51 years of wearing the white hat
Bob Stenson officiated his first football game in 1965. In the 51 years since, Stenson has worn the white hat at many football games in Rugby and the surrounding area.
At 84 years old, Stenson still officiates with the best of them, enjoying every moment of the game as he did when he first started.
“I like the game,” he said. “[I like] keeping up with the rules, the kids, the players. I do a lot of subbing [at RHS], so I know a lot of the kids.”
Stenson retired from teaching in 1992, after 30 years of being a full-time educator. He has continued as a substitute teacher in the district.
“[Subbing] breaks up the day,” he said. “I can stay and get to know the students and faculty. I enjoy that.”
Stenson moved to Rugby in 1962 with his wife, Connie, who was a first-grade teacher. She had a stroke in 2007, placing her in the hospital since. For Stenson, both subbing and officiating allow him to get out of the house and partake in activities.
Along with officiating football, Stenson has a past officiating basketball. He was a basketball official until 1993, when he and his wife starting going to Arizona for the winters, taking him away during the basketball season.
It is clear, however, that Stenson prefers being a football official. “I think basketball officiating, in a way, is easier. In football, there are more decisions to be made. One thing I enjoy more about football, when officiating, [is that] they throw the flag, and you have time to think about why. In basketball, you blow the whistle, you have to know why right away,” he said.
Stenson said his favorite part about officiating is watching the players grow as they move from junior high through high school. “I like seeing how they progress,” he said. “Rugby did not have a good year this year, but we’ve got some really good freshmen and sophomores for next year.”
Some of the highlights that Stenson remembers most from officiating over the years include the state tournament finals at the Fargodome and being inducted into the North Dakota Officials Association Hall of Fame in 2003.
“I might add, when I was still in school here, I kind of headed up [a very active] official’s association,” Stenson said. “We had some very good officials in there, and schools and coaches in the area could always get ahold of me because I was always at school.”
Stenson also taught local classes to other officials where he taught what things to look out for during the game and how to play each position.
Stenson, himself, has only held the position of wearing the white hat, although he has tried to get other officials to try it out. “[With] football officiating, you’re assigned a spot. The guy with the white hat is the boss. That’s really the only position I’ve held as a ref, the guy with the white hat.”
In the time since Stenson has been an official, he has seen some changes to the rules of the game. There are a few changes every year, according to Stenson, but there have never been any major changes.
“Most of the changes that have taken place are for safety reasons, and that’s good,” he said. “The one that gets the most attention and that we are most aware of concerns concussions. Coaches used to say that if a player got hit in the head, he got his bell rung, but I’m not sure that they knew. I’m pretty sure it was a concussion.”
Another safety precaution added into the rules concerns blocking below the waist, which is now prohibited.
Stenson said that he has been fortunate to never see a major injury during his official career.
The only drawback to officiating, according to Stenson, is the time away from his family. “When my kids were younger, between basketball and football, I was gone a lot at night. I kind of regret that because my kids were playing sports too, but I didn’t get to watch them. That’s one of the downsides to it,” he said.
He still, however, encourages anyone to become an official. With a shortage of officials, Stenson said that interested young people should take up the game. To get registered, interested persons must pay dues and attend meetings. They will also take a written test given by the North Dakota High School Activities Association on official rules and aspects of the game in order to be eligible to officiate playoff and state tournament games.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Stenson said. “I think any official will tell you that in their career, there has undoubtedly been some bad calls, but in your heart, you were right.”
After 51 years of wearing the white hat, Stenson has no plans to take it off any time soon. “I’ll keep going until my legs give out,” he said.
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