Hector Tarango was lost, finding little purpose in life.
After a medical discharge from the Army following a series of ailments, including a ruptured Achilles tendon, he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. His personal life was a mess.
“My deployment money was gone, my son was gone and my wife remarried. It was ugly after my three deployments,” he says. “I gave up.”
Then three people and one vocation turned around Tarango’s existence.
His son, Joseph, re-entered his life. His friend Henry Rodriguez, whom Tarango calls “my brother,” alerted him to Battlefields to Ballfields, an organization that gets veterans involved in officiating.
And Mike Pereira, the former NFL head of officiating and current Fox football analyst who founded Battlefields to Ballfields a year ago, took Tarango under his wing.
Now, the 37-year-old Tarango not only is a football official, he’s branched out into basketball.
“I played sports and football, but I didn’t know the rules,” Tarango says. “A lot of people watch football and think they know the rules, but they don’t.
“Henry told me Mike Pereira ran it and I had no idea who Mike was. I wasn’t interested in it (originally), but I did some research and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I had never blown a whistle before.”
Like more than 100 other former military members, Tarango regularly blows whistles now, working youth and high school games in California. Pereira launched his organization last year hoping to reach the century mark at some point in its buildup. He’s gone well past that number, and many of the vets have stories similar to Tarango’s.
Battlefields to Ballfields funds the veterans through scholarships as they get involved in officiating. Pereira works with officiating groups across the country to get the veterans onto the fields and courts once they have learned their craft.
“One of the hurdles when you start to officiate is the cost of starting: dues and registration fees and uniforms,” he says. “It’s expensive, especially based on what you make per game.”
It’s also rewarding, not only for the former military members but for the officiating realm.
“They’ve got the characteristics you need to officiate,” Pereira says. “The courage is a huge part, not being intimidated by any players, coaches or spectators. The whole notion of teamwork; they had to be part of a team before, and as officials you are part of a team as well.
“The confidence, of course, to be able to do a job and do it well. And the stick-to-itiveness.
“It’s amazing to watch them learn, they learn so quickly because they have had to follow orders. It’s hard — we all know officiating is hard — and it will take them a while. But they have all it takes to be successful and now all they need is repetitions.
“My goal is to get them to stay with it.”
That goal apparently has been reached with Tarango. He did Pop Warner football games on weekends and junior varsity contests on Thursdays, averaging perhaps four games a week. He’s doing the same with basketball, and doesn’t sound averse to trying other sports.
“I get to put a uniform on and I like wearing a uniform,” he says with a chuckle. “It gets me out of the house. It is fulfilling.
“At first it was real hard. There’s that brotherhood, though. I’m not saying it works for everybody, but it works for me. Reffing makes me part of the game and a part of something.”
That’s the idea. Pereira’s group has officials working a variety of sports, including wrestling, track and field, lacrosse, soccer, even one ice hockey official. Of the first 100 recruits to B2B, eight already were doing a second sport within a year.
Battlefields to Ballfields is looking for mentors among veterans who already have experience in officiating, and Pereira believes many of his recent signees have the ability to teach.
“These guys and women make a good little extra income and they’re getting out and working with kids,” Pereira says. “We all talk about how we want to serve again in some way, and they feel like a part of the community.
“It’s the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.”