For almost two decades, Rich Choponis has run up and down the sidelines of college basketball games with a whistle in his mouth. Three knee surgeries later, he’s still calling fouls.
On April 19, after attending the groundbreaking of Seymour’s new gym, a year after a tornado destroyed the old court in his hometown, Choponis was in nearby Corydon that afternoon to fire the starting pistol at athletic facilities named after 1932 Olympic Gold Medalist George Saling. He takes his duties seriously.
“I just love doing track meets,” said Choponis. “But standing there for three or four hours wears on your body, where in basketball, you’re moving around.
“Nothing can take away doing high school sports, especially the championship, or even the tournament games. Somebody goes home after those games, so they’re all important. It’s an important game to somebody.”
As a college umpire, Choponis has called out some famous players, perhaps none bigger than Albert Pujols. The former St. Louis Cardinal’s slugger should record his 3,000th hit within the next week—to go with over 600 homeruns—on his trot around the bases to Cooperstown.
As math teacher at Seymour Community School District, Choponis understands the odds. It helps he has an understanding wife.
College sports are big business—in the best and worst sense of that term—and along with his teaching career, it keeps him away from home many nights.
“When I taught fulltime, it was more of a challenge,” said Choponis. Working part-time now, he gets done at the high school by noon. “Most of my trips aren’t far away, so I’m not getting home at three or four in the morning. There were a lot of nights I had to sleep fast.”
Choponis started out as a high school referee in southern Iowa. When he attended an officiating camp to get more state tournament games, he found a bigger opportunity, by suggestion. A man there hinted at college sports.
“He said, ‘We can get you started right now.’
“I said, ‘Where’s the signup sheet?’”
At the time, there was a waiting list to referee men’s college basketball—a stark contrast to today, when officials prefer not to inhabit the toxic atmosphere of March Madness, let alone a regular season game in the Missouri Valley Conference. Fans seem to have only gotten more insane, even as scandals call into question the validity of fair competition at the university level.
Choponis started with women’s games in the early 1990s, and it remains his comfort zone. One of his favorite moments was working Missouri State’s Jackie Stiles’ last collegiate game at Wichita State. Until 2017, Stiles was the all-time leading scorer in Division I women’s basketball.
“That place sold out. You couldn’t even hear your whistle.”
During a nor’easter on the East Coast, he refereed the Division III Final Four.
In the summer of 1994, he attended a Division I basketball camp and got hired in four leagues—the Big Ten, the former Big Eight, the Missouri Valley and the Mid-Continent.
“My main conference was the Missouri Valley, where I worked for 17 years,” said Choponis. “I’m proud of being consistent—for 23 consecutive years, I’ve worked at least 40 college basketball nights. About a month ago, I did my 1,300th college women’s basketball game.”
One season, he worked over 70 nights of college. Today, he still referees over 70 games a year between college and high school. He officiated 18 years at the Iowa State Volleyball Tournament, including championship games, as well as 25 years of college baseball. That’s where he crossed paths with Pujols, who graduated from Independence High School in Missouri and played one season at Maple Woods Community College before entering the MLB draft.
Choponis was umpire when Maple Woods played at Indian Hills Community College in Centerville.
“That comes at a price,” Choponis said of his physical workload. “I’ve had three knee surgeries. Two on the right knee, one on the left. One reason I quit coaching baseball—in order to continue at the Division I level, I had to attend summer camps. When preparation meets opportunity, that’s what luck is.”
Choponis coached Seymour’s high school team from 1981 through 1997. He faced the late Doc Douglas of Wayne many times, before Doc’s son Jeff came to Seymour to teach and coach.
“He was a heck of a good coach and a good guy,” Choponis said of Doc. “One of our biggest wins, we beat Wayne in 1984 at their place 3-2. You’d have thought we’d won the World Series.”
That Wayne team starred future record-setting Iowa Hawkeye free safety Tork Hook.
One of Seymour’s athletes, Travis Wyman, would go on to play four years for the San Diego State baseball team.
In March of 2017, after a tornado cut a swath through the middle of town and destroyed Seymour’s sports gyms, students from local schools such as Wayne and Mormon Trail trekked across county to help clean up the wreckage.
“The kids that have gone through this process have been awesome. If we can survive after the tornado, we can survive anything.”
Choponis grew up in a town smaller than Seymour in the northwestern part of the glove of Michigan. He can point Luther out by raising his right hand.
Lake County has the lowest median income in the state. He lived on a farm around five miles from town, which on a good day has over 300 residents. The scenery did not change much when he landed in Wayne County, Iowa.
Luther was a big lumber town that lost its principal industry. Likewise, over 2,000 people once lived in Seymour, before it lost the coalmines.
Choponis pitched four years in Michigan for Olivet College’s baseball team.
“In the summer and fall of 1980, they were laying people off in the educational field,” Choponis said. “They were cutting budgets bigtime, dropping buses, and cutting hot lunches in some places.”
He planned at first to work a few years wherever he could, before returning to Michigan.
“It didn’t work out that way. I felt at home when I moved here. I think Seymour is an awesome place to live. The good thing is, everyone knows what you’re doing; the bad thing is, everyone knows what you’re doing. Then I met my wife.”
His wife Wendy is a consumer science teacher at her alma mater. She graduated from Seymour in 1976. Since he was head coach, they got married on Seymour’s baseball field.
“I think every coach ought to referee a year, and every referee ought to coach a year,” Choponis said. “Because you need to see the other side of the coin. When I became an umpire, I became a better coach, because I let those people do their jobs.
“When people first start coaching and they don’t have anything to do with officiating, they’re difficult people to work for. They have no basis for what they’re saying. They’re just saying what they think they see, and you run into some of those folks every year. But, we have to train people, too.
“That’s one reason officials are quitting in droves. The mean age for officials is about 55 years old. Not a lot of people want to do it. They’ll referee one or two years, and people get on them and they’ll say, ‘I don’t need to do this.’
“If people want to keep driving officials away to the point where they can’t have games, they just need to keep yelling at them, and they won’t have any games to go watch. If they think they can do a better job, they should get certified, and they should be out there. They can compare what it feels like standing on the field as opposed to sitting in the stands.
“Usually high school crowds aren’t the worst, it’s Little League and stuff like that. I won’t do anything at that level.”
Choponis has learned to deal psychologically with this atmosphere. Part of that is knowing what atmosphere to avoid. It also helps that he deals with teenagers on an everyday basis, to accustom him to that mindset.
“It becomes normal. You get used to it after a while. They don’t necessarily hate the person, they hate the uniform you’re wearing. Sometimes, no matter what call you make, half the people won’t like it. But, at the end of the night, you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Did I do a good job?’
“I’m getting old enough I can pick and choose where I want to go. Places that want to have you, that’s where I’m going to ref. If they don’t think you’re doing a good job, then why go back?”
Consider it a cautionary tale for overzealous sports fans.