DECATUR — As an offensive lineman at Millikin University in the 1980s, Marv Dampeer and some friends got together to play intramural basketball on campus. There was a catch, though: Games were played at 6, 7, and 8 p.m., and teams had to send two players to officiate the next game.
Dampeer was always eager to do it, and didn’t necessarily have to twist the arms of his fraternity brothers to take their place. He remembers watching officials on television; some were flamboyant and showed their personality. That piqued his interest.
What Dampeer didn’t know was that the hobby he started in college for no pay was just beginning of a part-time job that's well into its 30th year.
Dampeer started working for the Decatur Park District in 1986 and got his license to become an official for the Illinois High School Association in that same year. Since then, he’s been a warming face in the middle of the field, with an open ear and a word of advice for the athletes playing. He’s known to give some coaches a kiss on the forehead on the sideline and he spent decades coaching Decatur JFL, where he coached and impacted the same coaches he sees on the Friday night sidelines or in a basketball gym in the winter.
DECATUR — Marv Dampeer finds himself going back to the opening verse of Rudyard Kipling's po…
His name carries weight in the stratosphere of high school officials.
“I’m so humble because I never, ever thought it would go this far," Dampeer said. “I’m so humbled because those folks, they know my name."
It’s a life’s work for Dampeer, who balances the schedule of his day job as an insurance adjuster with the life of an official. For Dampeer, the job has never been about the money. It’s about the connections, the fairness and staying attached to sports — even after his own playing days and after his kids were done playing. Entering his 33rd season as an IHSA official, he savors little moments like players asking where he’s been because they missed him in their game, or having his two grandchildren, Kaysynn and Laela, chase him onto the floor of a Macon County Tournament basketball game to give him a hug.
“When you’re around as long as he’s been around, and you’re having a positive impact on players and coaches, he’s one of those guys who it’s hard to find something bad to say about him," MacArthur football coach Derek Spates said.
The connections are one thing, but Dampeer is married to the craft. He spends his days in late August in front of a TV watching baseball and studying the rule book — it's a passion of his. All the while, he hears the voice of his coach at Millikin, Carl Poelker, in his mind: “Pay attention to the damn details.”
“There’s not a day when I’m out on the football field, there’s not a game where that’s not going through my head,” Dampeer said.
‘I get paid for this?’
Those intramural officiating stints turned into something more serious in 1986 when he began officiating games for the park district.
He had no idea he could swing a quick $40 for his time. In one of his early games, he and a player were going back and forth about calls, and after the game the players voice billowed out: “Hey ref.”
Dampeer turned around, ready to stand his ground.
“Somebody from the park district wants to see you,” the player shouted.
Dampeer found the park district employee, got two $20 bills and was in awe.
“My exact words were, ‘You get paid to do this?’ Everybody was laughing except me,” Dampeer said.
After that, Dampeer was off. He called the IHSA — he can still remember the phone number to this day — and got the ball rolling on expanding his horizons. His references were Poelker and his psychology teacher from Percy L. Julian High School in Chicago. After that, he passed the test and got to work.
His first game was a freshman game at Mount Zion on Labor Day weekend. He got a hat, his stirrups and a shirt and took the field, and he ran — everywhere. Poelker’s voice wouldn’t let him take a play off.
“Pay attention to the damn detains.” Dampeer heard again.
'There's no way I could quit.'
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One of the highest compliments Dampeer has ever received was being called a "centurion of fair play." That mattered to him deeply. He's always hung his hat on giving players a level playing field.
It's exactly why he's graciously welcomed to football fields or basketball courts, and why younger athletes at LSA have asked "Why weren't you here last week?" Those are the moments that have kept him coming back for 33 years.
“If I told you this, you might think I’m kidding, but I love the kids," Dampeer said of his key to a long career.
At first, the job was about staying attached to sports, but he found a different avenue to stay involved in 1990, when he began a coaching career in JFL that spanned more than 10 years. At that point, Dampeer could have walked away and gotten his sports fix elsewhere.
But the kids, and those damn details, kept him around.
“There’s no way I could quit," Dampeer said. "I’ve quit at other things in life. This wasn’t going to be one of them. Because of this, I don’t quit at nothing else. That’s the God’s honest truth. I try to be the best dad, the best grandfather, I'm not married, but in my mind I'm still married trying to be the best husband, the best son, the best brother, the best employee. A lot of it is based off of me being on that field and thinking about my coach."
Dampeer's dedication to his craft and the desire to build connections with players is what makes him so liked around the sports community. When he officiates freshmen games, he takes the time to explain the penalty to players and why they got it. They don't forget those details when they seem him four years later on a Friday night.
"He was one of the best refs that ever officiated one of my football games," 2017 MacArthur graduate Zamani Walter said. "He was always on point — never missed a call in my eyes. I’ll always remember him because he's like family, but also he officiated the legendary game between us and SHG."
A lasting impact
The memory plays clean in Maroa-Forsyth's defensive coordinator and softball coach Jon Kidd's head. When he hears Dampeer's name, he smiles and flashes back to the west sideline at Firestone Field when he was in fourth grade.
Kidd had finally scored a touchdown, his first in JFL, and spiked the ball as a celebration. He rushed to that west sideline to celebrate with Dampeer, his JFL coach at the time. Instead, "Big Marv" — all 6-foot-5 of him with a burly figure — picked kid up and held him in the air. Maybe the years have caused some exaggeration, but Kidd estimated he was seven feet in the air.
Dampeer told him to never celebrate like that again. By the time he set Kidd back on the ground, Kidd was in tears. The best moment of his life was quickly spoiled — almost. Dampeer patted him on the head and told him good play.
Now, when Dampeer officiates at Maroa-Forsyth game, he walks over and kisses Kidd right on his forehead.
“He stands out to me as one of the biggest role models growing up," Kidd said. "Little things like that, you look back and you’re like, man that was really impactful. He wanted you to do it the right way."
Almost every person who has met Dampeer has a story similar to the one Kidd has. In Spates' case, his first memory of Dampeer came when Spates played at MacArthur and took an interception to the end zone for a touchdown, then flipped the ball to Dampeer.
"I remember him telling me, ‘Hey man, you looked real fast running down the sideline.’ I never forgot that," Spates said.
Dampeer never let up on the details, even after more than 30 years and officiating anything from middle school to college football. The details are the backbone of his career, and that's led to connections and respect across the state.
He never thought it would turn into this, but he's welcomed with open arms at most every football field or basketball court.
"All I know as a coach who’s had Marv as an official in basketball and football is I breathe easier when I see his stripes," Eisenhower baseball and assistant football coach Kevin Hale said. "Fair, just and kind. He understands the game is about, and for, the players. He is a legend who has earned every inch of respect."
All because of those damn details.
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25