DeKALB – Whenever Paul Engstrom attends a home basketball game at DeKalb High School, it’s like a double homecoming for him. Not only did he graduate from the old DHS in 1948, but he once lived on the property where the new high school sits.
“Our house used to sit right in the middle of the pond,” he said.
Although he never played basketball in high school, Engstrom officiated the sport for 43 years, as well as football for 37 years, earning him a niche in the Illinois High School Association’s hall of fame as an official.
“I was inducted in 2007 in Peoria,” he said proudly.
Engstrom, who worked at Northern FS for 43 years, also coached youth baseball for 22 years and guided a 35-and-older men’s softball team to eight state titles.
Engstrom spent a few minutes before a boys basketball game at the Chuck Dayton Tournament last week with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson discussing refereeing.
MidWeek: What sports did you play in high school?
Paul Engstrom: I was a pitcher and catcher in baseball and I ran the mile in track. But I never played basketball.
MW: How did you get involved in officiating?
PE: It was in 1955. I was in the Army from 1952-54. When I got out, I was trying to play a little basketball, but I was always getting sprained ankles. One day in DeKalb they didn’t have a ref so I grabbed a whistle and tried it. I said, “Hey, this is for me.”
I refereed 43 years for basketball and 37 years for football. I also did some small college games, like Wheaton College, Naperville and Aurora Central, stuff like that.
MW: Did you ever referee any games in this area?
PE: I never wanted to referee any of my (DeKalb) teams. I’m pretty well known here and you don’t do it. But I did referee a lot of Sycamore games.
MW: In basketball, did you ref girls and boys both?
PE: Yes. When I started reffing girls, it wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is today.
MW: I imagine you’ve seen some big changes in basketball.
PE: When I started, they didn’t have the one-and-one after seven fouls. If you got fouled, you shot it right off the bat.
We also did both the fresh-soph and the varsity games. The fresh-soph players liked it because they were being reffed by a varsity referee.
MW: What impact did the three-point shot have?
PE: I think it had a big effect. A team can be out of a game not hitting; they start hitting and if they have a three-point shooter, can get back in the game. I’ve seen it more than once.
MW: Was the three-point shot good or bad for the game?
PE: We (referees) didn’t like it at first because it was something else you had to watch. ...I guess it’s good.
MW: Which sport is easier to ref, football or basketball?
PE: I think football is easier, but you still have to know the rules. You can’t just stand out there and do nothing. If you don’t (know the rules), it’s not fair to the kids or the coaches.
I reffed some football games when we had three referees. That was back in the early ‘70s; then they went to four, then five.
MW: Did you ever ref a state basketball final?
PE: I reffed regionals and sectionals, but not state. You got rated and are picked by the IHSA (Illinois High School Association). I wanted to, but I never got to.
MW: But you’ve been to several state finals as a fan.
PE: I started going in 1954 after I got out of the Army. I’ve seen 57 state finals. This year will be my 58th. The only year I missed was in 1983 when my mother passed away.
MW: So what’s it take to be a good referee?
PE: Work and concentration. Refereeing is like a job. You can’t just stand around.
MW: Does the crowd affect you much?
PE: You hear the crowd, but you don’t let the crowd get to you. It takes the game away for you. You have to have pretty thick skin.
MW Did you referee any other sports?
PE: The last three to four years, I just did girls softball, until 2009. I loved it. I played a lot of softball when I was young. There was a lot of good softball back then.
MW: In your career, are there any games you remember?
PE: The state finals football game in 1981 between Joliet Catholic and Deerfield; that was outstanding.
MW: When you watch a basketball game, do you just watch the game or do you watch the refs as well?
PE: I can sit back and watch a ball game. A lot of guys rant and rave about the refs, but I just take it all in. You can tell the good ones and the poor ones. There are a lot of games and it takes a lot of them.
MW: Do you miss refereeing?
PE: Yes. It gets in your blood and you get that itch and you feel you have to go with it.