Rough play forces refs to take a hike during Rage game
By: By Rick Lubbers, Duluth News Tribune, Superior Telegram
Referees blow whistles, throw flags, call penalties, enforce rules and deflect a steady stream of verbal shots.
They rarely have to pull the plug on a game before the final gun.
But that’s what a five-referee crew did Saturday afternoon during a Northern Elite Football League game between the Lake Superior Rage and Rochester Giants at Duluth’s Public Schools Stadium. Head official Pete Larkin, 42, put a stop to the action with 1:18 left in the third quarter after he deemed the game unsafe for both the players and the officials.
“My main concern as an official, especially in these semi-pro games, is player safety,” Larkin said by phone Monday night. “Nobody’s making any money in this league. We all have to go to work on Monday. I couldn’t assure the Rage players of their safety and I was a little concerned about our safety. I told the guys in my crew, ‘Let’s just end this.’ It was a group decision that we made.”
Larkin, who is the NEFL’s head official, said the game’s tone was set on the very first play when a Giants player was flagged for a chop block.
And the flags kept falling.
The Giants were penalized for, among other things, a cheap hit on a quarterback, a late hit on a punt play and for unsportsmanlike conduct. One Rochester player was thrown out of the game in the first half.
“The Giants have kind of been the problem child for the league this year,” said Larkin, who lives in Coon Rapids, Minn., and has been a longtime official at the high school (22 years), semi-pro (15) and college football (12) levels. “They have players who have been kicked off of other teams, other leagues.”
Larkin said the Giants’ behavior only worsened in the second half, even after he warned head coach Dexter General about his team’s conduct before the third quarter began.
“I said, ‘Dexter, as head ref in this league, I can’t let your players play the way they’re playing.’”
The warning didn’t stick.
As the Rage expanded a 14-7 halftime lead into a commanding 28-7 advantage, Larkin said the Giants players and coaches grew increasingly agitated. After a couple of calls didn’t fall their way, the Rochester coaching staff grew more confrontational. Larkin said General at one point put “a finger on my chest” and bombarded him with a long stream of offensive language.
“I said, ‘Dexter, as the head coach, you have to settle down or I’ll make sure that you don’t coach in this league again,’ ” Larkin said.
That warning didn’t stick either. General, another coach and a second player were eventually tossed from the game. Shortly after that, Larkin said the continual cheap play and abusive language from the Giants forced him to make the tough decision to call the game with a quarter left to play.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It happens every once in a while in semi-pro football. About 95 percent of the players aren’t a problem. But a lot of angry people play this game and use it as a violent outlet. They project all of their anger and hatred onto football. But all through this the Rage players were saying, ‘Let’s just play football.’ ”
Confusion reigned at PSS for the next several minutes as coaches and players from both teams, as well as the fans, watched in bewilderment as Larkin and his crew walked off the field. Since the game had passed the halfway point, the Rage were credited with a 28-7 victory and improved to 6-0.
“Several warnings had been issued, and when they weren’t corrected and safety became an issue, the referees decided to call the game,” said Matt Krivinchuk, 30, who is part of the 11-person board that governs the Rage and also oversees the officiating for the NEFL. He added that there wasn’t any bad blood demonstrated between the team’s players. “We’ve never had any issues with that team before. They’ve been a fantastic organization.”
Larkin said Krivinchuk originally was upset about the decision.
“Matt didn’t want to call it, but I told him, ‘I’m doing this for the safety of your players,’ ” said Larkin, who halted a semi-pro game in another league last year under similar circumstances. “Player safety is a concern. I couldn’t control and dictate the safety of the Rage players. It wasn’t a good idea to continue. Later he told me, ‘I’m glad you called it. They would have hurt someone.’ ”
Larkin said the Giants’ post-game behavior only reinforced their opinion that playing a fourth quarter would have meant trouble.
“Giants players were banging and yelling on our door at Public Schools Stadium,” he said. “It was just like walking into a firing squad.”
While Larkin and Krivinchuk are in agreement about where the fault lies for the game’s suspension — and penalties from the NEFL could be forthcoming — General’s version of Saturday’s events differs greatly.
“It was a good, clean game by the players. I just felt that the game wasn’t being called fairly by the officials,” said General, 41, who is the tight ends coach at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and boasts a lengthy playing career that included two practice squad stints with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. “In all my years of football — 37 years — I’ve never seen anything like this. As a coach I wasn’t given a warning. There wasn’t a single one at all.”
General said he was shocked that the game was called early. He also denies being thrown out of the game.
“I think his personal feelings were hurt or he didn’t want to be there,” General quipped about Larkin. “Maybe it was too hot.
“There were no threats directed toward the refs. As a football player, you’re going to say things to one another. My job is to get the referees to watch both sides of the field. After the game it’s a brotherhood. We go out to eat together with opposing players and coaches. None of my players are going to jump on a referee.
“We drove all the way from Rochester to play the football game. We wanted to play an entire football game.”
Larkin and Krivinchuk said Saturday’s odd finish is unfortunate for a Rage team that is undefeated and features some entertaining playmakers such as acrobatic wide receiver D’Andre Sherill.
Lake Superior is also solidifying a top playoff seed and aiming for a division title with two regular season games remaining.
And while the Rage officially won the shortened game, the fans still lose out. There were about 175 spectators in attendance at PSS, according to Krivinchuk.
“There’s no good way to explain that to a crowd,” said Krivinchuk, who added that no one had asked for a refund that he knew of. “It took me a while to process what was going on with the refs, but by that time most of the fans had gone home.
“It’s tough on fans when they’re paying their dollars for a full game — four quarters of football — and only see three.”
Larkin said the Rage players and coaches were innocent bystanders during Saturday’s fiasco.
“I just hope that the Rage don’t come out looking like bad people,” he said. “They had no control over this.”
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-723-5317. Follow him on Twitter @ricklubbersdnt
Northern Elite Football League
*Green Bay Gladiators (5-1) 4-1
Fox Valley Force (5-2) 4-1
e-Kimberly Storm (2-6) 2-4
e-Central Wis. Spartans (0-8) 0-6
*Lake Superior Rage (6-0) 5-0
Eau Claire Crush (4-2) 4-2
Chippewa Valley Predators (3-4) 2-3
e-Menomonie Thunderhawks (0-6) 0-5
#St. Paul Pioneers (8-0) 6-0
River City Rough Riders (4-3) 3-2
Minnesota Spartans (3-6) 2-3
e-Rochester Giants (0-5) 0-5
#-Clinched Division; *-Clinched Playoff Spot
Saturday, June 30
Gladiators 24, Force 14
Predators 26, Thunderhawks 7
Pioneers 46, Rough Riders 6
Minnesota Spartans 35, Storm 14
Lake Superior Rage 28, Giants 7
Crush 17, Racine Threat 6 (non league)
Saturday, July 7
Minn. Spartans at River City Rough Riders
Fox Valley Force at CW Spartans
Chippewa Valley Predators at Rochester Giants
Lake Superior Rage at Crush (Carson Park)
Gladiators at Thunderhawks (Stout)
Friday, July 13
Crush at Predators, 7 p.m. (Carson Park)
Saturday, July 14,
Thunderhawks at Rage, 4 p.m. (Duluth PSS)
Giants at Dragons, 4 p.m. (MetroDome)
Gladiators at Spartans, 4 p.m. DCE)
Storm at Force, 4 p.m. (Lawrence Univ.)
Roughriders at Pioneers, 5 p.m. (Concordia University)