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Pereira, NMAA team up for ‘Battlefields2Ballfields’

Fox NFL rules analyst Mike Pereira, left, congratulates Pete Ulibarri, the first military veteran to join Pereira’s “Battlefields2Ballfields” program in New Mexico. GREG SORBER/JOURNAL

Armageddon.

That was the word Mike Pereira affixed to the crisis state high school associations face in this country.

The average age of an amateur official has gone up every year for 10 years, Pereira said.

The number of overall officials has been in decline for those same 10 years, he said.

“I think what happens,” Pereira said, “is they are affected by the sportsmanship, and the way they are treated, and the lowest levels are the hardest for officials. People breaking into this know the least and get treated the worst.”

Pereira on Thursday brought with him to Albuquerque a program that could help replenish that shrinking pool and simultaneously give military veterans some renewed purpose.

Pereira, Fox’s NFL rules analyst, is – in conjunction with the New Mexico Activities Association – launching an initiative called “Battlefields2Ballfields,” designed to reach out to military veterans, both retired and active, asking them to become high school officials and to integrate a little deeper into their communities.

The foundation, begun in February of last year, already has enrolled over 100 veterans, and Periera hopes to add 100 each year.

New Mexico is like many states, facing a shortage of officials that NMAA Commissioner of Officials Dana Pappas has often labeled a “crisis.”

“But it’s static,” Pappas added. “We haven’t lost anymore, but we haven’t gained any. We have officials who want to retire but we have nobody to take their place.”

Pappas said about 8 percent of varsity events in New Mexico are negatively impacted by this issue. At the sub-varsity level, the number is closer to 30 percent, she said, referring to canceled or rescheduled games due to a lack of officials. There are approximately 1,700 officials in New Mexico, Pappas said.

The dearth of football officials is the most pressing need. The central region, which includes the metro area, must ship crews to other regions to get many games staffed. Artesia, Pappas said, despite being the state’s most decorated football city, doesn’t have a single high school football official.

New Mexico is the first state to partner with Pereira’s foundation.

“I’d like to walk before I run,” Pereira said, asked if other states were soon to follow New Mexico’s lead. “I needed a partner I could trust in, and who could implement it properly.”

By trying to recruit both retired and active military, said Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating, New Mexico can attack the “armageddon” scenario by adding new members of various ages.

Take 51-year-old Pete Ulibarri of Santa Rosa, a retired Army veteran who served 30 years. He now lives on Albuquerque’s West Side, but he stood up Thursday and said he would become the state’s first volunteer. He came to the NMAA last week, looking to become an official, and subsequently learned about Pereira’s brainchild.

“We’re put under lots of pressure (during military service),” Ulibarri said. “We know how to work under pressure.”

“Battlefields2Ballfields,” a nonprofit to be funded by charitable contributions from businesses, organizations and individuals, will pay for uniforms and dues, and also will take care of equipment, training and insurance. And, the program will provide a mentor, with the hopes that new officiating recruits will eventually become mentors themselves.

“I love the game of basketball,” Ulibarri said. “I wanted to get into officiating. For me, to be the first one … man, I’m blessed. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Pereira started working as official in the early 1970s. He was an official in the Big West and Western Athletic Conference – he gave a hearty and humorous shoutout to former UNM football coach Dennis Franchione for Franchione’s ability to verbally berate him – and is a former NFL official.

He served as the NFL’s supervisor of officials before being promoted to VP of officiating, and then retired after the 2009 season. The next year, he joined Fox, and shares a booth on Sundays with that network’s No. 1 broadcast team, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

“What I look for in officials (is) courage, focus, teamwork … that’s a veteran,” Pereira said. “I thought, could I somehow merge the two together?”

Pereira said he was keen on finding a way to give back to his longtime vocation.

“What have I really accomplished?” he said. “In reality, the answer to this is nothing. … If I can (give veterans) a chance to work and to make new friends and to serve again, then I would feel good about where I ended up in life.”

Those interested in getting involved should visit Battlefields2Ballfields.org.

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