Kelly Critchfield complained a little about back pain during the 5A high school basketball playoffs, but it didn't stop him from doing his job as an official.

In fact, it really didn't even slow him down. The 30-year veteran called the 5A state championship game.

But, despite being in good physical condition, his friends said he felt awful.

"After that tournament, he began to search in earnest for what was wrong," said his longtime friend and fellow official Stevan Davis.

The answer was something no one expected.

Critchfield had esophageal cancer that had metastasized in his back. It is as serious as cancer gets.

He called Davis in May to tell him.

"I was one of the first people he told," said Davis. "We began to talk what he should do ... We decided we weren't going to stand idly by. We were going to do what we could to fight it."

Critchfield's fight is one made more difficult because he is self-employed, as a real estate agent, and not only is he without health insurance, his cancer treatments have made it difficult for him to work.

"It was sobering that an athletic, very healthy guy could have cancer," said Davis, who met Critchfield while officiating basketball games at the local Mormon wardhouse.

"I liked his honesty," Davis said of how the two became fast friends. "I was thinking I was pretty good, and he didn't tell me I was awful, but he told me I wasn't that great. But he said, 'Come on, we'll get you trained. Anybody can have a shot at this."'

"This" was officiating.

Wearing stripes at high school football games, basketball games and most recently volleyball games is the way Critchfield chose to serve the youths of this state.

Over three decades, he's officiated thousands of high school and college basketball and football games. He's called 18 basketball championship games and nine state football championship games.

"We just knew we had to do something to help," said Davis.

Officials are a sort of lifelong fraternity — only now a lot of women belong to the club. They are the people fans either never notice or blame with all the venom they can muster. Still, we cannot play the games we love without them.

This environment only bonds officials even more tightly together. They understand each other; they know what it feels like to be called names, threatened, even spit on. They know what it feels like to put on a uniform night after night for pennies so that teenagers can demonstrate their athletic talent, so that communities can rally around those teams.

"It's about the kids," said Clint Barnes, a friend and fellow official whose been at it for 42 years. "Our wives look at us like we're crazy when we go out and do it four or five nights a week. But the camaraderie is also one of the reasons we do it ... There is something about officiating where you bond together and there is always someone to help pick you up."

So now it's Critchfield's turn to be picked up. His friends in stripes are making his fight their fight and hope it will become the fight of those who appreciate all those hours he gave up so someone else's son or daughter could experience the world of sports.

His friends have organized a golf tournament fund-raiser at TalonsCove at Saratoga Springs on Aug. 26 at 7:30 a.m. After the four-person scramble, there will be a barbecue luncheon complete with awards donated by businesses.

"We've done dozens of scrambles, and he's always our long-ball guy," said Davis. "He just crushes the ball. He loves to play golf ... We thought it would be a good way to bring people together on his behalf and also have a good time.

Sadly, Critchfield will not have the strength to participate in the golf tournament meant to honor him.

"I don't think he'll have the strength," Davis said. "He's lost 40 pounds."

It will likely be a while before Critchfield can officiate again, but that doesn't mean he won't be hanging out with those fraternity brothers and sisters.

In addition to the tournament, they are also hosting a dinner and auction on Aug. 12 at Riverside Country Club. Donations can be made at any Zions Bank in Critchfield's name, and his friends are prepared to do whatever is necessary to help him battle the same disease that took his father 10 years ago.

That's because they know what it would mean to lose a man like Critchfield from their ranks. They also understand the loss he will feel as he hangs up his whistle, even for just a few months.

"We want to help him out, but we also want to just lift his spirit," said Davis.

And in their efforts to rally around Critchfield, they offer the rest of us the chance to thank a man who is a symbol of what some people do for the love of the games, the affection for someone else's children and the devotion of friends who understand you like no one else can.


For more information on the fund-raisers benefiting Kelly Critchfield, please visit www.theprepfan.com


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com