COOS BAY — Gary Grassham really didn’t want to do it.
It was 1979 and he had just moved to the Bay Area from Eugene to work at Coos Bay Welder’s Supply and an employee there kept pestering the transplant to join the local football officials association. Grassham wasn’t all that interested. He tried officiating basketball games two years earlier in Eugene, but quickly learned it wasn’t for him.
The man was Nifty Kinney, and he pressed Grassham hard. Eventually he relented and attended the long, sometimes tedious, meetings of the Southwest Oregon Football Officials Association (SWOFA) and learned that Kinney was the commissioner of the thing.
Nearly 40 years later, with hundreds of games under his belt, Grassham was named the 2017 Oregon Athletic Officials Association (OAOA) Official of the Year after a nomination from SWOFA and a vote from the other 13 association commissioners. He received the award at halftime of the Class 4A state championship game between Marshfield and Cottage Grove. It’s his last year as a full-time official, with Grassham saying he’ll be around to help, but not every night.
Initially, Grassham couldn’t believe he was receiving the honor. He thought it was a joke.
Neither could a bunch of his friends and it took “some convincing” for everybody to believe him.
“I went, ‘Really?’” Grassham said. “I figured it was a joke. He says no, he says you were actually chosen. I go, ‘This is Coos Bay.' That award never leaves south of Eugene. It just never has. For our association to get chosen, and then myself on top of that, I was really pumped. I was really pumped. I let a lot of people know in a hurry. That was huge for me.”
Back in Grassham’s early days, the local football association was larger, boasting 48 experienced, varsity-ready members in 1979. Grassham’s rookie class of nine — which is half the current association — went through two years of rookie classes and didn’t sniff varsity games, regardless of level, for three years at a minimum. There were a huge number of games to work for those guys though, with seventh- and eighth-grade contests and high school games at varsity, junior varsity, freshman and occasionally sophomore levels.
But even then, those were three-man crews, so varsity games were at a premium. Grassham didn’t work his first varsity game until 1982, and by then there were four-man crews, with the added official on the line of scrimmage opposite the chains.
But even with the long wait time to varsity — this season the association broke in four varsity rookies in their first year going to meetings — he still had some sink-or-swim moments.
Grassham still remembers his first game, where he doesn’t remember blowing his whistle and knows he didn’t throw a flag. In subsequent games and years, he got more experience, ready or not.
“After that, they would always stick one or two of the older guys and, 'Oh, by the way, you're gonna be a white hat today,’” Grassham remembered. 'Huh?' 'Yeah, we want to see what you can do.' That's how they trained you. They stuck you right into the heart of things so you had to blow your whistle every play. You had to throw a flag. Something happens in front of you, you gotta throw your flag.”
It was in those days that Grassham had his favorite game as an official.
Even with state championship games and state wrestling tournaments (Grassham is also a 27-year veteran of wrestling officiating), Grassham’s favorite memory officiating isn’t one of those. It even isn’t a varsity game.
Back in 1980, Marshfield and Churchill were playing a freshman game toward the end of the season, and that is Grassham’s favorite memory. Not because of a play, or it was a shootout that was exciting. It wasn’t even the time Grassham got permission from Salem to work a Myrtle Point game with this four sons.
No, that wasn’t it. It was that freshman game. Why? There was one penalty, a false start that Grassham himself flagged. The game took an hour and 45 minutes — compare that with the two hours, 30 minutes average of contemporary games — with coaches who coached and players who played.
“Yeah, it was great,” Grassham said. The coaches were great. It was my second year. (We) didn't have to do anything because it was clean. It wasn't one of those games where you don't throw it because, well. We didn't throw it because we didn't have (penalties). Just flat out the kids did not make penalties. And it was deep into the season, so the kids knew what they had to do.”
Maybe six years after Grassham started, he was working a Marshfield vs. North Eugene varsity game. With the Pirates on offense, he called a pass interference penalty, of which he still remembers almost every detail. Immediately following the play, the North Eugene sideline wanted the ball ruled uncatchable, so as to nullify the fact the North Eugene player was standing over the Marshfield player as the pass sailed overhead.
Grassham didn’t rule the pass uncatchable, as that ruled didn’t and doesn’t exist in high school football. After the game, a North Eugene coach confronted Grassham as he and the crew left the sideline, and Chuck Amesbury defended the young official, essentially telling the coach the game was over and that they were leaving.
That night, Amesbury told Grassham that he had made his mark, and that compliment sealed Grassham in officiating.
“When Chuck Amesbury finally says, 'You've made you're mark,' (it’s important),” Grassham said. “Up until then, that was about my fifth or sixth year, you're just considered an official and none of the higher ups were looking at you. And you do some varsity games here and there, but that was a big game that night and he was our commissioner and he put me on that game. And I had a good game. So that was, it helped extend things.”
That story also helps to explain why Grassham won the top official’s award this season. Jack Folliar, who worked as a Pac-12 official for 33 years and now is Executive Director of the OAOA while also supervising Pac-12 officials, never worked with Grassham, but has seen him work and was complimentary.
“He’s just a class guy in my opinion,” Folliard said. “Good on the rules, good on judgment. Those two things when you officiate, you gotta put those things together. You’ll have people who are really good on the rules, but their judgment needs improvement. But Gary’s kind of the full-meal deal when it comes to officiating.”
Grassham received his award in front of a lively crowd at halftime of the 4A state championship between Marshfield and Cottage Grove.
Debi Hanson, Assistant Director of the OAOA and in charge of awards, presented Grassham with his recognition and was surprised with the reception. The crowd quieted to listen. They applauded heartily at their queue, obviously recognizing the name and showing their appreciation.
“I think in this situation with Gary retiring, it was a great chance to honor him,” she said. “It was just perfect timing and basically the rest of the commissioners felt the same way to honor a 38-year career.”
That day, with old mentors like Emery Phillips in the stands, and others like Kinney and Amsbury not, the award Grassham thought was a joke became real. The thing he didn’t want to do was now paying him back immensely.
“But then when I went up there and I got the award, there were some guys in the stands were guys I worked with years ago,” Grassham said. “They're all well-retired now. Emery Phillips was one, who's a good friend and big-time mentor. He says, 'I never thought the day.' I says, 'Fooled you, huh?' And there’s a couple other guys. It was kinda neat. It would've been nice to have had some of the guys I worked with who are no longer with us anymore. That would've been really neat.”