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  • 22 Sep 2014

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PREP FOCUS: Bob Wellnitz -- referee with a big heart

by: THE OUTLOOK: DAVID BALL - Bob Wellnitz does much of his assignment work from a home office filled with Oregon Ducks memorabilia.Bob Wellnitz sits at his control center. There is no flashing red button, but there is plenty packed into this tiny space.

The back wall is covered in framed T-shirts commemorating various Oregon Ducks bowl matchups over the years. And Beavers fans aren’t left out. He has a floormat for you where visitors can wipe the dirt from their shoes.

A bookshelf along the side wall displays a collection of bobbleheads, most of them gifts from former minor-league baseball owner Jack Cain. This includes one of the marquee moments at Civic Stadium — Rodney McCray’s crash through the home-run fence. A pair of honorary footballs sit in the middle of the shelf, celebrating a career in football officiating that started in 1960.

A Cal Ripken autographed baseball sits in a case — a gift from Major League Baseball veteran umpire Dale Scott after Wellnitz assigned him his first high school playoff game. A pair of autographed Louisville sluggers are pinned to the wall, marking memories from a deep baseball history.

Wellnitz was a three-sport athlete in high school, attending St. Francis (now Marist High) in Eugene. He pitched and played third base on the baseball team, highlighting his prep career by getting hits off Mickey Lolich (Detroit Tigers) and Nelson Briles (St. Louis Cardinals) — pitchers who ended up going head-to-head in Game 2 of the 1968 World Series.

Wellnitz also coached Crow High to the 1968 and 1969 small-school state championships.

A lacrosse stick stands in the corner of the room, its netting poking up just enough to get noticed. It goes along with the banged-up helmet that sits on a shelf in the closet. These belonged to his son Kirk, who played the sport for three seasons at Oregon State — a way to remember a son who was lost too soon.

A member of the Air Force Reserves, Kirk died at age 32 when engine failure claimed his jet on a training mission over the Pacific Ocean.

This is where Bob Wellnitz does his work. He spent the last 24 years as commissioner of the Portland Football Officials Assocation — elected to that post eight times by his peers. Between sub-varsity contests, Friday nights and youth leagues, Bob is in charge of more than 1,200 games each season. His main duty is sending officials out to games each week, but his impact goes far beyond simply making sure someone is on hand to enforce the rules.

“We often go an entire season and no one misses an assignment,” veteran referee Brent Macey says. “Thousands of assignments go out, but there’s no chaos."

“He just does a great job of putting the right officials on the right games,” Vern Marshall Jr. says. “He has a truck load of common sense.”

Wellnitz has been around the game his entire life. His father, Ed, was a long-time official, and Bob found himself toting his dad’s bag from game to game as a child. Being an official’s son gave him an inside glimpse at the sports world he would come to love, and the relationship was a driving force behind his own desire to become an official.

But it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time when he was following his dad into McArthur Court for the state basketball tournament when a high schooler stopped him, cursed his dad and punched Bob in the arm.

“I’m just standing there thinking, 'If you’re upset at my dad, why are you coming after me?' ” Bob laughs.

His dad had a solid reputation for calling a fair game and would work two state title games and two Shrine all-star contests.

Bob and his father worked on the same crew twice — the most memorable being at Crow High during the Columbus Day storm in 1962.

“I still remember the score -- it was 4-0,” Bob says. “One safety came on a punt that got blown out the back of the end zone, and the other safety came when the wind blew the ball out of the kicker’s hands.”

Bob spent the early years of his career learning the ropes. An unexpected lesson came after he was asked to fill in as a last-minute timekeeper for a JV contest. This was before most schools had scoreboards, so time was kept with a stopwatch on the field. The last seconds ticked away in the first quarter, and Bob raised the official’s gun and fired. The blast went off inches from his ear.

“I couldn’t hear for a day and a half,” he laughs.

The Wellnitz men remain one of only four father-son combinations to have each worked a state championship game. Bob’s big moment came in 1983, when Corvallis downed Lakeridge 24-7.

Bob started out as a social studies teacher, with stints at Eddyville, Crow and Forest Grove, before planting himself at Gresham High, where he spent 25 years — most of them serving as a school counselor. He was the school’s head baseball coach through most of the 1970s.

“It was a special place to be,” Bob says.

Bob found that his work during the school day carried over to solving tensions on the football field.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed.

“This was back in the day when we drafted crews, and Bob was always my top pick,” says veteran official John Birkhofer. “I was always looking for a strong umpire, who could hold things together in there with the linemen. Those guys were always bickering, and Bob’s counseling background was a huge benefit.”

By 1990, his peers had elected Bob as commissioner, putting him in charge of where officials would be working. The calling card of his tenure has been to give everyone their chance. He has made a point of mixing his crews so that 30-year veterans are working alongside new guys still learning the ropes.

“He really believes in our younger officials, and when he sees guys working hard, he rewards them,” Macey says. “It’s important to be investing in our future.”

Bob is also careful to honor his long-time officials.

Larry Stoffregen had just been assigned his first championship game in 1997 -- a blockbuster matchup between McNary and Beaverton that Bob describes as ‘the best game I’ve ever seen.’

For Stoffregen, the game wasn’t so great.

He was moving into position along the sideline to cover a kickoff return when a player got knocked to the turf and crashed into his leg. Stoffregen went down with three torn ligaments in a knee. The game was just five minutes old, but Stoffregen’s championship experience was over.

“It’s a big, big, big deal to get that championship game,” Stoffregen says. “I was devastated.”

He was still early in the recovery process when Bob offered him a carrot to help him make the long road back to the field.

“Bob came into my room and promised he’d get me back in the championship game the next time we had it — that was huge in my book,” Stoffregen said.

“The guy makes it to the big stage and only gets five minutes? We had to get him back there,” Bob says.

Sure enough, two years later, Stoffregen was in stripes calling the 6A title clash between Beaverton and Sprague.

Then there is the time Bob got a call from long-time referee Vern Marshall Sr., with a special request to work a game with his son.

Marshall had just been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. His body was failing. Time was short.

Bob made one phone call. Marshall’s request would be honored. But there was more to the story.

Veteran official Terry Gierke, who went on to work in the NFL, took Bob’s call and was quick to add to the plans. Gierke used his network of pro contacts to put together a referee’s all-star team, many with connections back to Marshall.

So there they were, father and son in the locker room at Madison High, getting ready to take the field for a matchup of PIL teams with one win between them.

Then the door opens and in walks well-known officials Jack Barger, John Alderton, Nate Jones, Gierke and -- most famous of all -- Red Cashion, who made his drawn-out first-down call a staple in the pros throughout the 1990s.

The crew for this game had 92 years of NFL experience.

“He was really taken by surprise,” says Vern Jr., now a prep official in Arizona. “We were sitting there getting dressed and in walks this parade of all-stars. He was just shocked, and he greatly appreciated it.”

The striped-shirt group walked out of the locker room and the path from the door to the field was lined with fellow prep officials, who had arrived early to share in what Bob describes as the ‘finest moment’ of his tenure.

“Bob really instills a camaraderie. People really get to know each other and become friends,” Macey says. “When you sign up for this, it’s not just about going to games.”

“It was great to see all the valuable friendships he had made over the years,” Vern Jr. says. “It was an amazing outpouring of love. There were more officials at that game than there were fans.”

Vern Sr., made it through most of the first quarter before moving to the bleachers, his body too weak to continue. He would pass away several weeks later.

Last week, it was Bob’s turn to be honored by his brotherhood at a retirement banquet that featured plenty of handshakes and well-worn stories.

Over the next few weeks, officials will be eagerly checking their email on Monday mornings to see if they have a playoff assignment. For Bob, retirement marks a clear end to his service — or maybe not.

When asked of his future plans, Bob starts out by saying, “I’m totally done.”

But there’s this pause shaped like a question mark. And he continues.

“Well, I might find a way to help out, maybe be an evaluator. And I will probably make it down to Stark Street Pizza for some Friday night gatherings.”

After more than 50 years serving with his brotherhood of officials, don’t expect Bob to miss out on a chance to tell more stories.