VICENZA, Italy -For 20 years, Mark Turney has moonlighted as an official for sporting events, namely softball, soccer and football. No matter where his career took him, he sought out the local association and signed on.
On July 7, he participated in what has become one of the highlights of that side gig: he was the only American this year to officiate at the 'Italian Super Bowl,' in the Division 3 championship game for the Federazione Italiana di American Football (FIDAF; in English, the Italian Federation of American Football).
Turney, a Department of the Army civilian who serves as a public affairs specialist and webmaster for United States Army Garrison Italy, said he was especially honored because he was the only American to officiate in the Super Bowl and the league this year, and the only person ever to be a Division 1 White Hat as a first-year official in FIDAF.
'I won't deny that I was scared to death in those Division 1 games,' Turney said, laughing. 'It was an amazing honor. This was 1st Division football and a really big deal here in Italy. Every move we made was going to be televised.'
But years of training and experience had prepared him for it. Turney began officiating unit- and high school-level football in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1988. From there, he moved stateside and joined the football association in whatever town he moved to, including locations in Virginia, New York, Nevada and Georgia. He learned to call NCAA rules and NFL rules, and participated in a variety of training experiences. Such training varies from weekly meetings and clinics, to group talks and annual certification exams. He also spends a lot of time studying rules and preparing for games on his own.
'We (referees/umpires) can never take for granted that we know a rule,' said the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native. 'I am always studying, preparing, sharing rules. We have to make split-second decisions on the field, and we have to know the rules cold. I never want to be the reason a team is the victor or the loser.'
That being said, the responsibility of the White Hat is significant. The person who holds that position on the field is legally responsible for the game, from one hour before and until everyone steps off the field at the end. The responsibility also includes communication with the team of referees before the game, making sure uniforms are correct, assigning positions and more.
Although he has served as White Hat in other places, Turney, who has been living and working in Italy since October 2016, had to work his way up to the position here. It all started by getting in touch with FIDAF through contacts in Germany, and the rest fell into place. Beginning in September 2017, he hit the field as part of a team of referees. He was shuffled around to various locations in Italy, such as Bolzano, Vicenza, Torino and Verona.
'Those games were my proving ground, so to speak,' said Turney. 'The association started getting comfortable with what I brought to the field, and I started going farther and farther out of the area.'
Soon he found himself at games in Bologna, Parma and Trieste, and the levels increased from Division 3 to Division 1. And although he doesn't speak Italian, it doesn't prove to be a problem.
'I have not had a game yet where my lack of Italian has been a significant issue. The rules are largely understood,' Turney said. 'There are often players who don't speak English, but there is usually someone who can cross the gap so we can get our point across. We figure it out however we can.'
For the American who loves football, figuring it out is the only solution and why he spends so much of his spare time on the field.
'I love football,' Turney said. 'It's as simple as that. I grew up in a football town, played football as a kid, played in college. I love the game, and I love giving the game to people.
'When your crew is clicking and the game is firing on all cylinders, it is the most fun you can have in sports. It's an exciting time when it all works, and when it doesn't, well, your mistakes are out there for the world to see. You need to own it and move on. Every time you blow a whistle or throw a flag, half of the people there love you and the other half hates you. It teaches you a lot.'
Turney encourages anyone who is interested in becoming involved with the FIDAF to reach out to him if they need assistance in getting in touch with the right contacts. He also recommends studying NCAA rules and going in with a good attitude.
As for his side gig, he plans to participate for as long as he can deliver a quality game.
'When I can't do it anymore, I'll hang up the spikes,' he said. But for now -and at least until next season- he'll ride the high of his experience at the Super Bowl in Italy.