From the court to the field, we all know how the games are played. Athletes enter while dedicated fans fill the stands ready to cheer their hearts out. The winning touchdown and the buzzer-beating basket brings the prestige to all athletes, but there is one person on the field keeping together the integrity of the game.
Even though John Rabun had a full-time job of working for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado, he was searching for a way to be involved in the community that encompassed his love of sports.
The moment came in 1985 as Rabun was driving past a football game in Fort Collins, Colorado, noticing the officials, and thought to himself, ‘Hey, I could do that.”
Rabun continued to officiate when he moved to Douglas in 1989, traveling throughout Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska officiating football, basketball and arena football.
“There are not many towns in Wyoming I haven’t been to,” Rabun said with a laugh. Today, football remains his favorite sport.
Rabun has no short list of stories to tell regarding his 30 years of officating. He recalls a football game in 2015 between Shoshone and Rocky Mountain. The ball is snapped and a player made a dead run for the opposing team’s running back and nailed him.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, that’s going to leave a mark,”’ Rabun said.
Through the years, one aspect continued to stand out to Rabun: the way coaches interacted with players.
“The players reflect the coach,” Rabun said. “You notice the little things, how the players would hand you the ball and pick each other off the ground.”
Rabun noted smaller high schools were more friendly to officials, players and each other. Rabun was always blown away by their hospitality, especially after the game, when both teams would join for a meal, regardless of how the game ended.
CHANGING THE GAME
Two years ago, Rabun was approaching his 28-year mark when he found out he tore his Achilles tendon from years of running across the hardwood of basketball courts. Rabun was devastated when the doctors informed him if it continued to tear, he would need major surgery resulting in a six-month recovery.
Rabun was determined to reach a full 30 years of officiating. Heeding the doctor’s instructions, he began to follow the exercises and do everything possible to stay on the field.
One week before the 2016 football season started, Rabun was relieved to hear his injury had healed enough to get him back out there. He knew the strain of officiating basketball and football would be too much and he was not willing to risk losing his ability to referee. Rabun made a choice between basketball and football, choosing instead to officiate his favorite sport, football, for his last two years.
Rabun says football remains his favorite because of the relationships between the team and the staff. Noting how officials are harder on themselves than anyone else. Even with retirement, Rabun misses the long car rides between games with his fellow officials, where they would swap stories while recounting the highs and lows of the game.
Not all moments were filled with excitement. He remembers times traveling for games when all he wanted was a shower that worked and to not get dressed in a random school closet.
“You do it because you love the game,” Rabun said. “And want to be a part of the community.”
The Midwest was not the only community Rabun got involved with. His time as an official led him to Australia in 2002, for the Down Under Bowl, an annual football competition where hundreds people from arund the world came to participate. Rabun felt truly honored to be a part of the largest American football championship held outside the U.S.
Along with retirement, Rabun spends time remembering his favorite, and least favorite parts of the game. He begins to laugh once again when he recounts officiating middle school football games, describing it as “controlled confusion.”
“We’re having a good play if they have their mouth guards in and everyone is going the same direction,” Rabun said.
When it came to high school games the players got up close and personal tackling or knocking Rabun down. “Just because they are going after the quarterback doesn’t mean they always hit the quarterback,” Rabun said. “But they always apologize.”
Thirty years of being in the depths of the game, Rabun has seen changes. Mainly when it comes to the safety of the athletes. By improving the safety features of their uniforms, being aware of how dangerous concussions can be and implementing safety rules for player contact. Due to the risks when playing, from the last several years Rabun has noticed the decline of football participation for high school students.
“You put yourself at risk, as much as the player you are making contact with,” Rabun said.
ENDING THE GAME
After 30 years of traveling, learning and submersing himself in the game, Rabun knew it was time to close the chapter. The final game was Nov. 3, 2017, which held more than one special meaning. It was Rabun’s 69th birthday, and the day he received the Distinguished Service Award for 30 years of service from the Wyoming High School Activities Association. He was expecting to be mentioned during his last game, instead, he was taken by surprise during the state championship in Laramie. During the opening of the game, Rabun was called onto the field and was presented with the stunning glass award. The award stands as a reminder to him of his many years of dedication.
Rabun will continue to stay busy with retirement, by golfing, continuing to watch the sport he enjoys, and encouraging other sports lovers to become game officials.
“If you’re looking to get congratulated, it’s not it,” Rabun said. “But if you’re looking for something self-fulfilling, become an official, because every kid wants to see you do the right thing.”