After 45 years, referee hanging up his whistle
Don Middleton is putting away his whistle after 45 years as a York County basketball referee. Steve Navaroli, For GameTimePA.com
In many ways, it would have been a fitting end for an official. Nothing crazy, just a final buzzer and a walk off the court, unnoticed by those celebrating a victory, or finding solace in defeat.
However, when Don Middleton walked off the court at the Eastern York Middle School, after refereeing a pair of junior high girls’ basketball games, things weren’t quite normal.
Players and coaches shook his hand and thanked him. His family cheered from the bleachers, many with tears in their eyes.
Wednesday marked Middleton’s final game as a PIAA official, ending a career that spanned 45 years in stripes across levels from youth to varsity to men’s leagues.
After the finale was over, Middleton had no idea how many basketball games he refereed.
“Oh my gosh. When I first started, we did church ball, sometimes 10 games a day,” he said. “When we were new we would do more games before the (high school) season even started than most.”
Like many former athletes, Middleton found officiating to his liking. But to do it for 45 years?
“I played basketball and got beat up and hurt and I looked at the referees. They just jogged up and down the court and were getting paid for it. So, I figured I would do that,” he laughed. “It’s something that gets in your system like everything else.”
Middleton, who will turn 80 in May, kept doing his thing. He said that keeping active around sports helps keep him young. While he might not have run up and down the court with the same energy as 20 years ago, he still got the job done.
He didn’t limit himself to the hardwood either. He also umpired softball games for 40 years, although he admits to preferring the warmth inside a gym more than the cold of late-March, early-April softball games.
Certainly, Middleton is an inspiration to many, including Toyah Houck Nastanovich, who said she was honored to be his officiating partner for his last game.
“I had no idea this was Don’s official send-off. It’s great to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s amazing. I hope I can do the same if my body holds up.”
Eastern’s ninth-grade coach Peg Beaver has been on the sidelines for games officiated by Middleton on-and-off at various levels for nearly 30 years.
“It’s amazing, especially something like this. There’s not a lot of warm fuzzies for officials,” Beaver said. “You have to be in it for the right reasons.”
“I like the kids,” said Middleton. “You see these kids and they look awful, and four years down the road you see them in high school, and are like, ‘Wow.’ The kids fool you. In one year, sometimes they turn around and are great players.”
During his last game, Middleton’s wife watched, as did his daughter and two sons, siblings who have followed their father’s footsteps to officiate various sports. Several grandchildren watched with pride.
“It’s been such a big part of his life and sports is such a big part of our whole family. It’s a big day,” said his daughter Stephanie Windsor. “It’s incredible. There is no way I could do it for 45 years. He loves it, he has always loved sports.”
Aside from a hernia he attained lifting his lawnmower last fall, Middleton is healthy at 79. Sure, he had a knee scope more than 30 years ago, had his hip replaced and thyroid surgery, but all-in-all, he's in good health.
On Wednesday, the athletic department at Eastern recognized him before his final doubleheader and the crowd gave him a warm reception.
Coincidentally, a clock malfunction forced the second game to be restarted, which allowed Middleton to toss up one more jump ball.
Middleton visited with family between games and even held his emotions in check after the final horn. After all, he is an official. You aren’t supposed to notice them.