WASHINGTON — More than 50 years separate Dale Torpey, of Washington, from the student athletes he referees. At 74, he has kept himself in top condition but after 40 years on the gridiron he has decided to finally slow down and retire.
Torpey said he always loved sports and played everyone he could while in high school. His career did not transfer to college or into the four years after that which he spent in the Navy, but his love of sports lived on.
“When I got out of the service I lived in Des Moines and had a good friend in there who was a referee and he asked me to join him on the football crew,” he said.
At 27 he began reffing basketball and football in the Des Moines area on and off. In 1979, he ended up in Washington and began working high school football games in the area at the age of 34. He said it’s his sport of choice because of the fast pace of the game and the life lessons it teaches the athletes.
“High school football, to me, teaches these kids so many great lessons about being part of a team and if everybody does their job everything goes well, and if they don’t do their job things don’t turn out quite as well. It’s a great life lesson and it’s a really good outlet for kids,” he said.
Over the course of his 40 year career, he said he has seen a lot of changes, most notably athletes themselves.
“Forty years ago it was rare in high school that you would have a 200 pound lineman. Nowadays if you don’t have four or five of them, you’re just not going to be able to compete,” he said.
Torpey said weight lifting, also, has gone from not existing to being a big part of all the sports in schools. He said he feels the rules have changed for the better and have created a safer sport now that being able to block below the waste and leading with the helmet are illegal.
To keep up with all the changes, Torpey said there is a test that has to be taken yearly and meetings to be attended. Keeping up with the athletes physically is also a challenge for him, but one he works on year-round.
“When I started doing this I was around 30 and the kids were 18. Now I’m 74 but the kids are still 18. That’s what the problem is as far as trying to keep up, but I train year-round. I do a lot of walking and jogging and some water therapy,” he said. “I exercise everyday and that’s the only way you can do it.”
Although keeping up is a challenge, Torpey said the hardest part is hearing from disgruntled fans who are only not familiar with the rules of high school football. He said he enforces the rules they way they are written, but not every fan is aware.
“Our biggest problem with high school officiating is people watch football on Saturday and Sunday and the rules in college and the pros are not the same as they are in high school. The biggest problem is people think all the rules are the same across the board and they’re not,” he said.
However, that has not stopped him from enjoying the career. He said there is not just one part of the job he can pin down that he enjoys the most because the experience as a whole is what makes it worthwhile.
“To me, there’s nothing better than going out on a Friday night with the kids around and the band playing the national anthem and the fans are excited about what’s going on. Unless you are there every night on a Friday night, you just can’t appreciate how great it really is,” he said.
The atmosphere is what he will miss the most, he said. Torpey said in football, referees have to commit to two-year contracts which will put him at 76. He said although he will fill in when he can, he feels the time is right to hang up the whistle because it’s what’s best for the athletes.
“Physically it’s just a good time for me to stop doing it. Really what it boils down to is it’s not fair to the kids that I can’t go out there and do what needs to be done. They expect you to stay up with them and be able to officiate a game the way it needs to be done and if you can’t do that you’re really hurting the kids and that’s not right,” he said.