Calling it like they see it

Published 11:54 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Suffolk residents Geoff Payne, left, and Bucky Payton have been calling area high school field hockey matches for years. Payne also officiates soccer and girls lacrosse while volunteering a great deal of time for Suffolk Youth Athletic Association. Payton, a teacher and former coach at Nansemond River, referees 300-plus field hockey games a year around the country.

Exposing the truth behind the men in black

On a good day, Geoff Payne and Bucky Payton are almost invisible in their second jobs. On the best days, no one remembers them or anything they did.

But as referees for a couple of second-tier sports in the area’s high school and youth leagues, the men have made an indelible mark in youth sports in and around Suffolk. It has been a surprising journey for both men, however.

Geoff Payne played field hockey in his youth in England, where it’s predominantly a male sport.

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The first field hockey game Bucky Payton saw was his first one as Nansemond River’s head coach.

Payne hasn’t played the sport in many years, and Payton hasn’t coached it in over a decade, but they still give tons of time and energy to keep the sport going and growing.

Payne also officiates soccer and girls’ lacrosse, so he stays largely local with the games he calls.

As “offseason” tournaments, indoor leagues and select leagues have begun to gain in popularity, Payton has been able to dedicate himself exclusively to field hockey. He’s worked 300-plus matches each of the last three years, with this year’s travels ranging from Pennsylvania and Florida to Arizona and California.

“I love the game of hockey and what it does for kids,” Payton said. “It’s a good game. It teaches about self and getting along with others. All sports do that, of course, but hockey especially seems to do so.”

“I enjoy doing it for the kids. I hope that what I do helps them enjoy it more and it gives them a better game,” Payne said.

Payton, whose parents were missionaries, grew up in Thailand. He played soccer and basketball in Thailand and in high school in Georgia. He continued with soccer collegiately until suffering a knee injury.

Payton, who moved with his wife from Georgia to Suffolk in 1987, coached basketball and football for four years at Suffolk and John Yeates high schools.

Nansemond River opened, and John Yeates became a middle school in 1990. There were no coaching openings for NR’s first fall, except for the new sport of field hockey. The principal suggested Payton head up the new team.

“No one in the city knew anything about it,” Payton said. “I was told, ‘It’s soccer with sticks.’”

In spite of that initial game plan, the Lady Warriors learned quickly under Payton.

The leader in NR’s first trip to the Bay Rivers District playoffs was senior Tara McClenney, who, 19 years later, is Lakeland head coach Tara Worley. Lakeland has won 21 Southeastern season and tourney titles under Worley. Lakeland won its first state title on Nov. 13.

Nansemond River won five straight district titles before Payton left teaching and coaching in 1999. Lakeland won its first district title in 2000.

Payton “dabbled” in officiating field hockey, softball and basketball. He returned to teaching at Lakeland, then King’s Fork, and coached girls’ basketball for the Lady Bulldogs. A health issue made Payton leave coaching in 2007.

“I’ve found the one exercise I really enjoy is officiating hockey,” he said.

Payne’s route to a whistle started with his son. He entered Jonathan, at age five, into the fledgling soccer league at Suffolk Youth Athletic Association. It was nearly traumatic for someone used to “soccer” across the Atlantic.

“The rules had been thought up by people who were well-meaning, but the rules were somewhat strange,” Payne said.

Most notably, defenders couldn’t cross midfield into the offensive half and vice-versa for the forwards.

“The first game, I saw this, and I said, ‘What is everyone doing? And why are they doing it?’” Payne said.

Payne coached some, but soon saw officiating and getting others to become certified refs as the way to improve soccer at SYAA.

He’s been recruited into field hockey and lacrosse in recent years out of a need for local officials.

“When I started (lacrosse), there were three certified officials in the area,” Payne said. “Schools would call an official and ask, ‘When can we schedule a game? When can you be there?’”

Payne saw a match at Old Dominion and read the rule book before calling his first lacrosse match.

So what’s it like to officiate sports that most people, even sports fans, know nothing about?

Parents still have things to say. Coaches, of course, do too.

“I’m not perfect. I quit trying to be perfect a long time ago. I do the best I can. I’ve resorted to this only a few times, but I’ve had to tell a coach, ‘I’ll call a perfect game one day after you quit,’” Payton said.

Profanity has no place, from anyone, Payton says. The only other problem he has is a claim a ref is “jobbing someone or a team on purpose.”

“It can be a parent, or a coach with 12 state championships, if you question my neutrality, you’re going to have an issue,” Payton said.

For the most part, both players and parents are well-behaved.

“Field hockey and lacrosse players rarely say anything at all. You make the call. Everyone simply gets on with it,” Payne said.

“Kids mirror adults. If the parents in the stands aren’t screaming and hollering, it helps, even if it’s largely because they don’t know the rules anyway,” Payton said.

“It’s just about playing, and there’s a beauty to that. No one’s in field hockey because it’s a way to make money or be famous,” Payton said.

Refs don’t care who wins, but they have goals. Payton strives to advance up the certification ladder. The biggest step isn’t mastering the rules. It’s physically keeping up with elite athletes playing an incredibly fast game.

“The top-level official has to be able to call an international-level men’s game,” Payton said.

“I don’t know if I can get to that elite level, but I don’t want to say I never tried,” the 48-year-old said.

A couple decades after his interesting introduction, Payne’s goals revolve a lot around SYAA.

He has developed and runs a program that brings youth into soccer officiating. Older kids, for example, call almost all of the younger division soccer matches at SYAA. He’s taught about 250 kids in 10 years.

Most Saturdays, Payne’s teaching at SYAA for eight hours or more. The kids make some money and get to be around a sport they like.

“It takes a lot to be a good ref. I think it gives the kids personal growth. It takes a lot, with peers, parents, strangers there, to be in the middle of the field and take charge,” Payne said.

But the adrenaline rush is still there, even after all the years of experience.

“I still get butterflies and adrenaline when I’m on the field and a match is about to start. As long as I’ve got that, I’ll keep officiating,” Payton said.