It became a pre-game ritual. Dan Henige would put on his white
referee’s cap, huddle with his officiating crew at midfield and crack a
joke. “He did it,” crew member Mark Grine said, “to take the edge off.” Henige has been decompressing for a half-century. He’s also been doing some other incredible things…
ONTARIO – It became a pre-game ritual. Dan Henige would put on his white referee’s cap, huddle with his officiating crew at midfield and crack a joke.
“He did it,” crew member Mark Grine said, “to take the edge off.”
Henige has been decompressing for a half-century. The Ontario resident just completed his 50th season as a high school football official, a distinction he shares with 23 other active striped-shirts in Ohio.
In that time, Henige has worked 376 varsity contests, including North Central Conference, Firelands Conference and old Buckeye Conference games involving Mansfield Senior. None was more of an adventure than the first, a battle of unbeatens McComb and Arlington on Oct. 20, 1961.
“I was a greenhorn, filling in for someone, and realized when I got to the game I had locked my shoes in the car,” Henige said. “I had to take a rock and break a window. That was an inauspicious start to my career.”
It would get much better. Henige got to work games involving state powers Cincinnati Moeller, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Youngstown Mooney. He also refereed freshman games at Bowling Green State University when he lived in that part of the state and was assigned to Ohio Athletic Conference college games for several years.
“I don’t want to sound altruistic,” Henige said, “but I tried my best every game, whether it was Division I or Division VI.”
The laminated contract from his first collegiate game — Kenyon at Wooster on Sept. 22, 1979 — hangs on the wall in the computer room of his condominium.
“Before there were conference commissioners to line up officials, I would drive with my buddy all over northwest Ohio, stopping at schools and talking to athletic directors to get jobs,” Henige said. “I don’t know now if I’d have the (guts) to do it.”
A few years after he started drawing varsity assignments, Henige took on the job that no one else on his crew seemed to want — referee.
“It was always a crapshoot … who wants to take the white cap?” Henige said. “The referee takes the most grief; he’s the guy in the forefront. In the years I did it, I would have loved to have a microphone like some of them do now, so I could say, ‘We have holding … I’d love to explain it to you.’ “
He’s not kidding. Henige is as much an educator on the field as an arbiter.
“We’ll be working a lower-level (middle school) game and if a kid lines up offside, Dan won’t throw a flag; he’ll stop play and show the kid where to stand,” Grine said. “It’s one of many teachable moments by Dan.
“One of the best things he taught me was that you can know all the rules, but you still have to have a customer service relationship with the coaches.”
When his wife, Laurie, died in 1994, Henige gave up refereeing because of the stress and became a field judge. Part of him misses donning the white hat.
“I enjoyed taking charge,” he said. “I used to practice signals in front of the mirror. I didn’t want to be helter-skelter. I wanted to look good.”
It was never about ego, no matter how much time Henige spent looking at his reflection.
“He never stepped on a field to do it for himself; he did it for the coaches and the kids,” said Mike Sparks of Bucyrus, who still works lower-level games with Henige after several years together on a varsity crew. “He was the one who inspired me to be a referee and crew chief, which I am now.
“We’ll talk two or three times a week during the season. I’ll ask him how he would handle situations because he is the consummate perfectionist. Dan has forgotten more than I’ll ever know.”
Henige, who turned 70 last month, shares the same birthday (Nov. 4) with his son, Tim, an Ontario teacher and the Warriors’ junior varsity boys basketball coach. A native of Toledo and former Tiffin resident, Henige moved to Ontario in 1997 after he retired as a data processor to be closer to his son and daughter-in-law Wendy (also an Ontario teacher). They’ve given him two granddaughters, Grace, 11, and Claire, 6.
Henige also has a daughter, Kris, who lives in Orange, a Cleveland suburb.
“I used to come home from games and my wife would either be on the couch watching TV or in bed,” Henige said. “I would lay across the bed and fill her in on what happened. The first game I officiated after she died, I came home, sat on the stairs and cried because the house was so empty.”
Henige fills some of the void by spending time with family and traveling the world. He has logged 341,000 air miles over the last decade, visited 52 countries and every state but Alaska and spent time in 92 airports, on six continents and in 10 provinces of Canada. In 2005, he trekked to base camp at Mount Everest, which is quite a hike in itself at an elevation of 18,000 feet. Base camp is only 2,000 feet shorter than Mount Denali, the highest mountain in the United States.
Henige, whose great uncle, Roger Bresnahan, was the first catcher inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, has attended games in 32 major league parks with his son.
“I have this wanderlust,” he said.
His love for travel is one of the reasons Henige cut back on his officiating schedule in recent years. He now limits himself to 10 or 11 middle school, freshman and junior varsity contests each season.
“I can’t run a lot anymore,” he said, citing the only concession he’s made to age, “and I don’t want to get hurt because that would ruin my chance to travel.”
To keep fit, Henige walks 100 miles a month. To celebrate his 70th birthday, he did 28 laps on the Ontario High School track, covering those seven miles in two hours and 20 minutes.
A sense of humor also keeps him young and fun to be around.
He jokes about all of the high school football games he has attended with Ontario teacher and former coach Bruce Weirich.
“We have a deal,” Henige said. “If I pick up a chick, he’s on his own to find a way home.”
When Sparks was a young official, looking for games, Henige gave him the name and phone number of an “assigner” to contact.
“I called and said I’m looking for Art D. Vark,” Sparks said. “The woman on the other end said, ‘Sir, I think someone is pulling your leg. This is the Toledo Zoo.”
“Dan is the king of the pun and practical joke,” Grine said. “He always tells a joke before games and I’ve always appreciated that he also says a prayer for all of us in the locker room, asking to keep us and the players safe.”
Counting CYO games he started working as a 13-year-old in Toledo, and all the football, baseball and basketball games he worked while stationed with the Army in Fort Stewart, Ga., Henige guesses he’s officiated thousands of contests. He’s been around so long, the color of the penalty flag has changed more than autumn leaves and the per-game pay for officials has jumped from $15 to as much as $75.
Obviously, nobody’s in it for the money.
“Dan says the same thing to me every year,” Sparks said. “He’ll look at me and say, ‘I just love this,’ and you know it’s from the heart.”
Henige was recently honored by both the Ohio High School Athletic Association and the Tiffin Area Football Officials Association for his 50 years of service as an official. Next June, the OHSAA will present him with a gold watch.
Like the watch, he plans to keep ticking.
“I’m going to keep doing this until I die,” Henige said. “When you get to my age, you’re not building resumes, you’re building obits. I want mine to say, ‘Dan Henige worked games for 81 years.’ “