It was one of the first — like the first or second — real basketball games I officiated, and the last thing I wanted was to be the center of attention.
So when I stepped out of the tiny storage room that use to serve as the officials’ dressing room at the old Fairfield High School gymnasium and took a couple steps toward the court, I grimaced when the first thing I saw was a Lynchburg-Clay eighth-grader dunk during warmups.
I grimaced because when an official sees a player dunk in warmups, the official is supposed to go to the scorer’s table and report a technical foul. And no matter how much the official wants to avoid attention, he is suddenly exactly where he didn’t want to be. Rather than starting the game with a jump ball, the team that did not have a player dunk gets a couple foul shots and the ball out of bounds and before the game has even started fans feel like they have something to yell at the officials about.
Had I been one second later I never would have seen the dunk, and my first inclination was to act like I had not. But I wanted to do things right. So I turned to my more experienced officiating partner, who was a couple steps behind me and could not see the dunk, and said, “Ted, I just saw a dunk. Do I have to call the technical foul?”
“Did you see it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then you have to call it,” he said.
My partner that long ago day was Ted Downing. Ted passed away unexpectedly last week at the young age of 67.
As he did for more kids than any of us will likely ever know, Ted was probably only looking out for me that day — to make sure I knew that the proper way to do things was by the book. Or to look at it another way, maybe what he was trying to say was do things right, and you’ll have less trouble in the long run.
I officiated with Ted a handful of other times over the next year or so, but then just when I was breaking into the game, he decided it was time to get out. That was kind of sad because I always liked having the big guy on my side.
I do not know when or where I first met Ted Downing. But I first got know him fairly well when he moved his family from Greenfield to Hillsboro, at least partly because of his son Chad’s athletic career.
It was during those years that Ted’s wife, Jill, taught me another lesson.
Ted was deeply involved in Chad’s athletic endeavors. Sometimes to the point that, at least to me, it seemed a bit overbearing. I was the type that would have been mortified if my father ever tried to talk to me during a game. I soon learned that not everyone thinks alike.
Chad was a quarterback and linebacker in football and a fine all-around athlete. One night when I was a sportswriter covering a Hillsboro football game, Chad came to the sidelines during a break in action. As he made his way through his teammates toward the bench, Ted walked up to meet him, and they started talking.
I had watched the same scene several times before, and I suppose because I was not like Chad and Ted, it bothered me. I was standing with a few friends as the scene unfolded and said, “Why doesn’t he leave the kid alone and just let him play?”
About that time someone gently tapped me on the shoulder. It was Jill. “Chad likes to talk to his dad,” she politely said.
I learned several lessons in those few seconds.
For a few years, when Ted’s 46-year teaching career took him to Bridgeport, I lost track of him. But about four years ago, when he took a job as superintendent of the Bright Local Schools, we reconnected.
Ted knew Bright Local needed help, academically and otherwise, and he had a plan to make it a better school. He asked me if I would help convey his message. I did. And his plan worked. So much that I have never saw anyone have such a positive influence on a school district in a such short amount of time. It was almost hard to believe.
A year or so ago, Ted decided to try retirement. But it did not suit him, and a few months later Bright Local rehired him as superintendent.
Late this summer, Ted stopped by my office to ask if I would help spread a message again. He had lost a lot of weight and looked good. We set a date to meet. Something came up, and he called to say we would have to reschedule. I never talked to him again.
My understanding is that he went in for some back surgery, somehow blood clots developed, and he had to be placed in a coma. He never came out of it.
I know it’s a rough time for his family because if there was one thing Ted loved more than helping kids, it was his family.
I hope they know that. And I hope they know that, just like he helped me one day on a basketball court, he helped more kids than most ever come in contact with.
Thanks for the lessons, Ted. Job well done.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.