One Last Call

After 34 years serving as a high school football official, Warren Dobler made his last coin toss at this year’s Flathead-Glacier crosstown game

By Micah Drew
Football referee Warren Dobler makes his final coin toss at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Oct. 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When watching a football game, the first thing Warren Dobler does before each down is count the defense. It’s reflexive, a habit drilled into him after spending more than three decades officiating games in Montana. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s high school, college or NFL, I’m counting,” Dobler said. “It’s one of the basic pre-snap routines; count the players on the field.”

This fall Dobler retired from working as a referee and judge on the gridiron after 34 years. While he didn’t throw a flag during any games this year – he spent his time mentoring upcoming officials – his years of service were honored at the Flathead-Glacier crosstown varsity game in October where he donned his white cap and stripes one last time to perform the coin toss. 

“I have a silver dollar here – I’ll flip it, catch it, and if I drop it we’ll do it again,” Dobler said to the captains of the two teams, before instructing Glacier to call it. With their pick – heads – Dobler flicked the heavy coin into the air, caught it and flipped it over onto the back of his left hand. 

“It’s heads – Glacier won the toss, and will defer,” he said, motioning to the announcer in the press box. 

For Dobler, his final appearance on the 50-year line was a way to bring about some closure for a job that had been an enormous part of his life. It was also a fitting scene for a commemoration – Dobler played football for Flathead High School and his grandson currently plays for the Wolfpack. 

“It was a tough decision to decide to step away this year, but a lot of it has to do with my physical abilities,” Dobler, now 71, said. “Trying to keep up with 16- and 17-year-old athletes is hard and I didn’t want to be thinking ‘am I going to be able to get over there to see what’s happening,’ rather than my responsibility, which is focusing on the actual action.”

Dobler, a self-described sports junkie, first began working as an official for Montana athletics in 1988, completing two years of an apprenticeship with the Montana Officials Association before joining the Flathead Football Officials Pool.

By his rough estimation, Dobler has worked more than 300 regular season varsity games across Class B, A and AA, and likely more than double that number of sub-varsity and middle school games. Starting in 1993, Dobler was selected to officiate playoff games for 28 consecutive years, making him one of the longest serving officials in the state — an impressive feat considering he didn’t start until he was in his 30s.   

“Warren was a leader, mentor and very well respected locally and statewide,” said Chris Parson, leader of the local officials pool. “His accomplishments are, in my opinion, unmatched.” 

Dobler officiated seven state championship games across all three classifications, including as head referee three times. 

Two separate state championships games – in Bozeman in 2015 and Bigfork in 2010 – Dobler remembers vividly for the number of layers he had on just trying to stay warm enough to focus on the games.

“I remember I was on the south side of the field and the wind was just whipping down from the north and it was just brutal,” Dobler said of the Bigfork game. “But talk about the best seat in the house. We have some of the greatest venues for football in Montana and that Bigfork field, no matter the weather, is just a wonderful experience.” 

Football referee Warren Dobler makes his final appearance in uniform on the field at Legends Stadium in Kalispell on Oct. 14, 2022. Dobler has retired after 34 years of officiating. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

One of the hardest parts of leaving the officials pool is knowing that numbers are limited in the Flathead Valley. According to Dobler, there are only 17 officials in the area. Those officials are responsible for all games hosted by Flathead, Glacier, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Eureka and Bigfork, as well as some junior high schools. Because of the limited numbers, officials occasionally have to be brought in from other cities so that teams can play. 

“I mean sometimes you’re talking Monday, Tuesday, Thursday games, plus a double header on Friday – I’m always amazed at how much these guys will step up and make room on their schedule,” Dobler said. “You either have to be retired or have the flexibility in your job for that, and there’s just not many people like that. 

Dobler said that he spent a lot of time recruiting younger officials this fall, hoping to bolster the roster, but said that prevalence of year-round youth athletics means many young parents are already swamped with sports-related time constraints. He’s optimistic that the number will rebound though, not the least because his fellow officials are some of the most fun, dedicated and passionate people he knows.  

Dobler will continue to get his fill of football enthusiasm by attending Wolfpack games to watch his grandson play, as well as watching all Bobcat games as a proud alumnus. No matter where or how he’s watching a game though, he’ll have to fight against his own nature to reflexively make calls from the peanut gallery. 

“I’ll be sitting down and going through the motions muttering, no that should be 10 yards, that signal could be more precise,” Dobler said with a laugh. “My wife has to keep reminding me to just watch the game and have fun.”