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The referee shows the coin to the captains before the toss. The Marion County Warriors faced the Trezevant Bears in the Division I Class 2A Tennessee State Football Championships in the BlueCross Bowl at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium on Saturday, December 5, 2015.

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The most important football game of the season

High school football practice begins this week. For months, they've been lifting off-season weights, running, reviewing film, working up to the best season of their lives.

Not the players.

Not the coaches.

The refs.

Yes, the refs. The officials. The guys in zebra stripes with the yellow flag in their pocket and whistle around their neck. You know, the guys we love to heckle and hate.

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David Cook

Hey, ref! I've gotten better calls from my ex-wife!

I'm blind! I'm deaf! I wanna be a ref!

Their first meeting of the year was last week, but for local officials, the season never really ends. In the dead of winter, they're reading Referee magazine. (This month's issue? The best calls since 1976!) Studying their Play of the Day email, memorizing the new set of rules for 2016, reviewing the old rules from 2015.

They meet each week to review games and watch film. (Including the night they award a sportsmanship scholarship to a local team.)

They officiate jamborees and scrimmages. (For free.)

Retake and pass the state football exam. (Fifty questions. For kicks, I took the test; the SAT was easier. I got 20 right, and most of that was luck.)

Off-season conferences. (Plus dues, out of their own pocket.)

Meetings with an NFL official who scrutinizes every single call of a recent game.

For every three-hour Friday game, there's six or seven hours of work you don't see: pregame meetings, postgame meetings, drive time, so on. All said, after taxes, they'll earn $1,000 per season. Maybe.

"Why do we do it?" said Scott Dieter. "We do it because we love it."

Dieter, 50, has been a referee (the white hat means he's in charge) for seven years, and an official (black hat) for five before that. Every Friday, he and his crew — line judge, back judge, clock operator, and so on — officiate a high school football game somewhere in East Tennessee. There's a good chance they'll officiate flag football, middle school and junior varsity games, too.

"Our definition of winning is different from theirs," Dieter said. "They want to score points. We want to call a good game, getting every rule right."

Dieter and I play church softball together; last season, after hearing many of his stories, I realized most of us have no idea what it's like to officiate a football game.

(Once, during a heated cross-town rivalry, Dieter and his crew — they'd been yelled at all night — were walking off the field at halftime. Local sheriff walks up. Dieter thinks she's there as security. Wrong. "She starts yelling at us, too," he said.)

Before every game, Dieter huddles with his crew, and Winston Churchills the same speech he's recited for the last seven years.

"The game we're working right now is the most important game in the state of Tennessee," he tells them.

Doesn't matter if it's East Bumbletown vs. the 0-9'ers. Or a team of 5-year-olds.

"The most important game," Dieter emphasizes. "The coaches worked hard. The players worked hard. Lord knows the parents worked hard. There is no reason we officials should not also give it our best."

Hey, ref! Go back to Foot Locker!

Hey, ref, I thought only horses slept standing up!

In such rough and vulgar days, refs are more than just whistle-blowers. Football officials are peacemakers — they take and absorb abuse, but don't return it. They apologize to coaches for missing calls. In a topsy-turvy society, they are clear vestiges of right and wrong.

They talk to players constantly — "Hey, No. 52, watch that block" and "Nice tackle, No. 78" — and always talk sportsmanship with captains before the game.

Once, Dieter threw a flag — holding — on his best friend's son. Years later, at his graduation, Dieter gave him a present: that yellow flag.

"Life is like football," he told him. "You're going to get penalized. Something's going to go wrong. But how will you respond?"

Yes, sports fan. How would you respond?

Four seconds left on the clock, fourth quarter, tie game, with 1,000 frothing people in the stands. One of your officials mistakenly blows his whistle during a kickoff return, which is returned for a touchdown. What's the ruling?

(You have about three seconds to think this over. While you do, invite your whole neighborhood over to come scream at you.)

Hey, ref, you couldn't call a cab!

Give me an I! Give me another I! Now give them to the ref!

How about this:

Are balls without stripes legal for play?

If a double foul occurs during the last timed down of the period, is play extended?

If a player is blocked into the ball, and accidentally touches it, does that count as possession?

"Do we miss calls? Sure," Dieter said. "Everyone in life will make a mistake. But you have to own your mistake and learn from it, and try and get better."

Hey, ref, you're missing a great game!

No, I think we're the ones missing something.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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