‘You Saved His Life’: How Veterans Are Finding a Second Life as Referees

Mike Pereira is fighting a two-front war: Providing a critical service to the country’s youth sports leagues, while helping veterans return to civilian life from sometimes traumatizing experiences in the service of their country.

And as a former high-level executive for officiating in the National Football League, he’s using his group Battlefields to Ballfields, to do both.

According to an ESPN report Friday, Pereira started Battlefields to Ballfields, also known as B2B, in 2016 with two goals in mind: Helping veterans adapt to life outside the service and filling the need for more sports officials.

As ESPN noted, officiating sports comes with many struggles. Besides the low pay, deteriorating sportsmanship has created a dangerous environment for officials who are often targeted by angry parents, and even coaches and athletes.

ESPN cited a survey from the National Association of Sports Officials in which 57 percent of respondents agreed that sportsmanship has worsened. Forty percent of respondents blame this on parents who frequently attack officials – often verbally but occasionally physically as well.

Because of this, both professional sports leagues and local youth sports organizations have struggled to find, and hold on to, those willing to fill officiating positions.

Another survey cited by ESPN and conducted by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association found that more than half of the 7,400 NCHSAA officials surveyed had considered leaving the job in recent years.

Battlefields to Ballfields aims to solve both of these problems.

“Many veterans face an uphill battle when they return as they figure out how they will integrate back into society. B2B provides scholarships to veterans who return from defending our country with an opportunity to get integrated back into their community through officiating,” the organization states on its website.

“In serving in the military, and in officiating, there’s the common bond of being a member of a team and creating order out of chaos …

“Local associations are actively recruiting because there aren’t enough officials signing up … Battlefields to Ballfields is helping address this issue. We have put more officials and judges into the system and will greatly enhance the image of those entering the officiating ranks.”

Pereira, now 72, and a graduate of Santa Clara University, knows a lot about the “officiating ranks.”

According to an SCU Athletics Hall of Fame biography, Periera began officiating Division 1 college football in 1982. He spent 14 years officiating college football before moving up to the NFL for two years as a sideline official.

He became the NFL’s supervisor of officiating in 1998. In 2001, he rose to director of Officiating for the NFL and eventually vice president of officiating for the NFL in 2004. He retired from the league in 2009, taking a job as rules analyst for Fox.

In 2019, three years after starting B2B, he got a direct look at how the organization was helping veterans.

He had been chosen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a minor league baseball game for the Redwings in Rochester, New York.

Pereira was headed to the mound when a woman stopped him, according to ESPN. With tears in her eyes, she pointed to her soon-to-be husband who was walking up ahead of them, and told Pereira, “You saved his life.”

The woman, identified by ESPN as Lisa, was engaged to Jamaison Pilgreen. Pilgreen served 18 years in the Army, seeing action in Bosnia right after his enlistment and serving six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He retired in 2015.

“The next two years were hell,” ESPN reported. “Civilian life felt so alien. He struggled with post-traumatic stress. He went through a series of jobs and an even longer list of failed job interviews. His efforts to self-medicate led to an overdose from a mix of pain meds, muscle relaxers and alcohol. Even after he met Lisa through a support group and fell in love, he still felt unmoored.”

She told Pereira that this all changed when Pilgreen discovered Battlefields to Ballfields.

As Pilgreen told ESPN, veterans are “used to being yelled at or being put into tough situations.”

“Those that have deployed, being in combat, a parent or a coach raising their voice saying things is like, ‘Whatever.’ You go through basic training, you’ve got drill sergeants yelling at you all the time, so it’s like, ‘Okay.’ We don’t take it personally and we don’t let it get to us because we’re so used to it,” Pilgreen said.

The issue ultimately comes down to camaraderie, Michael Kennedy, an Operations and Readiness Officer with the Naval Information Warfare Training Group and a regional director for B2B, told ESPN.

“To be wanted again, to be accepted again, to be a part of something. That’s what a lot of these guys are looking for,” Kennedy said. “When I leave the military in two years, I’m going to miss the camaraderie that I have with my unit, my division, my department. Being a grown adult, it’s hard to find that type of stuff.”

He added, “What Battlefields to Ballfields does is takes those that are hurting that really need to be able to be a part of something, to have that fellowship and find that fellowship and they give them an avenue to do that. That’s officiating, right?”

Battlefields to Ballfields continues to grow, with about 700 members now, according to ESPN. Pereira hopes to reach at least 1,000 before 2025.

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.