Pam’s People Profile: Steve Hartman takes CBS viewers on journeys across America with his “On the Road” series of stories. Here, Pam Clifton takes readers across the Parkland by sharing stories of local residents.
Justin Nettles has loved sports ever since he was a kid. He played football, basketball and baseball growing up. Now, he’s a teacher and coach at Potosi’s John Evans Middle School.
“I teach because I wanted to be a positive impact for kids and have a positive influence on students who may not have a positive influence,” said Nettles, “and I coach because I love sports and it’s another way to connect with students and influence them, like many of my teachers and coaches have influenced me.”
At Potosi, he is the middle school assistant coach for baseball and football.
His passion for sports has been prevalent throughout his life because of role models like his dad, Larry.
Nettles’ father umpired softball even before his son was born, and he later umpired a few baseball games when Nettles played. They’ve even umpired together quite a bit over the last several years.
This, along with encouragement from “Big” John Simily in baseball and that of best friend John Barnett in basketball pushed him to become an umpire for baseball and referee for basketball.
Nettles started umpiring at 16. His brother Kyle’s team which his dad coached had played a game. An umpire canceled for the game that was to be played next. Simily asked him to fill in, and from then on Nettles was hooked. He began refereeing when he was 20 after he learned that officials were needed for AAU basketball.
His personal playing time has certainly contributed to his refereeing and umpiring experience. “Playing and being around sports the majority of my life have helped me to understand the rules and the ins and outs of each sport,” said Nettles.
Although doing both sports is time-consuming, he thoroughly enjoys what he does. He’s also become acquainted with many people through officiating. And it’s certainly good exercise. Nettles spends about 10 extra hours a week referring basketball games during the season. He’s no longer able to umpire school baseball games because of his coaching, but he does this during the summer. That ranges anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week, depending on how many games are scheduled. He plans to umpire more this summer.
It’s tough to keep all the schedules organized, from his school calendar to coaching duties to officiating basketball and baseball games.
“It’s difficult to keep it all organized, with school, coaching and church responsibilities to also juggle,” said Nettles. He has a calendar on his phone that helps him stay organized. Area athletic directors also text or email him throughout the day or the day before to send out reminders to confirm that he is working those games.
For non-school affiliated sports, there is not necessarily a uniform that is required, but Nettles said it’s a good idea to wear one because officials seem to be more respected when they do. For AAU basketball, they wear a black-and-white shirt. For school basketball, he wears that shirt and black pants. Umpiring requires a blue shirt with gray pants. For MSHSAA certified school games, an official has to register and pay a fee, complete mechanics clinics, and take an online test. Although certification requirements aren’t necessary for non-school related organizations, some groups do prefer officials to complete training.
Out of all the games he’s officiated, Nettles said he has called two state championship games behind the plate. One was the 10U championship. Mineral Area won on a walk-off homerun in 2016. Another was last summer. Kennett came back to beat Mineral Area 11U in eight innings on a walk-off.
“It’s hard to beat a walk-off game with so much at stake,” said Nettles.
Nettles recalled about five years ago when he was calling a junior high basketball game. It was a 28-point game about midway through the third quarter. The team that was trailing came back to win in regulation.
“Usually when you see this significant of a differential, it’s pretty insurmountable, especially at the junior high level,” he said. “I believe, unofficially, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen a comeback of 20 or more points at the junior high level in all my years of playing, watching, coaching and officiating.”
At times during games, there might be unpleasant interactions between the fans and the officials. Nettles said the interactions vary from group to group and year to year. Sometimes a group of fans may be really tough to deal with, and others, fans from that same community, may be great. The ages don’t really matter.
“I’ve dealt with unruly fans just as much at the lowest level as I have at the high school level, and I’ve dealt with great fans at all levels as well.”
Nettles’ most memorable games involve his alma mater, West County. He was able to umpire the last fall baseball game at Frankclay field, where he grew up and played baseball, got his first experience as a coach, and umpired so many games, in the fall of 2016. In the spring of 2017, he umpired the first game at the new West County High School field.
“Even though I’ve moved on and coach and teach in a different district, it was pretty cool for me to be able to call the last game on the field where I’ve grown up and made so many memories and also call the first game at the new field.”
In addition, Nettles was able to call the last junior high basketball game at the old middle school where he attended eighth grade and then the second game in the brand-new middle school gym.
Nettles said the most rewarding thing about his job of refereeing and umpiring is seeing athletes grow and succeed. “It’s always rewarding seeing an athlete who has spent countless hours working on their game to improve and succeed.”
One of the most frustrating times of his job as an officiant is when players or coaches argue a call and “they have no understanding of the rule behind the call. It’s one thing to disagree with a call; it’s frustrating when someone disagrees simply because they don’t understand the rules of the game. It’s also frustrating when a player or coach gets out of line in what otherwise may be a smoothly running game, and it gets the entire crowd going.”
He said overreacting to calls that do not go their way is also frustrating.
“Every official understands that when a close call is made in a tight game, especially late, it will cause a reaction, likely on whatever side it goes against. But it is frustrating when a call is made that is essentially irrelevant to the outcome of the game for a coach or fans to lose it.”
Nettles said he has to be confident in his calls because people do disagree with him.
“If a coach has questions or wants an explanation, I try to explain it,” he said, “as long as they ask the right way. If I make a call that I know a player may not understand why it was called, I will attempt to explain it to them as well.”
Above everything else, Nettles said he wished everyone would remember the reason everyone attends games, including fans, coaches and officials: for the kids.
“I coach as well, and I am competitive, so I understand wanting to win. I want to win when I coach. But at the end of the day, we are out there for the kids and no other reason. I think sometimes we lose sight of that.”