Tinker ref has been making the calls for decades

  • Published
  • By John Stuart
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Several inches of water covered the football field as Millwood High School and Bishop McGuiness fought it out on a sloshy Friday evening in the fall. Richard Zyzak stood as the offensive umpire that night some 25 years ago. Though a deluge had moved through the area before the game, he was relatively dry -- for now. The ball was hiked and the defense surged into action across the line of scrimmage. Zyzak, a seasoned referee and athlete in his own right, knew where to stand. But this time was different. This time he couldn't quite move fast enough.

"Out of the corner of my eye I could see this tackle coming on my right side," Zyzak says. "I tried to get out of the way but the next thing I know I'm laying on my back looking up in the sky and soaking wet."

If everything goes to plan, then nobody notices them. Thus is the way for sports referees, who live a life of extremes -- sheer neglect or copious negative attention. Sweltering heat and frigid cold. Cracked earth and apocalyptic monsoons. They see it all.

If they do their job, have no glaring mistakes in judgment and don't have many close calls, most of us give them little heed. But when a bad call does go down? A ref loses clout like the Hindenburg.

So it would seem that relatively few know what it means to don the white and black stripes, willfully pull their socks to their knees and hang a whistle around their necks, making the transformation from man to "zebra" complete. But if anyone understands, it's Zyzak.

It was fall of 1970 when he first suited up as a referee and umpire at Tinker. Back then he had a game to work every night of the week and sometimes two. The ball changed and so did the rules, but Zyzak officiated them all: football, basketball, baseball, softball. He loved the games and the rules, being outside and just furthering the thing he loved -- sports.

A Pennsylvania native, he went to college at the University of Idaho. His freshman year was tied up playing varsity basketball but the last three years he spent devoted to football, playing quarterback from 1951 to 1953.

So it makes sense that he'd want to be a referee. If you can't play anymore, do the next best thing. And Zyzak can't seem to get enough of this good thing. At 79 years young, he still suits up three days a week and heads out to the ball field. He's not sure how long he'll continue, but for now he's still having a good time.

"I don't know, my legs are still good," Zyzak says about hanging it up. "I used to set my goal at 75 (years old) and I passed that up so now I'm shooting for 80 so we'll see what happens."

Zyzak retired from the Air Force as a major, with 21 years as a medical administrative officer. He spent another 20 years at Tinker as a civilian before giving up full time work. Now he just does what he wants to.

"Where else can you do something you enjoy doing and get paid for it," Zyzak says of officiating. His keen eyes and lean frame are indicative of the fringe health benefits.

As a long-time member of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, Zyzak received a number when he first registered with the organization.

"Whenever you submitted your application up there they assigned you a number and I'm 3,421 out of the system," Zyzak says. "Now they're somewhere up around the 28,000 or 29,000 mark."

This isn't his first rodeo, in other words. But that doesn't stop him from going out just like he always did.

He does slow pitch softball and kids baseball at Tinker, but also high school football and basketball across Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, he's been an umpire for high school baseball playoffs and all star games, he's done college baseball playoffs and even refereed several international basketball games while deployed to Libya in the 60s.

Regardless of age or sport, Zyzak brings the same ethos to each game.

"Devote time and energy to your rules study and devote time and energy on the field," he says. "If you're just coming out here to draw a paycheck there's no sense in coming out. The kids are out here and you're out here for the kids so you want to give them the best regardless of what age group you have."

If you looked in his closet, it wouldn't be too hard to sniff him out. Currently, Zyzak suits up in five different uniforms depending on the game he's officiating. While it's the heat that doesn't get to him at the ballpark, the cold is his biggest weather obstacle. In terms of most rowdy sports venues, basketball always takes the raucous cake, he says.

He had a few words about coaches.

"All coaches are normal people till game time," he says with a laugh. "Then when the game starts they can turn into idiots."

But in his tenure of more than 50 years of officiating, Zyzak has only ejected a single coach from a game.

And he's just out there to give it the best shot he has.

"You're going to make mistakes. You can't make every perfect call you can't make everyone happy," he says. "You're going to get 50 for you and 50 against you. Hopefully you can get out there and do the best you can."

So come Jan. 19, as Zyzak rounds the bases on his 80th birthday, he'll reconsider what's next, whether he'll continue doing what he loves or make the shift from referee to spectator. But he needs no one to tell him when it's time. The tenured rulesman holds himself to a pretty high standard.

"If you can't do what you're supposed to be doing that's the time to start thinking about hanging 'em up," he says.

But for now, you'll see Zyzak out at the Tinker fields, his red shirt, black shorts and black hat in crisp form. He's getting paid to do what he loves, and he's still having too much fun to give it up.

"I still feel like I have a few more years in me," he says. And this is one referee who tells no lies.