DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

The toughest call

Donna and Mike Abbatiello had just celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary when he left their Ocean View, Del., home to referee a high school football game on Nov. 25, 2016.
Mike Abbatiello was devoted to his wife, his family, and his job as a Delaware high school football referee — so devoted, in fact, that only one thing could stop him from doing it.

OCEAN VIEW, Del. – Hours before Mike Abbatiello slipped into his black-and-white-striped referee's uniform for the final time, he and his wife, Donna, began their last day together determined to buy, of all things, a chair.

It was Nov. 25, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, and they wanted to take advantage of the Black Friday sales for a special purchase. Donna had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year earlier, and after two lumpectomies and throughout her chemotherapy treatments, she had spent most of the previous 12 months in the couple's den, islanded in a dark brown recliner as pilled as a worn-out sweater. She ate in the recliner. She slept in it. She watched TV from it. Now, Mike had said, it was time to get the damn thing out of the house.

DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Donna Abbatiello, holding a football signed by several referees who knew her husband, understood that Mike could never say no to an assignment. "I was used to that kind of thing," she said.

Just that week, five days after Mike's 75th birthday, they had celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary. For their 50th, they had arranged to rent a beach-block house in Ocean City, N.J., for a week the following summer with their three children and six grandchildren. The shopping trip, too, was a kind of celebration, a small and cathartic one, because Donna, by all indications, was healthy again. So they drove 45 minutes west, from their home just south of Rehoboth, to Delmar, where they met their daughter Jenny Nein and her family at Furnitureland, a warehouse on Sussex Highway. Jenny and her husband, Matt, bought a couch. After chasing two of his young granddaughters around the store as the little girls bounced on beds and climbed atop ottomans, Mike placed an order for Donna's new recliner – the color of milk chocolate, matching the other one in their living room, the one that Mike favored.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
There were three threads that ran through every aspect of Mike Abbatiello’s life: having a family, being a Marine, and being an official.

As he and Donna were about to leave, Mike began filling Matt in on the state-playoff football game that he was scheduled to work that night. It was a big one – Caravel Academy vs. Woodbridge in the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association Division II semifinals – and he had to make an hour-long drive by himself to Greenwood, where Woodbridge High School is located. Mike had planned to take Donna to lunch, but he also wanted to leave himself enough time to rest before the game, believing that he owed it to the coaches, the players, and everyone watching in the bleachers to be as sharp as possible. Now, he had been chatting so long with Matt that he and Donna had to postpone their lunch date and go straight home. "I was used to that kind of thing," she said later.

COURTESTY DONNA ABBATIELLO
Mike Abbatiello (second from left) was a native of Queens, and he started his officiating career on Long Island.

That afternoon, Mike called Donna once from the road. When he returned late from a game, he tended to make a racket, stumbling around the bedroom, opening drawers, stirring Donna, as he fumbled for the navy blue plaid pajamas that he wore most nights. This time, he asked her to set the pajamas atop the chest just outside their bedroom door, so he wouldn't wake her.

"Yes, dear," she said.

It's wrong to say that no one wants to be a high school or youth sports official anymore, but it's difficult to deny that recruiting and retaining officials has become a nationwide challenge. States such as Kansas, Oregon, and Tennessee have seen precipitous drops in available officials, the situation growing so dire that the National Federation of State High School Associations launched a campaign last year to try to attract more people to the profession. Mike Abbatiello belonged to the Delmarva Football Officials Association, and Jeff Ford, the association's president, said that although there were 62 members as of this spring, attrition is a persistent problem. In 2016, seven new officials joined, but just two returned in 2017. And because the number of teams and levels of youth football has multiplied over time – Pop Warner, junior high, freshman, junior varsity, varsity – the association struggles to meet the increased demand.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Jeff Ford pauses outside Woodbridge High School in Greenwood, Del.

Perhaps it's better to say that a certain kind of person is inclined to be a referee or umpire, and that nowadays this kind of person is harder to find. Consider, for instance, the other members of the officiating crew assigned to the Woodbridge-Caravel game with Mike. Ford, the umpire that night, was a retired Delaware state trooper and a former flight medic in the state police's aviation section. Pete Celiberti, handling the first-down marker and the chains, had been an official and a volunteer youth football coach for more than 40 years. Jim Ferguson, the head linesman, had grown up in Dover and been a baseball and football official for 13 years. Side judge Troy Morris was a counselor at an elementary school. Having become an official years earlier while he had a young family, he had been surprised at the commitment that the job required. He had considered quitting. Mike talked him out of it.

COURTESTY DONNA ABBATIELLO
After he finished his tour with the Marines, Mike met Donna in 1966.

Mike himself had been a football official for nearly four decades, but he had been a Marine even longer, enlisting in 1960, just after graduating from Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, where he had been the starting catcher on the varsity baseball team. Five-foot-7 and stumpy, he served four years as a helicopter mechanic and rear gunner, a crew chief on a Sikorski H34 that in October 1962 shuttled men to ships close to the coast of Cuba after the Soviet Union deployed ballistic missiles there, a kid still a month from turning 21 charged with helping his country avert a nuclear war. Home after his tour, he worked as a mechanic for New York Airways. He met Donna, a sixth-grade teacher then, on a Friday in January 1966, at a Long Island nightspot. By Thanksgiving, they were engaged. By the following Thanksgiving, when they got married, Mike had decided that he wanted to teach, too, and he enrolled in St. John's University, paying his own way by working as a cashier in a department store and driving a delivery truck for a beer distributor, completing his education degree in just three years.

He was hired as a math teacher in Rocky Point, N.Y., on the north shore of Long Island, and stayed there 31 years, embracing a frenetic professional and personal life. When Rocky Point High needed a varsity baseball coach, Mike took the job, and when the north shore's baseball leagues needed umpires and its football leagues needed officials, Mike dived right in; the pursuit blended seamlessly his passions for athletics and discipline and structure.

He began officiating high school and youth sports in 1975, spending two years as a baseball and softball umpire before also becoming a football referee, riding out all the changes in the landscape over the years. He had seen them all: the professionalization of the games that boys and girls played, the abuse from zealous parents quick to go bug-eyed over a call that they perceived might cost their son or daughter a college scholarship, the shrinking number of men and women who felt connected enough to their communities to sacrifice their time and energy under the sun of a late June afternoon or the lights of a Friday night. In the fall, he worked at least one high school game every weekend. In the summer, he might umpire as many as five baseball games in a single day, netting thirty bucks a game, paying for his own equipment and receiving no reimbursement for mileage, approaching officiating as if it were less a hobby than a calling.

His devotion came as no shock to Donna. She understood the pull that sports could have, understood what it was like to live with and love a man who believed there was no sweeter sound than a blast from a silver whistle looped over his neck. Her father, Don Sterner, had been a star basketball player at Ursinus College and, in the 1940s, the head football coach at two Gloucester County (N.J.) high schools: Pitman, where he won the Tri-County championship in 1942, and Woodbury. Mike and Donna adopted their oldest daughter, Suki, from South Korea before having two more children, Don and Jenny, and as their household grew, Mike's officiating schedule became part of their routine, part of what made the Abbatiellos the Abbatiellos.

Even as he approached his 75th birthday, Mike worked a high school football game every Friday night.

In the fall, it was high school football. In the spring and summer, it was baseball: Stan Musial League, Connie Mack League, American Legion, Don's Little League games. Later, it was softball. Other officials, over time, became Mike's friends and confidants. When he and Donna moved down to Ocean View in 2002, retiring to a single-family home in a cozy development in an affordable beach town, she asked him, Are you sure you want to keep doing this with a new group of guys? Before long, he was the one the Delmarva Football Officials Association trusted enough to make its primary rules interpreter, the expert everyone relied on to demystify a confusing play and diffuse any controversy that might result, delivering his insights and interpretations, one fellow official said, "in a baritone voice with New York swag." If there was a tense moment involving a member of his crew during a game, a questionable call that had coaches and parents angry and everyone a little edgy, he would gather the other officials in a tight circle and tell them, We're all leaving together. There's safety in numbers.

Donna continued to wonder, to herself, what it would take for him to give it up. She was concerned that, at his age, umpiring all those baseball and softball games in 90-degree heat would take a toll on him. And besides, how many times had they made arrangements for dinner or a get-together with friends only to have the phone ring with a last-minute request for Mike to replace an official who couldn't make it to a game? Whenever one of those calls came in, Mike's reflex was always to tell Donna, I have to go, and her typical response was only half-kidding: Well, there goes my night out. Thanks a lot.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The memory of Mike’s one regret as an official is still fresh for Donna Abbatiello and her son, Don. A young baseball player died on the field, and it was the first time Don saw his father cry.

Still, because Donna had undergone her surgeries just a couple of weeks before football season ended and months before baseball season began, Mike could dote on her completely without having to cut back on his officiating schedule. At 5:30 every morning, he brewed tea and brought her a cup while she was still in bed. The chemo had taken her hair, and once it began to grow back, he rubbed her scalp and playfully called her "Fuzzyhead" and "Curly Locks." When her stomach was nauseated and her spirits were low, he sat next to her, in his recliner, and held her hand. A year after Donna's diagnosis, the news had been heartening: The cancer was in remission. They could return to their old life, with little in their way. As for Mike, he'd never had any health issues at all. In fact, in September 2016, he had gone to a cardiologist for a checkup, and the doctor had told him everything was fine. The following year, 2017, would be his 40th year officiating football. That seemed a plum mark to hit, he told her, the perfect time to stop ... maybe.

He had no regrets, except one. On Aug. 7, 1984, Mike was umpiring a Connie Mack game at a Long Island high school. It began to rain. The sky darkened. The players implored Mike to allow the game to continue. One of those players was Craig Biggio, who went on to collect 3,060 hits over his Hall of Fame career with the Houston Astros – and who happened that day to be playing second base for the Sachem A's.

Mike decided he would call the game at the end of the half-inning. But around 7:50 p.m., before he stopped play, a flash lit up the field, the players blown off their feet as if by a bomb. Near second base, a few feet from Biggio, Adriano Martinez, an 18-year-old shortstop for the A's and a nephew of longtime major-league player Manny Mota, did not get up. He had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Mike administered CPR to Martinez but could not revive him, and an hour later, at a nearby hospital, Martinez was pronounced dead. When Mike arrived home, Donna could smell the horrible scent of burnt clothing and flesh that clung to his umpire's uniform. One morning not long after, Don Abbatiello, 8 years old at the time, walked into his parents' bedroom and, for the first time, saw his father cry.

Martinez's family brought a lawsuit against Mike and the umpires' association in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and it wasn't until April 29, 1991, that the court's appellate division cleared Mike of any liability in Martinez's death. The court ruled that Martinez "assumed the risks inherent in continued play" and that there was no evidence that Mike or anyone else had ordered or compelled him to keep playing. For all the years that the sight of someone dying on a field of play stayed with Mike, for all the guilt he felt, he took comfort and found validation in the ruling. He had decided that the game would go on, and neither he nor anyone there who had agreed with him had done anything wrong.

Minutes before kickoff, Mike and the other crew members working the Woodbridge-Caravel game met in the office of Darwin Manges, Woodbridge's athletic director. The school, two stories of sheened red brick, had taken two years and cost $52.5 million to build. It had opened in September 2014, and Manges' office, like the rest of the building, retained the bright and aseptic ambience of a hospital room. The officials chatted, reviewing rules and game scenarios, catching up with one another, falling into the chop-busting camaraderie familiar to them. Troy Morris fired off a few height jokes at Mike's expense. Jeff Ford asked Mike how "Mrs. A" – i.e. Donna – was doing. Everyone knew she had been sick.

To Ford, Friday nights were exhilarating, this one more than most. Woodbridge was 11-0 and had never advanced to the state semifinals before. Caravel Academy, located 65 miles north in Bear, was 8-2, but just five years earlier, when head coach John Reed was in his first season, the Buccaneers had gone 13-0 and won the state championship. Ford was not playing in this game, but he was in the game, and that excitement was the most gratifying part of the experience to him. Mike was different. "Excitement," Ford said later, "was not a term you would use to describe Mike. He never got too excited."

It was a quality that those who coached and played in the games that Mike officiated also recognized in him. Kyle Hensley, a sophomore offensive and defensive lineman for Woodbridge, actually was reassured when he saw that Mike would be the referee for the state semifinal game. The rivalry between schools in northern and southern Delaware is strong, and like many athletes from the south, Hensley was sensitive to the perception that the people who lived north of, say, Smyrna were richer and more sophisticated than the rednecks and farmers from the lower half of the state. Even the site of the new Woodbridge High School building reaffirmed the stereotype; it had been erected across the street from a giant cornfield. In most intrastate scholastic competitions, the northern schools or teams had an inherent advantage, Hensley said later, "because who wants to see lower, slower Delaware win?" Mike was different. "He was a very good ref for that game. He was very fair."

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Pete Celiberti was on hand for the Woodbridge-Caravel game, working with the chain crew.

Woodbridge had possession of the ball first, and the Blue Raiders' offense zipped down the field, gaining 5 yards on a third-down play to set up fourth-and-1 at the Caravel 14-yard line. Pete Celiberti and the chain crew hustled to align the line-of-scrimmage marker with the 14. Ford was standing over the football when he looked up. What he saw puzzled him. Mike took two steps forward, then wobbled for a moment, like a bowling pin just brushed by the ball, before toppling face-first to the ground, never raising his arms to brace himself.

On the Woodbridge sideline, Kyle Hensley saw Mike's prone body and assumed that a player had collided with him and accidentally knocked him down. Ford paused for a split second: What did I just see here? He yelled, "Mike!" Mike didn't move. Ford rushed to him. Mike was unconscious. Ford flipped him over on to his back and began giving him CPR. Tom Jefferson, a Woodbridge assistant coach, sprinted out to them, followed by both teams' trainers. Ford had been a flight medic for 17 years. Jefferson was still a Sussex County paramedic. Ford turned to him and said, "I've got nothing."

Jefferson placed a bag-valve mask on Mike's face to try to give him oxygen. Nothing. He and the trainers placed the pads of an automated external defibrillator on Mike's chest to try to start his heart again. Nothing. When an ambulance, from the Greenwood Volunteer Fire Company, that had been parked near the field pulled away to transport Mike to Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford, 11 miles away, there was no screaming siren. There were only flickering red lights and silence and the awful unspoken recognition that the driver didn't need to hurry.

Celiberti went to his car, retrieved the referee's jersey he kept there, and joined the officials on the field. They took a moment to compose themselves but never discussed postponing the remainder of the game. In the stands, word of what had happened was already starting to spread. On a message-board thread on DEpreps.com, a website that covers Delaware high school sports, fans at the stadium posted what they had observed and learned. "Woodbridge driving. ambulance coming on the field for ref who collapsed. Giving CPR . prayers for ref needed. … FYI – the referee that went down passed away – he was a Marine Corp (sic) veteran and a great man. Please pray for his family." Play resumed. The delay lasted just nine minutes.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Jim Ferguson, the head linesman for the Woodbridge-Caravel game, had been a high school official for 13 years.

At halftime, outside the visiting locker room, John Reed and his coaching staff discussed the incident and its effect on their team. Trailing 7-3, Caravel was getting the ball to start the second half. The outcome was hardly a fait accompli, but Reed thought the game should be stopped – and expected it would be. "It was traumatizing for the kids," he said later. "It was 10 yards from our sideline. The kids saw it."

Inside the athletic director's office, the officials didn't talk to one another at first. Should they postpone the game out of respect to Mike? Then head linesman Jim Ferguson spoke up. "Mike would want us to finish," he said. Everyone in the room agreed with Ferguson.

"I was shocked," Reed said later.

Woodbridge won, 21-6. As the Blue Raiders celebrated – they went on to win the Division II championship the following week – Kyle Hensley noticed that the officials were kneeling in a circle on the field. One of them was crying, and Hensley could hear them speaking quietly, their heads bowed. He trudged back to the locker room, cheers and whoops filling the cramped and sweaty space, and was peeling off his pads when a teammate nudged him.

"We finally won!" Hensley's friend said.

"Yeah, but the ref died."

"Are you serious?"

"I didn't mean to bum anyone out," Hensley said later, "but they had to know."

By then, two police officers already had knocked on a back door in a cozy neighborhood, and Donna Abbatiello, not yet in bed, had answered.

Six days later, they draped an American flag over Mike's coffin, and several officials, from both Delaware and Long Island, wore their black-and-whites to his funeral. It was a sign of respect from an ever-shrinking fraternity that another of its members, perhaps its best, was gone. John Reed decided to attend the funeral and introduced himself to Mike's family members. After talking with them, he understood better the decision to continue the Woodbridge-Caravel game.

"He wouldn't have wanted them to stop," said Kurt Volk, Mike's son-in-law.

It was consoling to Donna, in particular, that Mike had not suffered. The heart attack that killed him had been so massive that he likely never knew what was happening to him. For a year after Mike's death, Donna slept only on her side of the bed, his plaid pajamas tucked underneath his pillow. She still speaks about him in the present tense, as if she were expecting him to walk through the front door at any moment, ready to fill her in about an extra-inning thriller or unload to her about a coach who had given him an earful for no good reason, ready to do it all again the next night.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Mike Abbatiello’s daughters, Suki Volk (left) and Jennifer Nein (right, holding her daughter Lilia and wearing a replica of her father’s dog tag) had been looking forward to vacationing with him and Donna in Ocean City, N.J., in August 2017.

She and the family vacationed in Ocean City last August anyway, in honor of her and Mike's 50th wedding anniversary. They mounted a pizza-pan-sized photo collage of Mike in the foyer of the six-bedroom house, and the 13 of them spent a week there together, but the place still felt empty.

"The only good thing," Donna said, "was that he was doing what he loved."

On Nov. 25, 2016, a referee died during a high school football game, and although the other officials and many of the coaches and players and spectators knew or at least suspected that he was dead, the game went on. Those are the bare facts of the last moments of Mike Abbatiello's life, and they lead to a natural question: How could they let the game go on? But maybe that isn't the right question to ask. Maybe this is: What was it about this man that made it OK – no, that made it absolutely the correct thing – for the game to go on? There is a widow sitting in a chocolate-colored recliner in a pretty beach-town house who is happy to tell you. Just one thing: There's a matching chair next to hers. Be sure to leave it open, as she always does. It belongs to someone she loves.

Reporter: Mike Sielski
Editors: Gary Potosky and James Neff
Visuals editor: Frank Wiese
Photo editor: Michael Mercanti
Design: Garland Potts
Production: Ellen Dunkel
Photography and video: Tom Gralish and David Swanson
Copy editor: James Swan

 

DANIEL SATO / The News Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK

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