During a lengthy drive from his Sacramento home to Oregon for a golf and fishing vacation, Mike Pereira had plenty of time to think about addressing two issues especially important to him. How could the former director of NFL officiating combine enhancing his lifelong profession while helping military veterans transition into new careers.
He came up with Battlefield to Ballfields, an organization the current Fox Sports analyst launched this week. His group will offer financial backing, training and eventual placement for servicemen and women to pursue careers in officiating.
“I was thinking about the shortage in officiating and how we could get veterans to become officials,” Pereira said Wednesday. “Could I start a foundation that could pay for vets to become sports officials?”
Using his own money, Pereira and his wife, Gail, began a pilot program in California. Now, with the help of a board of directors that includes former Titans and Rams coach Jeff Fisher; former Green Beret Nate Boyer; and Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, Battlefields to Ballfields is going national in multiple sports.
“We did research on armed forces veterans and those who had returned, and we learned much of their struggles involved them missing being part of a team, missing having a goal,” Pereira said. “And so it seemed to almost parallel officiating, which really is a team concept, a goal of trying to find order out of chaos.
“It seemed a pretty good match and we came up with this idea,” he continued. “We are going to find these returning vets and will be getting them involved in their communities and help them find a new direction and goal.”
Pereira will reach out to the various professional leagues, college conferences, high school and youth associations. He’ll also conduct fundraising to corporate entities, and has scheduled a golf tournament for June 19.
“We are trying to get officials involved and trying to improve officiating as part of this program,” he said. “I am hoping sports organizations and corporate people will help with the funds. A scholarship for a veteran will basically cost the foundation $1,500. I want to assign a veteran to each scholarship so anyone involved at that level will have a direct connection.”
Pereira already has a prized student in Thomas Harris. A former Navy sonar technician who served on the USS Alabama and USS Tunny has worked nearly two decades for Trader Joe’s.
As part of his involvement with a veterans program called IAVETSTT (Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Transition Training), he met Boyer, a onetime football player.
Harris asked Boyer about finding more employment and Boyer asked whether he ever considered officiating.
“I never thought about it, but sure, why not,” Harris, 42, said. “Me and a handful of other guys sat down at Fox with Mike, where he pitched the program.
“I am a huge sports fan, and I thought how while I watch the game I am playing the role of an official, I am judging the call and everything, and what the players are doing. Why not take a shot?”
Harris attended the pilot program, getting lessons on football rules and positioning. What he brought to the meetings—as does every vet, Pereira says — are skills inherent to having served in the military.
Those skills mesh perfectly with officiating.
“Not just their being leaders, but the concentration aspect and the discipline they have to have when engaged in battle,” Pereira said. “Those are vital when it comes to officiating.
“Also crucial, you are dependent on your team members. In the service, you basically couldn’t do without your team. In sports, whether it’s a two-man or three-man unit in basketball or seven-man in football, you depend on your team. It is so much alike.
“One of the things that struck me is the fear factor. These guys and women are not going to be intimidated by fans or by coaches, they’ve been through much more pressure-packed situations. They have all those characteristics that you have to have to become a good official.”
Sure, but they still have to start somewhere. And Harris, a line judge, said he was “ready to puke” when he worked his first games, a junior varsity and then a varsity contest at his alma mater, Chatsworth High School.
Somehow, he got through it, and the rest of the season went so well that at the final game, at East Los Angeles High School, Pereira was on the sideline doing a little mentoring, but mostly showing his pride in Harris’ work.
Now, Harris is looking to also work in baseball and basketball.
“Why pass on this opportunity?” Harris said. “Plus there are people out there who want to really help the vets, people like Mike Pereira, who is walking the walk. I want to make that guy proud.”