August 3, 2020
By: Andrew Gardner
The Year of the Bird
The 2019 season saw eight Thunderbird rookies take the field and wear ‘the feathers’ for the first time. Dylan Best, who scored 22 goals, tossed 17 assists, and played in 236 points, was one of the premier stand-out first-years, despite the fact he was undeservedly omitted from the AUDL 2019 All-Rookie team.
Another overlooked rookie from the 2019 campaign was Kaitlyn Colbert, a freshman referee who ended her successful campaign on the field of a play-off game against the Chicago Wildfire that would be determined by a single goal in front of 411 raucous fans.
I spoke with Colbert over the phone to get her to reflect on the 2019 AUDL season as a first-time referee, what she’s been doing since the shut-down, her most memorable moments, and her most memorable mistakes, calling Professional games.
A Tenacious Start
In the early months of 2019, Colbert was told there was an opportunity to get paid to referee Professional ultimate frisbee games by fellow Thunderbird referee Danielle Seibert.
“We can actually do that? That’s a thing that we can do?” Colbert had said. “Oh my God, that would be freakin’ awesome!”
Colbert, excited about the idea, approached me at a Thunderbirds practice, asking about the availability for referee positions. She was wildly eager to learn and be involved. It was an easy decision to give her a shot.
Colbert retrospectively acknowledged she hadn’t really thought about what it meant to ask for the position. “I just jumped in,” she said. “I’m going to do it. The nerves kind of hit after with my first practice. But reality hit me, this is serious, this is for real. I need to get my shit down.”
Colbert’s self-conviction and realization paid dividends as her confidence slowly built throughout the AUDL season. “It made me step out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I can be a very indecisive person. I know I have to make [quick] decisions. [These decisions] pushed me more to be more decisive, taking me out of comfort zone, which everyone needs to do every once in a while.”
Nobody is Perfect
Unfortunately, external pressure from players, coaches, and fans can put a lot of stress on referees. It’s somewhat engrained in sports culture and we remember the call that lost our team the game rather than any one correct call throughout the game. Jim Joyce, the first base umpire during MLB's Cleveland Indians vs. Detroit Tigers match-up is infamous for ruining a perfect game. Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga’s would be historic moment in the bottom of the 9th inning with 2 outs was shattered when Joyce incorrectly ruled the runner safe at 1st base to end the game.
After the game, Galarraga said, “Nobody's perfect. Everybody's human. I understand. I give [Joyce] a lot of credit for saying, 'I need to talk to you.' You don't see an umpire tell you that after a game. I gave him a hug."
The reaction from Galarraga is uncommon, and referees can internalize their mistakes and feel responsible for the outcome of a game. To overcome that feeling and extinguish those fears is incredibly difficult.
“It was nerve-wracking for me,” Colbert admitted. “I remember one bad call, it was a layout. From my angle, he had laid out at my feet, he was out. But then a photographer after the game had photo proof, he was one-hundred percent in. And that had just crushed me. But I can only see what I can see.”
The AUDL doesn’t have the ability to go under the hood and ping a command center in New York City to verify the accuracy of calls on the field. With only the information at her disposal, Colbert is forced to decide the correct ruling in a second, intensifying the working environment.
Unique to the AUDL is the integrity rule, which can protect referees and provide a safety net for wrong calls. If the opponent in Colbert’s case had the knowledge that the athlete who laid out was in the field of play, they could have reversed Colbert’s call on the field. Nevertheless, Colbert wants to get the call right from the beginning.
The ‘Boot Game’
On June 11th, 1997, the Chicago Bulls took on the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Better known today as ‘The Flu Game’, Michael Jordan would battle through his ailment and lead his Chicago Bulls to a 90-88 victory behind his 44 minutes and 38 points.
When Colbert showed up to J.C. Stone Field on July 29th, 2019 to referee the playoff game between the Thunderbirds and the Wildfire, she was limping in a pneumatic air cast boot.
Colbert was suffering from severe tendonitis. The arch of her foot was collapsing, a change in the tendon that normally provides stability for walking and support for the foot's arch.
“It wasn’t terrible,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a broken ankle, I didn’t have a fractured toe. But it was not a fun time.”
After talking to me for several minutes about her ability to referee the game, Colbert was adamant on donning the stripes. “I have to do it. This is my limitation. But I made a commitment,” she said.
Colbert headed to the Thunderbirds sideline to meet with the medical training staff, Dr. Ravi Ved and Athletic Trainer Mitchell Meszaros from Allegheny Health Network. “I remember just saying, ‘can you just tape my ankle to the max, please’?” Colbert said. “They did a great job. When I was walking around, it felt like I was still wearing the boot.”
However, the play-off game would be the most intense game of the year. With the largest crowd in attendance and the most at stakes for both teams in an elimination game, the two teams would battle it out to the final buzzer. The Thunderbirds would claim victory 21-20.
“Right before the game, I was confident,” she said. “I kept telling myself I was going to make it through that game. It was the roughest game ever. I was on the opposing team’s sideline, and they didn’t know what was wrong with me. But I just remember it being a good game! And it was a very very close game too.”
The public perception of referees is that they should not dictate the outcome of a contest. They should lurk in the shadows and only surface when a neutral arbitrator is necessary. By all accounts, Colbert delivered her strongest performance of the year during one of the biggest competitions of the year.
With the news of the cancelation of the 2020 AUDL Season, Colbert’s sophomore season was put on hiatus. For work, Colbert teaches at the Conroy Education Center, a Pittsburgh Public School, as an autistic support teacher. Recently, the Pittsburgh Public Schools announced they will be going back to school online during the next 9 weeks.
When Colbert is not working, she is staying active. “I’ve been biking and hiking on the southside trail along the Monogahela River,” she says. “I take the trail down into homestead near the waterfront, about a 10-mile ride. I also frequent Raccoon trail out towards the airport where my mother lives. You can kayak and hike up there as well.”
A Free Agent
I asked Colbert about her ultimate playing aspirations. After dealing with the tendonitis in her foot and some other health complications, she was feeling great in January of 2019 and was preparing to play for the mixed Club team, I-79 out of Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has put playing on hold for all of us – but Colbert has her sights set on playing for I-79 in 2021. “It was nice to feel healthy again, ready to work out, and ready to play,” she says. “But now I’m just looking forward to next season even more.”