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Lamertina feels pride, challenge of being college football official

By Charles Lamertina

For the Mirror

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

To say that the avocation of football officiating has taken me to places that I would not otherwise get to in life, or to meet people with whom I would not otherwise meet, would be to grossly understate.

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

Playoffs, bowl games, conference championships, great calls and missed calls have all been fun but remain secondary to the experiences that have surrounded them.

It is likely that I would not have otherwise seen the solemn setting of Pearl Harbor or gazed up at a sequoia tree if it weren’t 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 officiate high school football in the suburbs of Washington D.C., 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 while growing up.

I had played organized football into college, but I have found that knowing the rules of football is a game of its own.

It is a “game within the game” and helping to choreograph its play while ensuring fairness without injecting oneself into its outcome is an art of its own.

For years, I had driven 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 at major college football in 2015.

The American Athletic Conference is where I receive my officiating assignments, and at the end of this past 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 it all.

Army-Navy is the game every football official wants to be assigned. On the day prior, my family and I arrived at the Meadiowlands in northern New Jersey, where the hotel was awash with dignitaries and military veterans of all sorts that still beamed with pride and told their tales or hugged for pictures.

Just walking into The Hilton felt special.

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

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

I told them all that I just loved the game.

On game day, we departed nearly four hours prior to kickoff, but our police escort still had to weave its way through the tailgating throngs that had already packed the parking lots before 11 a.m.

Banners of all sorts were aloft. Military dress, colors, drums, the blare of music and drifting grill smoke all gave mix to this special feeling of pride as we passed through to MetLife Stadium.

While in the locker room, a call at the door for the “white hat” brought a man who presented me with the day’s special coin. Reading the package it came in, I saw “Made with Steel from the World Trade Center.”

It continues to send the same chill up and down my spine that I felt at that pre-game moment. Each crew member read it and passed it on to the next with the same speechless expression as we recalled why today’s game was being played in the home stadium for New York football.

On the field, the dignitaries numbered toward inundation, but they were all stellar individuals.

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

There was Colonel James McDonough III, commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy; and there was Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, Superintendent of West Point who was so pumped up that he hurled his 60-year-old frame into the air to “chest-bump” every Army player who dared get within six feet of him as they took the field.

When the players did take the field, the accompanying flyover was never more special.

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

Then came “The Heavy” as General Williams called them out. The Chinook helicopters that menacingly appeared at the edge of the stadium and slowly chopped their way above gave you the sense that you were on the ground in a real life “Call of Duty.”

They were an awesome and awe-inspiring sight.

Our coin toss was memorable. Meeting Secretary Austin was a true privilege and a great honor for my crew and the American Conference.

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

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

Pride was on display that day, and it was at a dizzying height. It was easy to call yourself an American and to recall the pride that has made this country so incredibly great.

I thanked them all for their service.

They watched from all over the world, I am certain, and I wanted them to know that it was their honor we were celebrating that day. We were doing so 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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