Some coaches lose it in the middle of heated games. Their faces turning the color of molten lava, they pace the sidelines, growling about the calls the referees are making, or not making.
Are you blind? Call it even! You are giving the game to the other team! You are terrible!
Inexperienced referees might choose to ignore it, hoping to get the game over with quickly. But it can become a contagious sickness that spreads to players, then to the fans. And before the officials know it, the sidelines have turned toxic, and a game like lacrosse — already a challenge to control with 20 excited players wielding sticks — gets even harder to manage.
Luis Diaz has a simple recipe for defusing those tense situations: respect. It goes both ways. A Long Island transplant and Delta Air Lines retiree now living in Marietta, Diaz demands respect and gives it in return. He waits for a break in the action and then motions for the coaches to meet him on the field, away from their players. A former Marine who still retains a military bearing, Diaz is about to tell them how it is going to be.
Stocky, imposing and full of self-confidence, Diaz — or Louie as most people know him — informs the coaches he wants everyone to “talk to each other like gentlemen.” His lingering New York accent sounds both reassuring and authoritative. And his questions are more like commands, as if he is performing a Jedi mind trick straight out of “Star Wars.”
Coach, what is the problem? What do you want me to do for you so I can help you out with your game? Talk to me. Let’s see if we can straighten it out.
The chat puts the coaches and everyone else watching on notice that Louie won’t tolerate any more guff. At the same time, the coaches get to blow off a little steam and show their players they are sticking up for them.
Louie learned these tricks officiating lacrosse — and basketball, football and soccer — for more than four decades. That’s more than twice the ages of most of the players he referees. He knows his days between the sidelines are numbered. He turns 73 next month and is now wrestling with when to call it quits.
A mentor to countless referees in the Atlanta area, Louie has officiated thousands of lacrosse games in the U.S. and abroad, some at the highest levels. He’s no stranger on the campuses of such lacrosse powerhouses as Johns Hopkins University and Duke University.
Not bad for someone who grew up in the projects and battled dyslexia, diabetes and dependency.
Officiating has given and taken so much from Louie Diaz. Like professional athletes, he has struggled with painful injuries and spent long hours away from his family. At the same time, he has made many friends all over the country. The job has also become a healing diversion for him. And while he says it contributed to the end of his first marriage, it has helped keep his second one healthy.
Now Louie wonders what he will do next after he hangs up his stripes. What will it be like to stop something that has been a part of him for more than half his life, something that has shaped his identity, something that stops time for him and melts away his worries for two or three hours? He’s already steeling himself for his last game. He knows it will be a heart-breaker.
Photo: Before a match in November, Louie (center) talks with fellow official Landon Hunsucker (right) and an Emory University lacrosse coach.
A man of presence
I officiated my first U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association game with Louie in 2012. I had been refereeing youth and high school games for five years, but this was college lacrosse. I was jittery.
A legend in sports officiating around Atlanta, Louie was in charge of the officiating crew for my first big game.
I wanted to do well, so I quizzed myself on the college rules. I imagined the game ahead of time, thinking about where I should be on the field at any given point. We met in the parking lot at Oglethorpe University, and he assured me he was going to take care of me.
He started off by introducing himself to the coaches and then the players, saying simply: “We are here to do a good job for you.”
The game was unremarkable, except for one incident. Toward the end of the match, the visiting team’s coach loudly growled about a minor call Louie made, exclaiming: “That’s a vanity call!”
Louie stopped midstride.
Uh oh, I thought. Here it comes.
Louie turned to the offending coach’s bench. He squared himself up. And he stuck one arm out, parallel to the ground. Calmly, he penalized the coach for his conduct. Louie’s body language said it all: How’s this for a vanity call?
The rest of the match went by in a blur. I didn’t make a fool out of myself. I communicated well with my fellow officials and I hustled. Louie told me I did a good job, and I was proud. I’ll never forget that day.
The basement of Louie’s spacious Marietta home is a virtual museum of his life. He calls it his “trophy room.” The walls around his pool table are covered with awards that trace his 40 years of officiating sports. There is a shiny gold plaque from the New York State high school lacrosse championship game he officiated in 1989. Nearby hangs a framed red, white and blue certificate marking his time officiating in the 1994 World Championships in England. On a shelf sits the 2003 Referee of the Year Award he got from the Georgia Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association.
At the entrance to his trophy room is a photograph of one of Louie’s heroes. It’s a portrait of his maternal grandmother, Goya Rodriguez, reclining in a chair outside of Louie’s former home in Brentwood, N.Y., her cane resting on her lap. Her chin is held high and she has a faint smile on her lips. There is wisdom in her countenance.
In her later years, Goya lived alone in a fifth floor walk-up in South Bronx. To ward off muggers, she carried a cane that housed a hidden switchblade. She smoked much of her life and drank a shot of rum just before she went to bed each night. Despite all of that, she lived to 96. Louie inherited her tenaciousness.
“My grandmother was a hell of a woman,” Louie tells me. “Very tough. She would kick ass and take names later — that type of attitude ... She wouldn’t take nothing from anybody.”
Across from Goya’s portrait hangs a black and white photo of Louie’s late parents, Luis and Edna. They are sitting in the grass in New York City’s Central Park. Both are young. Her arm is draped around his neck. They look directly into the camera. Behind them, the sun peeks through the trees.
They grew up, married and started their family in Puerto Rico. Eventually Luis moved the family to Baltimore, where he helped build ships for the Allies during World War II, and then to New York City, where he worked long hours as a waiter and then a maître d’ at the Biltmore Hotel. They raised five children, all boys. Edna also worked as a seamstress, then as a hair stylist, at one point owning her own salon. Still, cash was short. They lived in a public housing project and had to scramble to put food on the table and their kids through Catholic school.
Louie’s parents didn’t put up with any foolishness. Everything had to be done the right way. They stressed good judgment and honesty. Louie remembers a time he was showing off in front of his friends by smoking a cigar. Just 10 at the time, Louie felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his father, and he was already removing his belt. Louie took off running up to their apartment. All the while, he heard the “whoosh” of his father’s belt swinging behind him.
“I had some welts on my back. And then my mom smacked the crap out of me when I got upstairs,” he said, laughing. “It was double jeopardy. My parents were very strict.”
School was a struggle for Louie from the beginning.
“I couldn’t pick up the stuff, so the teachers advised — because I was failing — to get some medical help.”
His mother took him to a doctor. The diagnosis: dyslexia.
He has grappled with the learning disability for years, but he’s learned to power through it thanks to therapy and his determined nature. He’s stubborn like his mother. She survived diabetes, triple bypass surgery, eight angioplasties and the implantation of a pacemaker. At one point toward the end of her life, she was moved into hospice care. But she wouldn’t die. After a three-month vigil, she was released and lived several more years before dying at age 86.
A game of confidence
Louie holds a red, white and blue lapel pin in the palm of his big right paw. Gold-rimmed, the US Lacrosse official pin says simply: “40 years.” It’s a source of pride for him. He keeps it on his desk in his basement and shows it off to visitors.
The story behind it starts in the 1970s in Bay Shore, N.Y. He moved there after traveling the world with the Marines under the command of Gen. David Shoup, a WWII hero who later became commandant of the Marine Corps.
Louie had just married his high school sweetheart, Frances, with whom he had two children. Louie was working his way up the ranks at Pan American World Airways when he bought his first home in Bay Shore. That left him with less than $100 in his bank account. Which brings Louie to how he got into sports officiating: He needed money to support his family.
Whatever he was going to do had to happen at night and on the weekends when he wasn’t working at Pan Am. Sports came to mind. Growing up, he was into everything. He played softball, football and basketball. He golfed. He ran track and cross country. He even fenced. He came by it all honestly. His father was a baseball fanatic who fruitlessly tried to break into the majors before picking up a bat in a men’s recreation league. The family used to watch him round the bases in Central Park.
Louie decided he could get back on the field and make some extra money by putting on the stripes. He started calling football and soccer matches. He later picked up basketball.
While officiating a football game one day, he saw a lacrosse match on a nearby field. A speedy game of finesse, lacrosse was created by Native Americans. They played the contact sport — also called the “medicine game” — for curative and spiritual reasons and to settle disputes and toughen themselves for war.
A French missionary documented lacrosse in North America as far back as the 1630s. Originally played with wooden sticks and balls, the sport has evolved over the centuries. Today, players wield sticks made from man-made materials such as carbon fiber. The sport is now experiencing explosive growth in Georgia and elsewhere.
How in the heck do they control these guys so they don’t kill each other? he wondered as he watched his first game.
“That’s what really brought me into it,” he said. “The officials knew what they were doing. They had confidence in themselves as far as calling the game and controlling the game, which is the main thing. You have these guys wielding all of these sticks around. And you need some common sense for that.”
The late Jim Garvey, who officiated many NCAA championship lacrosse games and who served as the athletic director at Hofstra University in New York, helped Louie learn the finer points of officiating the sport. Garvey would take Louie up into the press box to watch matches, and he explained why the officials were in certain positions on the field and what their signals meant. He taught Louie to break a game down into five-minute increments. That makes it easier, he told Louie, to stay focused during a long match.
Louie started out calling youth games, then he worked his way up to high school and college games. He traveled widely to officiate tournaments across the nation and even overseas. He started getting post-season NCAA games. He is particularly proud of the Army-Navy game he officiated at West Point.
“When you get there, you have your own locker room,” he said. “You have your name on the locker: ‘Official: Luis Diaz.’ They have sandwiches and everything for you on the table. And then they invite you to eat with officers after the game. Everybody from my family came to that. I had about 30 people show up for that game just to watch me.”
While he was gaining more experience on the field, Louie’s career was flourishing, too. He started to manage hundreds of workers overhauling passenger planes at Pan Am. There wasn’t much room for error. He repeatedly reminded his team that lives were at stake. Officiating provided a healthy diversion. It allowed him to take his mind off his stressful job for a few hours. He had no choice. Officials must have a laser focus. Bad calls happen when the mind drifts.
“When I get to the game, I forget about everything,” he said. “I focus on the game because I believe no matter what sport it is — what level it is — they want you to be as efficient as possible.”
Seeking to advance his career, Louie started taking college classes at night. He battled through his dyslexia to earn two undergraduate degrees in business. But the time he spent away from home officiating and studying frayed his marriage.
“I was very rarely there,” he said. “So she just got kind of fed up. She didn’t like that kind of life.”
They divorced in 1975.
“It was an OK breakup,” he said. “There was nothing nasty or any of that stuff.”
Two years later he met Carmen, and they married in 1983. It was a match more suited to Louie’s lifestyle. Before retiring five years ago, Carmen worked a hectic full-time job in the health-care industry that kept her away from home a lot. The time she and Louie spent away from each other, she said, was healthy for their marriage.
“You do need some alone time sometimes,” she said. “We are both very independent people. And I prefer it that way.”
Carmen has attended many of Louie’s games and when she doesn’t, she asks him how it went when he returns. If he is agonizing about a mistake he made on the field, she tenderly reminds him he is human. They sweetly call each other “babe.”
Middle of the action
Louie pilots his black Honda Odyssey into a parking lot next to the grassy athletic fields at Emory University. It’s a sunny Saturday in November, and he and his two partners are there to referee a lacrosse scrimmage between the Emory Eagles and the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers.
There are no locker rooms there, so they slip on their black and white stripes next to their cars. Everything else they have on is black: their hats, shorts, belts, socks and shoes. Then they gather around the open trunk of Louie’s Honda for their a pre-game discussion. Louie nudges small, round magnets across a metal clipboard bearing a sketch of the 110-yard field, showing the other officials where he wants them to be. He stresses the importance of communicating with one another, and with the coaches and players. He emphasizes hustle. He talks about what they should do in case of a brawl. They are veteran officials who know all of this, but the chat helps them focus.
Louie is assertive in his approach. As the the crew chief, he’s the boss.
“When we talk to the coaches, let’s make sure to let me do all the talking. That way there is only one answer, all right?” he says. “Let’s go out there and have fun.”
They briskly walk out to the field and meet the coaches. Louie tells them there will be an “emphasis on good sportsmanship.” Deferential, the coaches don’t utter a word as Louie tells them how he wants things to proceed.
“If I have a problem out here, I’ll direct it to you and hopefully you will take care of it,” he tells them. “You don’t want me to take care of it. And out of respect for you, the only person I want to hear from on the bench is you and your captains on the field, OK? No assistants saying anything to us ... Have a good game.”
There is a quick coin toss. Then Louie and his partners get into position for the first face-off. Twenty players are on the field, ready to pounce. Louie blows the first whistle. There is a scramble. Louie is in the flow of the game. His movements are efficient and economical. He’s not as fast as he used to be so he cheats some distance toward the goal he will be covering in case of a fast break.
He is constantly reminded of the difficult decision looming. When I ask him when he is going to quit, he says he’s taking it year-by-year.
“Emotionally, I already planned that out.” His tone is resolute. “I know it is coming. It is the same thing as, ‘You are going to die someday.’ I feel that if I cannot run with the players, it’s over. And I accept that.”
But for now he is exactly where he wants to be: In the middle of the action.
Keeping addiction at bay
Louie had always been a social drinker. His drink of choice: rum and Coke. But after he retired from Delta three years ago, he had more time on his hands, so he filled part of it with alcohol. He began to wake up in the morning craving it. Louie dreamed about booze.
The insidious disease started to strain his marriage — and his health. A diabetic, Louie has to keep a close watch on his diet. His doctor urged him to get off the booze and to keep exercising.
He joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Then came two weeks of rehab. It helped. He stayed clean for a year. Then he slipped and had a drink. And that drink led to another. And another.
He resumed his fight. Louie said he has been sober for two years now. It’s challenging, giving up alcohol, he said, especially when friends and family are still drinking around him.
“You do feel a little out of place because you can’t be normal anymore,” he said. “And you can’t be normal because you can’t drink like normal people do. If you even take one more drink, it will start the cycle all over again.”
Louie feels much healthier now without the booze. He has more energy and can move better on the field. Working out three times a week at the gym also helps.
Officiating was initially a source of income for him. Then it was a helpful distraction during his high-pressure career in the airline industry. But now it’s about something else. It helps him keep his diabetes in check and his mind off his cravings. He must focus entirely on the game. Nothing else matters when he is between the sidelines. Addiction can’t touch him there.
“I feel very good after doing a game,” he said. “I feel like I ran some, cleaned out my lungs. And I feel good about coming home.”
It’s just one more reason he’s going to miss it when it’s gone.
‘Hurting all the time’
Louie groans as he rises to his feet. He is headed up his basement stairs to show me a retirement gift he got from Delta. Some of his pain is in his legs. They’ve carried him for thousands of miles on athletic fields. And now they are reminding him of that.
He inventories his injuries: There was that lacrosse game at Nassau Community College in New York, where he stepped in a hole on a rain-soaked field and pulled a muscle in his thigh. He never felt such excruciating pain. There was also that game at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was 120 degrees on the field. Afterward, he woke up in the middle of the night screaming. Dehydrated, his calf muscle had locked up. Two years ago, he underwent surgery on his right knee to repair a cartilage tear.
“I’m hurting all the time,” he tells me.
Carmen worries. She wants him to quit with honor and feel good about it.
“I don’t want him to get injured and then have to make that decision,” she says.
Louie’s longtime friend and mentor Eric Rudolph knows what he is going through.
The retired attorney and fellow referee stopped calling games after painful knee injuries made it more difficult for him to cover the field — and then recover afterward. Like Louie, Eric had worn the stripes for 40 years.
“You just miss that camaraderie of working the game with the officials,” Eric says.
Eric coped by throwing himself into other aspects of lacrosse. He now helps develop rules for the sport and assigns officials to college games across the Southeast.
At his peak, Louie used to officiate USILA Division I games. They are some of the fastest, most challenging games for officials.
But two years ago, Eric stopped assigning them to Louie. He said Louie is a willing, dependable and confident official, but he has slowed on the field.
Louie took it hard.
At times, he talks as if he is never going to quit. He cites his maternal grandmother’s longevity.
If she could live 96 years, Louie says, he can keep officiating. At other times, he talks in transformational terms about what will happen after he quits.
One life will end, he says, and a new life will begin.
“I am going to give myself to my family,” he says. “All of the years I was away from them — hopefully I can make it up to them. Because it is important — the family is No. 1. Basically, I am going to spend a lot of time with my grandchildren and enjoy life and enjoy my wife and hope for the best.”
Like Eric, Louie plans to stay involved with officiating after he quits. He wants to evaluate fellow referees and help them grow.
But for now he is keeping his Honda Odyssey packed.
It is carefully loaded with crisply ironed referee shirts, neatly creased black shorts and his whistles and yellow flags.
He’s ready to roll whenever he gets the call.
He wants to keep going until his legs give up.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
In one way or another, all of us at some point in our lives have faced that universal question best expressed by The Clash: Should I stay or should I go? That’s the dilemma Luis Diaz grapples with in Jeremy Redmon’s story about a septuagenarian lacrosse referee facing retirement from a sport that has come to define him. And thanks to Redmon’s sensitive telling of his mentor’s story, we, the reader, are right there with Diaz, staring into the void of an unknown future and hoping for the best.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jeremy Redmon has reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past 10 years, covering a variety of topics, including the war in Iraq, the 2012 presidential election and the national debate over immigration and refugees. A board member with the Georgia Lacrosse Officials Association, Jeremy has been officiating the sport for eight years. He started playing lacrosse in high school in Oakton, Va., and has competed on men’s recreation club teams on and off ever since. Now, he is proudly watching his 7-year-old son, Casey, play the sport under the watchful eye of some of his fellow lacrosse referees. Lacrosse is now experiencing rapid growth in Georgia. If you are interested in officiating, check out galaxref.com and join Jeremy on the field where you’ll have a front-row seat for the action.