AllSportsTucson.com is running a series of articles on local sports figures who are making an impact on the community. You can refer to this link to catch up on some of our previous profiles of those who mean a lot to Tucsonans.
Kirby Bollnow is the referee at local youth and high school football games the coaches and players have a difficult time being at odds with, not because he is perfect as an official, but he is close to that as a human being.
A referee with Tucson Youth Football since 2008 and at the high school level since 2011, Bollnow has established a revered presence in Southern Arizona that is unbecoming of a person in his position.
That respect generates from Bollnow often volunteering his time either officiating or communicating to coaches about rules and by donating his paychecks from working the games to my brother Andy’s Kicks 4 Kids program that supplies shoes to kids who are less fortunate and to the Community Food Bank.
“I know this (story) is about how I give back to the community, but quite frankly, the community gives back to me much more by just being involved with these kids and these coaches,” Bollnow said. “I’ve made a ton of friends through TYF. I’m honored that high school football coaches will call me up and ask for a rule interpretation.
“At the end of the day, I want people to say, ‘Kirby makes a difference.’ I know there’s coaches that see officials walk on the field and say, ‘Oh, crap, we got that guy.’ I never want them to say that about me.”
Bollnow was honored last October by the Tucson Youth Football and Spirit Federation with a “Volunteer of the Year” award for the amount of time he puts in all day Saturday for the games. Those days consists of 10 to 12 hoursworking multiple games. Most of the time, he donates what he earns — $250 to $300 — to charity and to the 14U All-Star team to help pay for expenses in its trip to Florida to play in the national tournament.
To the astonishment of TYFSF president Julius Holt and certification commissioner Margie Nelson, Bollnow pays his own admission to the TYFSF playoff games that he officiates.
“TYF needs the money more than I do,” said Bollnow, a successful businessman in Tucson.
Bollnow, who moved here from Chicago in 1996 for a job opportunity, is in his fifth year as manager of the tech support site for Garmin International, which specializes in fitness products. Prior to that, he was the customer experience leader at Intuit for about six years.
He puts in many hours of work at home now during the COVID-19 pandemic with video meetings and paperwork, while his wife works on the frontline as a nurse at the Banner-Medical University South Campus, which has experienced a high number of COVID-19 cases. “So far so good, we’re blessed,” Kirby said. “No problems yet.”
Kirby’s will for self-improvement for the benefit of others is exemplified in his running routine, when he is healthy.
“I got back into running. Back before I moved here, I ran nine marathons,” he said. “So now, I just tweaked my foot so I haven’t run in the last couple of days, but I was just on a 764-day streak of running straight, five miles a day.
“I look at it, one, being there for those kids all day long and the 4 o’clock game deserves the same effort I gave to the 8 o’clock game. And also for high school, every year, I get a year older and those kids stay 17. I’ve got to be able to run with them. I have to be able to run with the likes of Stevie Rocker (at CDO) and (former Salpointe star) Bijan Robinson. You’ve got to be on your game. You’ve got to stay in shape. You’ve got to spend time. It’s all in service to the kids. No matter what game you’re working, it’s an important game for those kids.”
Bollnow’s development as a referee started after his son Jeff played in the TYF system before moving on to playing at Mountain View High School. Kirby remained as a coach in TYF at the young mighty-mite level. After a couple of years of that, officials noticed his high-level knowledge of the rules and encouraged him to become a referee.
In 2008, he started on that course. Now, he is one of the most well-versed referees in the state with his knowledge of the rules. He said he touches the rule book nearly every day during the football season. At the outset of every season, he volunteers his time educating TYF coaches on the rules and any rule changes that many coaches unfortunately do not take the time to learn.
He mentioned, “I always start out (the meeting) with, ‘All the new coaches stand up. Stay standing. All the ones who’ve been here for five years, stand up. All the ones who’ve been here longer, stand up.’ So now I have the whole room sanding and I say, ‘Okay. everyone who read the rulebook stay standing. Everyone else, sit down.’ The whole room sits down.”
Kirby points out two rules that coaches never take advantage of that are eye-openers: the team that gets scored on with a touchdown has the choice of receiving the kick or kicking it off, and after a team receives a fair catch, a coach can choose to free kick for three points.
He points out that a coach might want to kick off after the opponent scores a touchdown, especially very late in the game when the team is trying to preserve at least an 8-point lead, thereby avoiding a fumbled onside kick deep in their territory. And free-kicking after a fair catch can result in three points that could sway the outcome of the game.
“If you, let’s say, fair catch it at like the (opponents’) 30-yard line, you can say, ‘I want to do a free kick,'” Kirby said. “And so you line up for a kickoff. The other team is 10 yards away. They can’t rush. Your kicker can run up and kick it off the tee. If they get it through the uprights, it’s three points.”
Another interesting aspect of Kirby’s officiating career is the dynamic of his son Jeff now serving as defensive coordinator at Cienega High School. Kirby is allowed to work Cienega’s games but he prefers to avoid that situation. Kirby’s interaction with Jeff is solely going over the rules in detail so “Jeff can have a conversation with the official and not be one of those screamers.”
“I could officiate his games,” Kirby said. “I’ve officiated Cienega, lower level, like freshman games, but ever since he’s been at Cienega, I have not officiated JV games because he’s the head coach of the JV, too. And I don’t do varsity just because of the perceived conflict of interest (although) I would probably be harder on him than easier on him.”
Despite avoiding the scenario of officiating his son’s games, Kirby is not consumed about having a pristine image as an official.
What matters most to him is bringing about positive change to the lives he comes across, transcending what he does on the football field to the homes of youths and families in Southern Arizona because of his meaningful work. Without him and others like him, how would the youths have the opportunity to develop on the football field, and therefore become productive members of our society?
“Tucson is such a close-knit community, and I think there’s a lot of potential for Tucson to come together and help each other,” Kirby said. “I’m trying to set an example, whether it’s for the kids or the coaches or the parents, and I’m far from perfect — I can tell you I haven’t worked a perfect football game from an officiating standpoint, maybe ever.
“I make mistakes, right? And I make mistakes in life. But I think just finding a way to give back helps other people start to pay it forward.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.