Former NFL official Mike Pereira helping military veterans try their hand at officiating

ROCHESTER, New York —Every summer, Mike Pereira drives north from his home in Sacramento, California, to spend some time with an old buddy in Oregon, and typically, his thoughts are consumed with which golf courses they’re going to play and which streams or lakes they’re going to fish.

But in 2015, the former NFL official and officiating head who has forged a second career as a highly respected rules’ expert on NFL and college broadcasts for Fox Sports, had a vastly different driving experience, one that led to a program of his creation that is changing lives.

“I had met some military vets who were kind of downtrodden in Los Angeles,” said Pereira, who was at Cobblestone Creek Country Club in New York on Monday for the third annual charity golf tournament that benefits his Battlefields to Ballfields foundation. “A couple of them were homeless and they were searching for something to do. I didn’t serve, but I felt like I needed to try to give something back.”

Moved by the chance encounter, Pereira thought long and hard about what he could do to help men like this, men who served the United States in faraway places but returned to a country that didn’t seem to have a place for them.

“I was thinking about these vets and I was thinking about the shortage of (sports) officials that we have, so as I’m driving north I’m thinking about the characteristics it takes to be a vet,” Pereira said. “The concentration, the teamwork, the mission, their goals, all the things I look for in officials. How can I marry the two together and recruit vets to become officials?

“There’s a little town called Weed (in northern California). I stopped there to get gas, and it was there where I thought if I started a foundation to give scholarships to vets to become officials, we could really address a couple issues. I could take vets off the battlefield and onto a ballfield, so boom, I had a name for the foundation. Now I was really excited.”

Fast-forward three years to Monday and about 3,000 miles east of Weed to Cobblestone Creek, where more than 100 golfers came out to play in the foundation’s primary fundraiser, one which will help pay the way for perhaps as many as 30 to 35 scholarships to be presented to future youth and high school officials.

Since the inception of Battlefields to Ballfields in the winter of 2016, more than 220 vets have been given scholarships to get them started on a career in officiating in football, baseball and basketball. The money covers the cost of their training, uniforms, equipment and local and national association dues for a period of three years.

“I don’t want a dime to come out of their pocket because many of these guys can’t afford the outlay,” Pereira said.

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One of the great success stories is 46-year-old Jamaison Pilgreen, a Lake Charles, Louisiana, native who now makes his home in Irondequoit, New York. 

He joined the National Guard in 1995, was called up to active duty in 1996, and did four Army tours in Afghanistan and two in Iraq. Pilgreen wound up at Fort Drum, where he was forced to retire in 2015, and he spent a couple years struggling to cope with life, and what his future held, as post-traumatic stress disorder nearly overtook him.

“It took me a good year after I retired for it to finally hit,” Pilgreen said of PTSD. “I wasn’t planning on retiring, it was forced, and that’s when everything started to catch up to me.”

He had relocated to Rochester in 2016 when he found that the veteran support center here was “much better than the one at Fort Drum” and it was here where he learned of Battlefields to Ballfields.

“I was looking for something to do,” said Pilgreen, who now works as an independent contractor for Corporate America Supports You, a military-affiliated nonprofit organization that provides employment-seeking services for veterans. “I was struggling with PTSD, I was struggling with depression, and I needed something to focus on, to take my mind off everything else. I was looking for programs for veterans to get into and this was perfect. I signed up, and within two weeks I was approved.”

Pilgreen is now officiating area football, basketball and baseball games at the JV level and below, though this fall he’ll be moving up to varsity football.

“Jamaison is a classic example,” Pereira said of the type of person he hopes to help. “His fiancée (Lisa Deutsch) was with us and she said, ‘You saved his life. He’s a different man.’ She said he was so low, so depressed, suicidal thoughts, and here he is now walking around officiating three sports and feeling good about himself. It’s an unbelievable story. That’s why I do it, that’s why we have the foundation, for guys like Jamaison who really were struggling.”

Mike Pereira seen in 2017. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

One thing Pereira loves about getting vets into officiating is that of all the people out there equipped to ignore the abuse, it’s them.

“They’ve been yelled at by worse than the parents, and they’ve been under more pressure than anyone on a football field or basketball court,” said Pereira. 

To which Pilgreen smiled and agreed, thinking back on countless drill sergeants and other military leaders he has encountered. “No coach or parent is going to say something to me that, I won’t say push a button, but we’re much more lenient on what we let them get away with before we get to the point where it’s, ‘OK, enough,’ ” he said.

Crazy parents and aggressive coaches aside, Pilgreen loves officiating, mainly because of how it helped him reset his life, and that’s what Pereira’s primary mission was when he began Battlefields to Ballfields.

“Some days I don’t see it, but those that know me and see me every day, they say my smile is back, my demeanor and attitude has changed, and I know I can do whatever I need to do,” Pilgreen said. “This has given me a purpose outside of the day-to-day work.”

Pereira has had a tremendously successful career on the field and off, but of Battlefields to Ballfields, he said, “It’s been the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. This means so much more to me.”

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