Making the right call

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There is no place Bill Elder would rather be on a Friday night than under the lights.

He's addicted to high school football, and he doesn't deny it.

He can't get enough of the excitement that buzzes in the stands minutes before kickoff. He is drawn to the bite of autumn that saturates the air and the glow of the lights that cut through quickly fading skies before most teams score a point.

Elder is a high school official, and although he is not alone, he is part of a vanishing group of referees in Northwest Colorado.

"It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done," Elder said about working on a high school officiating crew. "I just love the game, and being a football official is a big part of who I am."

For nearly 30 years, Elder has given up his free time to make sure the rules of the game are enforced on fields in towns such as Steamboat Springs, Craig, Hayden, Oak Creek, Walden and Meeker.

For 12 years, most people in the area knew him as a deputy with the Routt County Sheriff's Office.

He retired in 1995 but continued to work as a Realtor, and more recently, as supervisor for the Steamboat Springs Transit system.

During that time, he moonlighted as a high school official. Not for the extra money, but just to be a part of the game.

"I wouldn't say being a football official is life changing," Elder said. "But between the meetings and all the different games, it's a pretty big commitment."

Elder is one of 12 certified officials who work games in this corner of the state. Some of the men work in mines, car dealerships or shipping companies. But during the fall, they meet on the football field and share a love of the game.

Most people in Craig know Steve Hafey as the voice of the Moffat County Bulldogs because he broadcasts the varsity games on Friday nights.

Others knew him as the human resource manager for Trapper's Mine until retiring a few years ago.

But like Elder, Hafey has lived a double life and concealed a deep secret that most people in Craig came to realize years ago.

Since officiating his first high school football game in 1968, Hafey has worn the black and white stripes at high school football games and wrestling matches. These days, he has limited himself to middle school games because of his involvement as a broadcaster with KRIA and because his son is a coach with the Moffat County football program.

While his voice carries the game to thousands of people, he says his heart remains on the field.

Throughout the years, he has officiated state championship games, college games and formed friendships that will last a lifetime.

"I've seen it all, and I've heard it all," Hafey said. "I wouldn't trade the experience of being an official for anything."

He recalls the memories from a game between Mesa State University and Sacramento State University that ended with a knockdown, drag-out fight that brought the game to a screeching halt. He still has a clipping from the Wall Street Journal about the game, which became the first college game to be canceled because of a fight.

He chuckles when he recalls how one coach pulled out his false teeth at midfield to make a point.

Hafey made the mistake of telling the coach that he threw a flag because one of the coach's players hit another after the play had ended. The coach told him his player didn't hit him, and Hafey responded by telling him the hit was so hard that it nearly knocked the other player's teeth out.

The coach calmly pulled his own teeth out and asked, "Did it look like this?"

Although Hafey admits he isn't always the most popular guy in town, he is proud of his years on the football field. He also is proud that all three of his sons have followed him into officiating.

One of his sons attended a Major League Baseball school in Florida and worked at the single-A level for a couple of years.

"My whole family is into officiating or coaching," Hafey said.

Another son, Kip, is one of the reasons Hafey has been forced to cut back on varsity games. He is the coach of the Moffat County team.

South Routt's Elvis Iac--ovetto spends his days work--ing as a water commissioner.

But when he isn't measuring water flow, Iacovetto can be found on a football field.

For more than 26 years, he has called games across the state. His family has followed and supported him during that time.

"Basically, it has become a way of life," Iacovetto said. "A good official contributes back to the game, and this is my way of giving back."

He's aware that the crews in this area are getting older and smaller. He said new recruits come along from time to time. But the pace has slowed down lately.

"It's a slow process," Iac--ovetto said. "It's not like new officials start out working varsity games. They have to pass a test and then work their way up. It's hard, and more than 75 percent of new officials decide it's not for them."

But he also understands that there are people in communities such as Craig and Steamboat who have something to offer the high school children in the area. He is hoping that a few of them will come out this fall and discover why there is no better place to be than under those Friday night lights.

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