STILLMAN VALLEY, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — It takes a lot of people to play a basketball game. That includes the men and women in the striped shirts…the officials. Jerry Whitney is one of those officials. He’s been at it for 46 years.
Whitney grew up in Stillman Valley and he still lives there.
“I did all the sports here in Stillman Valley and I went to Western Illinois on a football scholarship,” said Whitney.
So staying involved in sports by becoming an official was a natural transition.
“I had a couple buddies I worked with at Sundstrand that had a football crew that needed another player or another ref so I joined them. That was in September of ’73, and in October I was also registered for basketball so that was my start.”
Whitney estimates he’s worked more than 4900 high school basketball games since 1973. He has around 30 little, black, date books that lists the games he has worked and the miles he has traveled. As you might expect the sport and the players have changed a little over the years.
“It’s a much faster game than it was back then,” said Whitney “Kids are stronger and jump higher and move quicker and carry the ball more. They’re not quite like the NBA or anything like that, but they try to get away with things like that.”
One thing that hasn’t changed…fans who sometimes disagree with his calls, and those occassional fans who go too far in berating the officiating.
“I had an incident down south where I had to take a fan out and the coach or the athletic director says I can’t do that because he’s the president of the bank, and he’s the president of the school board, and I said, ‘I don’t care who he is we’re not going to play on if he continues.’ Well two minutes later he yelled and I pitched him out. He wasn’t going to leave and I said well then you’ll forfeit the game and the game is over. Finally he left and the crowd applauded. They were glad to see him go. They knock on the door after the game is over and it’s his son who is the star of the basketball team and he scored 28 points that night, and he thanked me for throwing his dad out. He said somebody should have done that a long time ago.”
Whitney says he’s more tolerant of coaches who complain about calls, especially experienced coaches.
“I’ll give them a stop sign which we can do now and give a warning.”
Whitney has worked eight Super-Sectional championship games in his career and he worked the Boys State Tournament three straight years in the late ’90s. Three State Tournaments are the most a referee is allowed to work in Illinois. Suprisingly those State Tournaments weren’t his favorite games.
“To me the number one game or the best games are those eight Super-Sectionals that I’ve had, because then it’s winner goes on , loser goes home, and again I focus on the smaller schools and the gyms are just packed. Wall-to-wall.”
Whitney wears an IHSA officials patch on one sleeve and the United States flag on the other.
“It’s just a tribute to our servicemen and women.”
As you might expect 46 years of running up and down courts keeping up with teenagers can take a toll on the body.
“In 2013 it was like, ‘Okay am I going to continue refereeing’ because my knees were hurting me so bad. I was bow legged. I was in pain every night.”
So he had both knees replaced that year.
“It’s been a blessing. I can now run again. I feel good. I have no pain at all.”
Thank goodness Whitney and other veteran officials keep at it because there is a serve shortage of officials in Illinois and that shortage is becoming a greater problem every year.
“I looked up the numbers and it looks like in the “Rockford area 15-year certified, top-level there’s only 63 officials,” said Whitney. “In the Rockford area with five or more years which is top-level there is 120. That’s not a lot of referees. Every little school around here needs at least six referees every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday.”
So what keeps Whitney going?
“Not very many people do this for the money because it’s 65 dollars for a game, so I think the reward is going in the locker room afterwards and going to your partner and he says, ‘We did a good job. We had no impact on the results of that game’. You can do that three or four nights a week… it’s pretty rewarding.”
Whitney doesn’t plan to stop refereeing games any time soon.
“I’d like to go at least three of four more years. Maybe more. I don’t know. As long as I can keep up. As long as I can positoin myself to do a good job I’ll keep reffing.”