Back in his days as a paramedic, Brian Smith and his colleagues dubbed their line of work the “McDonald’s of healthcare.” Thirty minutes on one call, then clean the back of the ambulance before riding to the next adventure.
Their job was to get patients to the next level of care as fast as possible.
That’s why he laughs when telling his story. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and he’s sitting in his office at … Westview Community Church?
With a big smile, he says that no one thought his story would turn out like this. Not him. Not his wife, Kara. And certainly not his friends.
He’s a pastor.
“I discovered after 25 years in health care that everybody still dies,” Smith said. “No matter how hard you work, everybody is still going to die. So I say, ‘I just went after eternal stakes.’”
He went from doing systems design for Farm Bureau Insurance, to being a paramedic, to working in hospital management, to this. As a paramedic, he saw blood, guts, death and just about everything else. It prepared him to be a pastor because, as he says, “church should be about conflict.” He’s still saving lives, but he now gets more time to help improve them long-term.
Abuse and addiction replaced the blood and guts.
Westview also has a program that helps women who were victims of sex trafficking. One Sunday, a woman graduated from the program and had tears in her eyes as she spoke in front of the congregation.
She received a plaque and is ready to start a new life.
“It’s meeting people where they’re at and helping them get their lives restored, get balance back, recover their marriages, whatever,” Smith said. “It’s part of a restoration and a focus, and having joy and peace in life even though the world still has struggles and there’s difficulties each day. How do you navigate that when you have a perspective that’s more eternal?”
That night, he’s going to Valley Heights, which is about 45 minutes away. He’s scheduled to referee the varsity girls and boys basketball games between the Mustangs and athletic powerhouse Hanover.
He’s been a basketball official since 1985. Smith grew up in Sidney, a town in western Nebraska. Growing up, he said he was the typical kid who loved sports.
When he was in college, he ran the clock for a men’s league. One day, the officiating crew was missing a referee, so the other two refs tossed Smith a uniform. In college, Smith officiated intramural games, which was “decent money for a college kid.” It then gave him and his wife some extra cash when they were out of college and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with their first-born son.
His love for basketball is evident. A large framed picture of the set from the movie “Hoosiers” sits on his office wall at Westview. As he turns his head and points at it, he smiles. It brings back memories.
For high school, Smith attended St. Anne’s, a small Catholic school in Lexington, Nebraska, that has since closed. He played on the basketball team, and in 1984, his squad went to the state championship game.
“Hoosiers,” which came out in 1986, is a movie that tells the story of a small-town Indiana team that won a state title. It is loosely based on the Milan High School squad that captured the 1954 state championship in Indiana.
Smith’s team was the No. 8 seed and had to beat three undefeated teams to reach the title game. They didn’t have anything left in the tank to pull off one final upset, but “Hoosiers” remains Smith’s favorite movie because it reminds him of his team’s run.
“We were the little guy,” he said.
With that, he checks the time. Whoops. He’s running a bit late, so he grabs his stuff, leaves his office and heads for his Toyota Camry. He’s about to trade a dress shirt and sweater for the stripes.
The human side
Among the many conversation topics that arise during the drive to Valley Heights, one stands out. It’s about how referees are human, and about how spectators, in the heat of a game, don’t always remember that.
Officials care, Smith said. They never want to decide a game. He’s seen colleagues quit after 20 years because they miss one crucial call and can’t get over it. It crushes them.
“It’s a fear that drives how hard you work,” Smith said.
That night, Smith and his fellow crew members, Larry Myers and Ken Winkley, ref two games in a hostile environment. Some are like this, some aren’t. But the explanation for why the crowd is so testy is simple: Hanover dominates Class 1A in most sports, and other schools don’t like it, so everyone wants to beat Hanover when possible. That leaves fans of any Hanover opponent on edge.
But Smith has experienced much, much worse.
One night sticks out. In 33 years of officiating, he’s never again been through something like this. Smith declines to name the schools who played — out of respect — but his crew handed out six technicals and two ejections. Usually, he added, two technicals in a game is a lot.
A student and a player were the ones ejected.
After the game, one of them saw Smith and his crew members eating at a restaurant before they left town. The kid took a picture of the officials and posted it to social media, presumably with a disrespectful caption. Smith doesn’t know because he never saw the post.
Right after it happened, the officials received an apology from the school, which also disciplined the student.
Normally, this is what happens: Referees make a call fans don’t like, then the fans say mean things. They yell. They boo. They are quick to blame.
“In basketball, a field goal percentage of 50% is amazing from the field, Smith said. “Officials normally have a 90% accuracy rate on calls in basketball. Everybody just remembers the one or two that are big or wrong or questionable.”
Smith, a seasoned vet, can handle the verbal abuse at this point. He loves when the crowd gets loud for a game because it means he can’t hear what fans are saying about the officiating.
But the issue, he said, stems from what occurs in the lower levels. Smith said it’s not the varsity referees who are quitting; it’s those who are just starting out.
According to a study done by the National Association of Sports Officials, 80 percent of young referees quit within two years. Smith said this is because fans expect lower-level officials to be just as accurate as varsity refs, which is unrealistic because referees develop over time.
Like others, Smith said he wanted to quit about 100 times when he first began officiating. There’s one story he tells about when it got so bad that he was sure he’d be done that night.
The young Smith was working a junior varsity game. “I was just getting chewed up and spit out on the crowd,” he said. At halftime, his mentor gave him two pieces of advice he can still recite verbatim.
First: “You’re the cheapest psychologist on the planet. People pay $2 just to come and yell. That’s all they do.”
Then: “You’ve got to understand the good Lord Jesus Christ could come down and put on the stripes, and people would yell at him, too.”
When Smith arrives at Valley Heights, he heads into the school. Referees always have their own room on site. It’s their headquarters throughout the night.
Today, Smith and his two crew members, Myers and Winkley, are stationed in the nurse’s office. It has a desk, a bed, a bathroom and a sink. It looks like a mini-doctor’s office.
Before each game, the referees meet to discuss what to expect. They might talk about a 6-foot-3 player who gets above the rim, or warn one another to look out for something specific. Then, they talk about similar topics at halftime.
Smith said he can usually sense when the atmosphere will be crazy on a particular night, and on the drive to Valley Heights, he said it would be for these games.
The building already is buzzing when the girls hit the floor for the first game of the night. Smith and his fellow officials jog the floor to warm up while the teams do.
“I’m a little nervous going up, but once the flow is established, I feel pretty good,” Smith said.
The Hanover girls won that game, which featured fans ribbing Smith, Myers and Winkley at times. They expected it, they say, when they meet at halftime.
During the girls game, the refs made a foul call. A baby became fussy at that exact moment.
“You don’t even agree with the calls, huh?” said the man holding the baby.
On the ensuing possession, the man yelled, “Block!” during a play. The refs didn’t call that one, much to his dismay.
The crowd for the boys game takes the intensity to another level. The place is packed. The energy is palpable.
There is yelling and screaming from both crowds throughout the game. The coaches were in line, Smith said, but the fans were off the hook at times. That doesn’t faze him as much as it did when he were younger because he now tunes it out.
Referees are people, too. They want a clean game just as badly as you do.
“I want to go out where nobody knew we were on the court,” Smith said. “That’s the best compliment.”