DOVER — Applause rippled down from the stands as the four officials crossed the running track and onto the turf field at Dover-Sherborn Regional High School Sunday morning. They would work two American Youth Football League games between Milton and Dover-Sherborn.
Why the applause for the zebras? And why did a fan yell “History being made!” Well, because it was. John Amicone has been assigning officials to youth football games in Massachusetts for 22 years. This was the first time all four were women.
“I didn’t expect the applause they got,” he said.
The women — Janet Cramer, 55, of Wayland; Kim Gregory, 44, of Lynn; Jenn O’Neill-Reale, 35, of Newton, and Julie Howell, 23, of Abington — worked back-to-back games, the sixth-grade and seventh-grade contests.
“I think this is great for youth football and great for women,” said Scott Robbins, president of Milton Youth Football.
“The face of football is changing,” said Milton coach Jamie Rice. “I hope it’s not just for today.”
It is, after all, 2013. Gender barriers in many fields have long since fallen. It’s not unheard of for women or girls to play football, against boys, and Title IX has ushered in a host of sports for girls. At the professional level, a woman has officiated an NBA game, while women have yet to umpire a Major League Baseball game.
At the youth football level, it remains unusual, but Dover-Sherborn coach Steve Ryan had no concerns at all when four women were assigned to Sunday’s game.
“I won’t even notice that they’re women,” he said before the games. “The idea is for the refs not to be the show.”
“I’m just worried about making the right calls for the kids,” said Cramer, who is in her second year of officiating.
“From a technical and rules standpoint, they were right on the money,” said Amicone, a Dorchester resident who is the assistant assigning commissioner for Bay State Youth Football, after the games. He, along with the commissioner, Tom Kerrigan of East Bridgewater, have assigned officials for 20-plus years.
“The coaches didn’t treat them any differently.”
When one of the D-S coach’s questioned a call, the officials read him the rule. “They made the right call,” said Amicone.
“On two of three plays like that, the referees listened and responded appropriately,” said Ryan, also the varsity baseball coach at Dover-Sherborn. “They knew the game and the rules.’’
After the games, the coaches and many players sought out the officials to say “congratulations” and “thank you.” One assistant coach told the officials: “See you again.”
“I was nervous, and I think the other gals were, too,” said Gregory. “We’re not used to getting all that attention.”
That night she watched on television as the officials made some bad calls in the Packers-49ers game. “I laughed. We’re human!”
Cramer, Gregory, O’Neill-Reale, and Howell have worked games at higher levels than youth football, and are aiming as high as officiating college football games.
Fred Howell of Abington has been officiating youth and high school football games for 20 years. It did not go unnoticed by his daughter, Julie. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you try it?’ ’’ she recounted. “I said isn’t it all men [who officiate]?”
True, but why not break the mold, he suggested. She took the bait. “I’ll try anything,” she said.
Three years ago, at 20, she worked her first Pop Warner game as the line judge. “There were three officials. I was the only female. It went well. The people were nice and acted appropriately.”
That wasn’t the case when Howell officiated an Eastern Football League semipro game. “One of the coaches, or a player, didn’t like a call I made and said, ‘Are you wearing a Halloween costume?’ I didn’t take it seriously. It’s part of the job.
“We can run a game just as efficiently as men. It’s exciting because we’re making a name for ourselves. The number of female officials is few and far between. I plan on being around for a while. I want to do games at a higher level and keep moving up, maybe to college games. We’ll see where it goes.
“Football’s my favorite sport. I love the atmosphere. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Everybody gets involved.”
Howell’s only sport at Abington High was track and field. “I wasn’t coordinated enough [for team sports]. I lived vicariously, watching people who were athletically skilled,” she said. Now she teaches fitness, including kickboxing, in Weymouth and Quincy.
Cramer said officiating was “something I wanted to do for a long time. But I have four kids. I didn’t have the time.” Her children range from age 17 to 25 now, which allows her time to do football games. Cramer approached the Ashland-based Nashoba Valley Officials board last year, took its course, and passed the test.
A Pop Warner game in Franklin was her first assignment. “It was a little nerve-racking — not because I was a woman, just in general,” she said. “The other two [male] officials were welcoming and helpful.”
She worked two Pop Warner games on weekends, mostly in Sudbury, Natick, and Sherborn, and landed freshman game assignments at private schools, including St. Mark’s, Groton, Rivers, and Fenn. The one that stands out was a game at St. Sebastian’s in Needham. “It was played in a snowstorm,” said Cramer.
On Friday nights, she worked on the chain crew for Wayland High games. Her son, Matthew, plays center for the team and is one of the captains.
Cramer grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Bob, her husband, was from Newton. They settled in Wayland. “I didn’t play sports in high school,” she said, “but I loved watching football.”
Now she’s a part of the game, although out of view from her husband. “I haven’t let him come to my games. I was nervous last year, and he can be a little critical.”
O’Neill-Reale never worked with a woman official until Sunday. Long before she became a ref, she wanted to play football. She participated in basketball, volleyball, and track at Medford High, and wanted to kick for the football team. “It didn’t work out, so I played flag football in a men’s league in Revere,’’ she said.
“Then I heard about a women’s team, the New England Storm,” she said.
This was tackle football. She played for the Storm for two years, starting in 2000. She played linebacker, cornerback, safety, and gunner on the kicking team. When the team folded, O’Neill-Reale hooked on with the Bay State Warriors, another women’s team. “I just love the game. I’d still be playing, but I’ve got two children, 3 years old and 4 months, and I work part time,” she said.
Torn ankle ligaments, suffered during a game, was another hint that her playing days were over. “I hung up my cleats and started officiating.”
Besides youth games, O’Neill-Reale has also been assigned freshman high school games and the varsity games on occasion, including the East Boston-South Boston Thanksgiving game. “I take whatever I can get,” said O’Neill-Reale.
If it gets nasty, she might not turn the other cheek. One year she was working a Thanksgiving game. “A coach said, ‘Shouldn’t you be home cooking dinner?’ I said, ‘Why aren’t you home cooking?’ If you give it you have to take it. Sometimes I’m sorry, though. You’re going to hear flak. But if you do a good job, you’ll hear that, too.”
Gregory worked her first youth football game in 2001. “Then I got a few freshman and JV high school games,” even though she was told that it might be tough for a woman.
“I said, ‘How hard could it be?’ It’s just a bunch of guys running into each other.” Well, not quite that simple, she learned. “It is a hard sport to officiate, the most challenging of the sports that I do.” She has also worked high school girls’ basketball games and women’s college lacrosse.
Her husband, Christopher, is also an official. “We work football games together all the time,” she said. “We like that, but we stay away from critiquing each other.” She is the associate director of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
When Gregory was nine months pregnant, she shadowed an officials crew at a game prior to getting her first assignment. “I was wearing an officials hat and maternity clothes. Someone yelled, ‘You can’t run, you’re pregnant!’ I was very careful. I didn’t want to get hit [on the sidelines].”
Gregory calls ’em as she sees them. “I’ve ejected coaches and fans from games. A youth-level coach made an inappropriate comment. I threw the flag and said, ‘You’re gone.’ Some folks don’t want you there because you’re a female.”
“It’s still a man’s world,” said Cramer who, after a slight pause, added, “right now.”