Referee Jake Ireland watches as Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Steven Jyles fumbles the ball against the Edmonton Eskimos during the CFL action in Edmonton on June 19, 2008. ((John Ulan/Canadian Press))

John Ireland learned quickly what to do when a wide-eyed, sweating, angry, 250-pound man in pain came running at him, screaming at the top of his voice.

He reasoned with him.

The guy known for most of his 62 years as "Jake," basically threw a sign out saying "the doctor is in" more than 500 times as a referee in the Canadian Football League (including 12 in the Grey Cup) before retiring this season to become the new replay co-ordinator at the head office.

Being a referee seems a role that is part traffic cop, part lion tamer and part psychologist, and while Ireland rejects the first analogy, the other two strike him as pretty accurate.

"Your job is not like a traffic cop, telling you what to do and what not to do," he says, sitting in the CFL boardroom. "Your job is more being the stabilizing influence in all the mayhem."

Oxford says mayhem is a noun, meaning violent disorder, or chaos. Its root is in the word maim, as in to maliciously try to hurt someone.

That sounds like what football would be, all right, if it weren't for the guys in stripes.

"The players are going to get emotional — that's just part and parcel of the game," Ireland says. "My job is to allow them time to cool down, and [then] insert yourself when necessary to try and restore order."

Where's the love in Steeltown?

Jake Ireland is a Burlington/Oakville/Hamilton area boy through and through who worked 31 years in management at Stelco before retirement.

You'd think his relationship with the fans in Hamilton would be terrific, but it's like a marriage — good moments and bad.

"They've gone from loving me to hating me to loving me," laughs the man who officiated 555 games in his career and now makes the replay decisions from the office in Toronto.

"Two weeks ago, there were two reviews in a game in Hamilton, against B.C., and they both went in Hamilton's favour. [Head of officials] Tom Higgins phones me and he said, 'Jake … uh … I don't know how to tell you this, but your reputation in Hamilton is in jeopardy."

Meaning, he's suddenly loved again.

A week later, Ireland had to reverse a call against the Tiger-Cats that put the ball back on the one-yard line and took away a late touchdown (they'd score anyway on the next play).

"So I'm on the phone with the observer in Hamilton, and we're talking and we haven't announced our ruling yet, and there's a section below the press box [at Ivor Wynne Stadium] that just gets on the CFL box something awful because the window is always open.

"And I hear over the phone a fan in that section going, 'F-k you, Jake!"

Ireland laughs.

"I'm not even there anymore. But they know." 

Restoring sanity to 24 highly physical guys on an adrenalin rush sounds like a tall order to the uninitiated, but Ireland makes it sound merely like a case of mind over matter. If a guy's getting over excited, use a little calm common sense on him.

"[Ask] 'Is there something I can watch?' Divert his attention from the heat of the moment to the actual behaviour that is causing him to get excited," Ireland says.

"In other words, divert his attention a little from the guy across from him and try and engage him very quickly, very briefly, but establish a communication so he feels you aren't ignoring him."

Listening to the old referee, it's easy to see why he was such a respected figure throughout his career. This is one of the few striped shirts, after all, who had his own unofficial fan club (20 years ago in section 536 of the then-SkyDome — they'd yell "Jake, Jake, Jake" at his appearance and the ref would salute back).

It might surprise longtime fans to know Ireland describes himself as having a short temper. But, he adds, the occasions when he's used bad language are "very, very, very few."

Would he like to describe one?


Ireland still officiates lots of minor football, back in the Lakeshore association where he got his start (most improved official there in 1976, an award he treasures above most of them), and he helps instruct referees from Atom up to the CFL.

His advice to them is simple — that flag is for one thing only, and that's to indicate you saw a foul. You can't use it to get at people and you can't use it to show emotion.

One of Ireland's cardinal rules for officials is that "you never, ever say anything that can be interpreted as a threat.

"Stuff like, 'If you do that again, I'll have to call you.' It's the worst thing you can do," he says. "If it's a foul, throw your flag. If it's not, don't threaten them."

Don't intimidate them. Don't boss them around. And be consistent.

The highest compliment Ireland says he was ever paid was at the 1998 Grey Cup, where a coach from a team not playing that week started chatting with him in a hotel lobby.

"He said, 'You know, with you, we know exactly what we can get away with, we know exactly what we can do with the quarterback. With the other referees, we're never sure.'"

A last thought for young officials out there who may be working a peewee game, or a high school game, or the third contest of a triple header:

"This may be the most important game in one of these player's lives," Ireland says. "It may be the last game of football he ever plays. It might be this third stringer's only touchdown he scores in his career .… It may be the only championship they ever win in their lives ….

"You're a professional, so give it a professional job. This game is important to the younger guys, so it should be important to you."