy.
"We couldn't have been treated any better by the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Kiger said. "The Hall of Fame's President/Executive Director Dave Baker and his staff provided everything we needed and more."