Nearly every Friday night in fall for the last 60 years, Gordon Schlabs has found himself at a football field one way or another.
It all began when he was a teenager growing up in Kalispell and learning the sport at Rawson Field, home of the vaunted Flathead Braves football team. It was there where he developed a love for the sport, watching the great Flathead teams of the 1950s play for state titles. Only a few years later, when Schlabs was a senior in 1958, he helped guide the Braves to the Class AA state championship. Over the next six decades, football took Schlabs across the state, to Montana State University where he kept playing and to other cities, such as Laurel and Billings, where he coached high school teams.
Last Friday night, it all came full circle as Schlabs, 74, took the field in Legends Stadium, formerly Rawson Field, and earned well-deserved recognition for 35 years as a coach and educator and 20 years as an official for the Montana High School Association.
Schlabs was honored alongside Terry Reece, of Rexford, and James Magness, of Evergreen, who together boast nearly 100 years of service as high school football officials.
The three men received commemorative footballs at midfield and rousing applause from the crowd before Flathead’s game against Missoula Sentinel in the regular-season finale.
“A lot of good memories,” Schlabs said. “It’s all about loving the game as well as the people. That’s the biggest thing.”
The men are part of a group of 396 officials across the state who play a vital role in high school football.
Last week’s celebration was bittersweet for some who worry about the number of high school officials continuing to dwindle. In recent years, the regional pool of football refs has dropped from nearly 30 to barely 15.
“There’s so much knowledge and experience that goes out the door when guys like (Schlabs, Reece and Magness) retire. The scary part is without having the people step up and fill their shoes, how do you regain that?” said Chris Parson, director of the Flathead Valley Football Official Pool.
Being an official can be a thankless job and it sure doesn’t make anybody rich. Officials earn $60 for varsity games and receive some compensation for travel.
Instead, the officials are motivated by their desire to give back to the sport and make sure the younger generation enjoys safe competition, Parson said.
“It can be tough with their jobs and family time. But the folks who are in our pool have been extremely excited about being out there and are motivated for the kids. That’s why we’re doing it,” Parson said.
As perfect examples of the ideal ref, Parson points to the three men honored last week.
Schlabs went right into coaching after college and spent several years as a football and wrestling coach in Laurel, Livingston, Helena and Billings. In 1999, he retired and moved back home to the Flathead Valley. But his passion for football continued and he picked up officiating football games. He went on to earn the highest certification in the state as a Master official in recent years and worked playoff games in the twilight of his career. He worked his final varsity game in 2014 at the age of 73.
Reece grew up in Deer Lodge and played football at MSU-Northern, where he graduated in 1974. His start in officiating came in the Eureka school system where he was active as a coach and athletic director. After retirement, he also wanted to stay active and give back to the game he loves.
He officiated for 33 years while living in Eureka and was a long-distance member of the Flathead Valley Football Official Pool. He worked four state championship games in his tenure and earned the distinction of being arguably the best football umpire in Montana. He stepped away from officiating in 2013 because of health issues.
He said his proudest moment was working the AA state football championship together with his son, Shane, a fellow Master official.
Magness was born and raised in Anaconda and served in the U.S. Army before graduating from Montana State University in 1969. He began officiating in 1970 when he was recruited as a teacher in Evergreen. He continued active officiating for 43 years.
Magness worked numerous state championship games at all class levels and earned a reputation for being a valuable mentor for upstart officials. He said his favorite memories involved traveling on away games with fellow officials, such as Paul Jenkins. He said he is especially thankful for the many people he is able to call friends as part of his wonderful officiating journey.
“The reason I kept doing it was the camaraderie I had with all these fellows,” he said. “And it’s something you can give back to the game.”
For information about how to become an official, visit mhsa.org or call Chris Parson at 406-260-7204.
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