One colourful zebra

Bud Steen makes a call during Saturday's CFL game between the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan...

Bud Steen makes a call during Saturday's CFL game between the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders. It was the Edmonton lawyer's 500th game as a referee in the league. (JASON FRANSON/QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:20 AM ET

EDMONTON - It was early in the game, moments after there had been a scoreboard tribute to referee Bud Steen commemorating the milestone of working his 500th game.

The 59-year-old Edmonton lawyer stepped forward to announce a penalty against a Saskatchewan Roughriders’ player.

“Holding. Calgary. Number ...”

Oops. Rookie mistake.

“I just just shook my head at myself. All the Saskatchewan fans are booing and I’m working my 500th game. Come on, Bud!”

It had happened before. Once.

“I remember when the microphones first came in for announcing penalties on the public address system. I found myself practicing so I would sound how I believed a referee should sound announcing those calls.

“Holding. Hamilton. Number ...

“I was using Hamilton in my practising.

“So along comes my first game of the season and I step up to announce my first call ...

“Holding. Hamilton. Number ...

“I looked at one of the members of the crew and he had a big grin on his face. He pointed at the team and said ‘It’s Ottawa. Hamilton isn’t in this game.’

“It’s funny how things pop into your head,” he said. “I get on the field and I forget who is who. It’s not just teams. It’s players. Other than a few, guys like Doug Flutie or Ricky Ray, there haven’t been many guys over the years I recognize during the game even though I know who most of them are.”

In football, 500 games is a lot of games. Not many make it to 500.

“It’s going to be more difficult in the future, too. Now we get about 16 games. We used to get 22. I remember working a Friday game in Sacramento and a Monday game in Vancouver,” he said of the brief U.S. expansion era. And I remember doing a Friday game in Toronto and a Saturday game in Hamilton.”

Field judge Al McColman of Hamilton is in his 33rd season and went into this year with 632 games.

“No way I’m going to make that,” said Steen. “But I’ll go as long as they’ll let me go. I’d like another year for sure. I really like my current crew. But when the time comes I’ll be ready to move on. There are other things to do in football. I’m looking forward to the next phase of that as well.”

The old ref cringes when he admits his inspiration for becoming a CFL official in the first place.

“I was watching an Edmonton Eskimos game on TV. It was pretty horrendous stuff that day when it came to the officiating. I thought ‘If that guy can work in the CFL, so can I.’

He’s proud to say it isn’t like that now.

“There is so much more respect and support. There’s so much more funding for evaluation and education. We have such strong support right now. It didn’t used to be like this.”

Back then that brutal officiating didn’t just inspire him to set out on the path to becoming a CFL referee, it inspired him to do it the next day.

“I was starting to go to the U of A at the time and I needed an out-of-faculty course. So I went to physical education and said I wanted to take a course on officiating football. They put me in touch with the guy in charge of the local minor football officials who sent me to a high school junior game to, in his words, ‘Go watch.’

“I got there and the referee went into his trunk and produced a jersey, a whistle and a flag and told me ‘Don’t throw the flag.’

“About three or four minutes into the game a player was clearly and unquestionably offside. I threw the flag.”

Steen played high school football with the Bonnie Doon Lancers back when Eskimos legend Johnny Bright was the physical education instructor.

“When I got into officiating, he and Rollie Miles would come out and watch games together. They were very supportive. One year Johnny coached the Wildcats or Huskies and they just got smoked. He was sitting alone on the bench when I walked by after the game and he wasn’t looking very happy. He looked up and told me ‘At least one of us had a good game. Keep it up, Bud.’ ”

But it was flag football that made him an official.

“I loved flag football. It was real competitive. It was really rough and tumble. There were a lot of ex-Golden Bears and former Wildcats and Huskies. It was frontier style. We had some great games. But we really had trouble getting guys to work as officials. Finally I told them it wasn’t going to work unless every team supplied me with two guys to work as officials. I trained those guys and four of them ended up in the CFL with me; Bernie Prusko, Keith Henderson, Terry Connelly and Brian Small.”

Steen more than earned his way into the CFL.

“I had a few years where I worked 100 games a year. Quite often I’d do as many as seven to 10 games a week including high school double headers, junior games and double and triple headers of flag football ...”

Steen says looking back it’s strange that he’s been a CFL official for 500 games and yet he only worked one CIS game, the level generally looked at as the last step on the ladder.

“Bill Fry, who was heading up the CFL officials at the time phoned Bill Wright here and said ‘I’m going to be in Edmonton. I want to see Steen. Steen works the Golden Bears game.’ That’s the only game I worked. I went to camp with the CFL officials the following year.”

It was at that camp, and many since, that Steen fell in love with the people who wear the striped sweaters.

He loved hearing all the old referee stories like the one he passes on about Regina referee legend Paul Dojack.

“A player once told him ‘Dojack, you stink!’ Dojack walked off the yards for the penalty and asked player: ‘How do I smell from here?’

Steen has his own stories, like one night after a game in Taylor Field “we needed the RCMP to get us out to the car” and a few times doors to the referees room have been kicked by visiting team coaches who resided only a few feet down the hall.

“It’s not like that much anymore. A lot of time has gone in to educating everybody. We’re not the enemy. Tom Higgins being in there now has really helped. He talks their language,” he said of the former Eskimos’ coach and GM.

“Coaches have changed a great deal. Bud Riley had an expletive in every phrase. Then his son Mike came along and couldn’t have been more professional or polite.

“Cal Murphy once ripped his head phones out screaming at me. In later years after he got out of coaching we became pretty good friends.

“Al Bruno in Hamilton was hard case. One night in Ivor Wynne I gave him an objectionable conduct penalty. But I accidentally signaled disqualification. I couldn’t do that. But that’s what I wanted to do.”

Steen said he didn’t ask that he draw a game in Edmonton, much less one before 47,839 fans, to celebrate his 500th. But he was thrilled that Higgins gave him the game here.

“The first one was in Regina and that was quite a thrill, too.”

That was in June 1981. He can’t remember if it was before or after his 30th birthday on June 21st.

His first playoff game was the 1983 Western Final followed by the Grey Cup, the first of six.

“My favorite was 1989,” he said of the Saskatchewan Grey Cup win in Toronto that year.

“It was just such a great game,” he said of arguably the greatest Grey Cup game ever played.

There are many people to thank when you hit a milestone like he hit here Saturday night. People like Harold Ferguson.

At the end of the season early in his minor football officiating career the local zebras had their big annual social night and Ferguson, a CFL official of the day, was there.

“I told him I wanted to be a CFL referee. He said ‘Then we need to talk. I drink rum and Coke.’ So I went to the bar, bought him a rum and Coke and he was probably the most instrumental in having me looked at. The first time I refereed a junior game was because of him.”

Steen said there are so many officials he worked with he thinks about now that he’s reached the milestone

The aforementioned Bill Wright of St. Albert tops the list in which Vern Heath, Larry Rohan, Bud Ullrich and Don Barker rank right up there.

“Bill had a lot to do with getting me into the CFL and the other guys did a lot to keep me there,” he laughed.

Being a CFL official can’t be called an occupation.

“The most I’ve ever made in a year was $15,000,” said Steen. “I’ve been losing money doing this.

“A lot of people wonder why we do it. It’s definitely not the money. And we do take a bit of abuse on occasion. It’s the love of the game and the people you meet in this country who love this league.

“The respect I have for this Canadian game is immense. I think it’s such a wonderful game we have here and I consider it a real honour to have been associated with it. And I love it that I can see the same thing in the eyes of the guys we have coming up,” said the man who didn’t just referee all those games but organized the Canadian Professional Football Officials Association recently as well.

“The highlight is honestly meeting so many dedicated and talented officials who have chosen to make themselves available to the CFL and meeting so many people in Canada who share a common desire to see that the CFL remain a strong part of the country’s fabric.”

Get to know the Bud Steens who are and have long been part of this league dating back to the days of Paul Dojack and you realize they’re just about the last guys who deserve to be booed.

On the other hand ... “Holding. Calgary. Number ...”

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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