Musick: Order on the court

WOODSTOCK – John Vetter is a 55-year-old pickle salesman from Carpentersville.


Dave Kudzma is a 50-year-old cement truck driver from Machesney Park.


Jeff Carr is a 57-year-old District 155 administrator from Rockford.


No, these all-caps rants are not column reviews from feisty online commenters. They are merely a few of The Bleacher People’s greatest hits, recorded live at Woodstock during a recent boys basketball game against rival Woodstock North.

But the three-man officiating crew did not seem to notice the free concert. At no point did the referees take a bow or say thanks or toss mini-whistles into the crowd.

Maybe the incessant background noise spoiled their experience. The gym was packed and the score was tight, and the fact that both schools brought their student sections meant that someone was cheering loudly at any given moment.

So much for being able to decipher a great insult hurled from the 14th row.

“Actually, bigger crowds are better,” Kudzma said. “You can’t hear them.”

Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have led with the insults.

Oh, well.

The truth is that these men have thick skin, which is a necessity for just about anyone whose work attire includes black and white stripes. All told, Vetter, Kudzma and Carr combine for about 70 years of officiating experience.

Want more truths?

They love sports. They love working with kids. And they’re really good referees.

This is why they subject themselves to physical soreness and verbal abuse.

“I do it for pleasure, enjoyment,” Vetter said. “And I’ve got a front-row seat.”

Sure, they could head straight home after their day jobs and crash on their couches and flip on their TV sets. But officiating opens doors to experiences and friendships that each of them has come to cherish.

“It’s a vocation,” said Carr, the operations manager in District 155. “I think our job is to make sure that everybody maintains that perspective and idea of what high school sports are all about, and all we’re there to do is to enforce it.

“We’re going to be 50 percent right and 50 percent wrong, depending what it is, but our job is to make sure there’s good sportsmanship and they play by the rules.”

Carr’s vocation has led him all sorts of places, from half-empty gymnasiums in McHenry County to college football’s biggest stage. During the fall, he works as a college football official for the Big Ten. He served as the umpire in the 2006 national championship game between Texas and USC, which hard-core football fans might remember as the Vince Young game.

It was not surprising, then, to see Carr work the floor with intensity at Woodstock. He handed out a pair of technical fouls, one to Blue Streaks coach Alex Baker in the first half and one to Blue Streaks forward Mason Sutter in the second half, after protests to foul calls lingered for too long.

Each time, order quickly was restored.

Keeping order is no small accomplishment in a gym filled with dozens of competitive athletes and hundreds of biased observers. Maybe Woodstock’s crosstown rivalry wasn’t going to be the top story on “SportsCenter,” but the game carried great meaning for everyone involved.

In the moment, as coaches try to advocate for their players, tension with referees can build. But that tension is short lived compared with the respect and understanding that lasts long after the final buzzer.

“My coaching staff and I talk a lot about how our first responsibility is as teachers,” Baker said. “So the thing we try to remind each other when one of us starts to go on the tilt a little bit is to say, ‘Coach, you’re a teacher.’ A teacher can still teach the players without having to influence officials either way.

“So that’s what I try to remember. Sometimes, it’s easier said than done.”

Woodstock North coach Steve Ryan agreed. Each game represented a fresh start for coaches, players and referees regardless of the previous result, he said.

“You shake their hands after the games, you talk to them the next time you see them,” Ryan said. “And once the game’s over, it’s no hard feelings. We go on.”


Just kidding.

That’s pretty cool.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at and on Twitter @tcmusick.