Lamertina feels pride, challenge to be college football official | News, Sports, Jobs

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By Jason Lamertina

For the mirror

(Editor’s note: Altoona native Charles Lamertina has been leading major college football since 2015. Last season he worked on the Army-Navy game and reflected on the experience for the Mirror.)

To say that the passion for refereeing in football has taken me to places I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go in life, or meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have met, would be grossly understated.

Geographically, it took me from Hawaii to the Bahamas; while Eric Dickerson, President George HW Bush, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin all tossed my coin with the same eagerness this game brings.

The playoffs, bowl games, conference championships, big calls and missed calls have all been fun but still secondary to the experiences that surrounded them.

I probably wouldn’t otherwise have seen the solemn setting of Pearl Harbor or gazed at a redwood if it hadn’t been for the football game that was to be played nearby.

Since that moment in 1996, when I walked into an all-day clinic to learn how to referee high school football in suburban Washington DC, the game has never been the same for me.

I thought I knew football. I played it every chance I could in the alleys near 8th Street and in the fields of Altoona growing up.

I had played organized football in college, but found that knowing the rules of football is a game in itself.

It’s a “game within game” and helping to choreograph his game while ensuring fairness without injecting himself into his outcome is an art in its own right.

For years I had traveled tens of thousands of miles to football fields all over the East Coast (from Princeton to Brockport to Kutztown to James Madison), before a Division I supervisor gave me a chance to participate in major college football in 2015.

The American Athletic Conference is where I get my officiating assignments, and late last year, the assignment to the 122nd Army-Navy game landed on my computer screen.

The game was to be played in New York as we recalled the 20th year after 9/11. It has become the pinnacle of everything.

Army-Navy is the game that every football official wants to be assigned. The day before, my family and I arrived in the Meadiowlands in northern New Jersey, where the hotel was inundated with dignitaries and veterans of all kinds who were still beaming with pride and telling their stories or hugging each other to pictures.

Just walking into the Hilton was special.

The vibe was already rich with old buddies, team colors and lots of palm-clapping. There were wounded warriors and prosthetic limbs, but also laughter and the unwavering sense of camaraderie that filled the atrium.

The place was buzzing and the elevators were always filled with people asking who you were looking for and what year you graduated.

I told them all that I loved the game.

On match day, we left almost four hours before kick-off, but our police escort still had to fight their way through the crowds that had already filled the car parks before 11 a.m.

Banners of all kinds were unfurled. The military dress, the colors, the drums, the sound of music and the smoke from the drifting grill all gave a mix to that particular sense of pride as we walked through MetLife Stadium.

In the locker room, a call at the door for the “white hat” brought a man who gave me the special piece of the day. Reading the package it came in, I saw “Made with steel from the World Trade Center.”

It continues to send the same up and down shiver down my spine that I felt in that pre-game moment. Each team member read it and passed it on to the next with the same speechless expression as we remembered why today’s game was being played in the New York soccer stadium.

On the ground, the dignitaries were numerous towards the flood, but they were all stellar individuals.

There was 1958 Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins of the Army, who, at 83, looked quite eager to strap on a helmet and play; he was so excited.

There was Colonel James McDonough III, commandant of the US Naval Academy; and there was Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, Superintendent of West Point, who was so excited he threw his 60-year-old body into the air to “chest bump” every army player who dared to come within six feet of him as they took the field.

When the players stepped onto the pitch, the flyover that accompanied them was never so special.

The celebrated F/A-18s on Navy uniforms now paraded overhead in real time as they ushered in Navy players.

And came “The Heavy” as General Williams called them. The Chinook helicopters that appeared menacingly at the edge of the stadium and slowly made their way above made you feel like you were on the ground in real life “Call of Duty.”

They were an impressive and awe-inspiring sight.

Our draw was memorable. Meeting Secretary Austin has been a real privilege and honor to my team and the American Conference.

I knew I wanted to thank every individual who has ever worn a military uniform, as well as those who planned to do so in their future.

The student body of these two distinguished academies never sit down during the game, and I wanted to recognize them.

Pride was in the spotlight that day, and it was at a dizzying height. It was easy to call yourself an American and to remember the pride that made this country so incredibly great.

I thanked them all for their service.

They watched from all over the world, I’m sure, and I wanted them to know that it was their honor that we were celebrating that day. We did it with a simple game of football.

Oh yeah, and then there was a football game that was about to be played.

It’s called America’s Game.

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