Officials are at their best when they are seen and not heard.
Area track and cross country enthusiasts might not know an O’Brien personally, but they have seen one a lot. In fact, Doug and Jeff O’Brien often have athletes and coaches seeing double.
The O’Brien twins graduated from Newark High School in 1976. Not long after, both began officiating, and since then rarely does a day go by during the school year when they are not at a meet or a game.
“I would say during track and cross country that 90 percent of the time we are together,” said Doug, who also officiates basketball with his brother. “I never have to worry about Jeff, and I think it is vice versa. I know he is going to make the right call.”
If it seems like the O’Briens are everywhere, it often is because they are. A few weeks this spring, Doug will officiate middle school and high school meets Monday through Saturday. Jeff also has an upcoming week with six assignments.
Their work is judged by their peers and usually quite favorably. They annually work district cross country and track meets, routinely work regional meets and Doug has worked eight state track meets. Combined, they have worked more than 25 state cross country meets.
“It is kind of nice to be recognized — to be able to work a district meet or a regional meet,” Jeff said. “It is nice that when you have worked hard during your season, coaches realize that.”
The O’Briens ran track and played basketball at Newark. They began running as a hobby a couple years after graduation, and Doug estimated he only misses about one day of running a month.
The officiating also allows them to stay around the sport. It is rare either had a desire to coach. Instead, being on the track is where they prefer to be.
“My wife has always asked, ‘Why don’t you coach?'” Doug said. “The thing about coaching is it is 24/7. The thing about (officiating is) as soon as I am done with the meet, it is over. I don’t have to deal with practices and parents. Being around young people keeps me young.”
Officiating has allowed the O’Briens a front-row seat at watching the best athletes in central Ohio. They recall watching future Ohio State and NFL running back Keith Byars early in their career and the exploits of Dayton legend Chris Nelloms in the late 1980s.
Bob Kennedy was a state champion at Westerville North before having a banner career at Indiana University. He placed in the 5,000 in both of the 1992 and ’96 Olympics.
“I started a track meet (Kennedy) had run in,” Jeff said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this Bob Kennedy is probably going to be a pretty special runner.”
Of course, officiating also brings the responsibility of making the tough calls. During a 30-year career, the O’Briens have come to know many of the area coaches as close friends.
Sometimes, however, they have to call one of them to the finish line and deliver what can be heartbreaking news.
“You hate to see a kid disqualified, but unfortunately everybody has to abide by the rules,” Jeff said. “That is the toughest part because you build relationships. You wouldn’t be there if there was any gray area. I am 100 percent sure that is what has happened.”
As a stiff wind whipped around the Licking Heights High School athletic fields April 13 and the temperatures remained far below the predicted high of 60 degrees, it would have been easy for the O’Briens to wonder when they might put down the whistle and starter’s pistol.
Instead, as they sat down in a car filled with gloves, jackets and hats, they prepared for the another afternoon of fun. It is where the O’Briens feel at home.
“I still enjoy it,” Doug said. “Track goes from bad weather to good. After 33 years, we know how to dress; that’s for sure.”